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The Greatest Invention Ever/ A New Kind of Toilet

How 19th- and 21st-century technologies solved a stinky problem

By Lauren Tarshis
From the February 2018 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will learn about the invention of the flush toilet and a disposable toilet. These nonfiction articles explore how these inventions have saved people’s lives.

Lexiles: 580L, 710L, 820L
Guided Reading Level: N
DRA Level: 30
Topic: Technology,
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Activities (4)
Quizzes (2)
Quizzes (2)
Answer Key (1)
Slideshows (1)
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Activities (4) Download All Activities and Quizzes
Quizzes (2)
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Answer Key (1)
Can’t-Miss Teaching Extras
Famous Toilets for a Penny

In our research, we learned more about what the famous toilets of the 1851 exhibit were like. People were excited to see the first-ever flushing public toilets! For a penny, a guest got a clean seat, a towel, a comb, and a shoe shine.

Surprise Toilets!

Recently, workers digging on the site of the Great Exhibition came upon a structure buried underground. It turned out to be the public toilets! 

A Fatberg?!

Warning: Disgusting content ahead! Some of London’s first sewers, which we discuss in our article, are still in use today. One of these sewers was recently blocked by something called a “fatberg.” Basically, it’s a huge blockage made up of cooking fats and sanitary wipes. It’s the size of a blue whale, weighing as much as 11 double-decker buses!



The First Flush

Although the toilets at the Great Exhibition were the first public flushing toilets, the flush toilet had actually been around for centuries. In fact, the first flush toilet was invented all the way back in 1596! The inventor, Sir John Harington, installed one for Queen Elizabeth I, but the idea didn’t catch on for several hundred years.


More About the Article

Content-Area Connections

Social Studies: history, inventions, geography

Science: health, technology, engineering  

Key Skills

compare and contrast, text evidence, key details, author’s craft, summarizing, cause and effect, drawing conclusions, inference, vocabulary 

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan


Explore Text Features/ Set a Purpose for Reading (10 minutes)

• Have students look at the spreads on pages 10-11 and 12-13. Ask volunteers to read aloud the headline and subhead of both articles. Then ask students to identify the topic of both articles. (the invention of two types of toilets) Ask students to make a prediction: How do you think a toilet could save lives?

• Point out the photos and captions in both articles. Call on a volunteer to read the captions.

• Call on volunteers to read aloud the Think and Read box on page 10 and the Think and Write box on page 13. As they read the articles, remind them to look for ways that the inventions have helped save lives.

Introduce Vocabulary (15 minutes)

• We have highlighted in bold seven words that may be challenging and defined them on the page. Preview these words by projecting or distributing our vocabulary activity and completing it as a class. You may also play our Vocabulary Slideshow.

• Highlighted words: exhibition, contaminated, sanitation, disposable, remote, inconvenient, architect 


Reading and Unpacking the Text

First read: Students should read each article one time for general comprehension.

Second read: Distribute Close-Reading and Critical-Thinking Questions to the class. Preview them together. Ask students to read the article again and answer the questions as a class or in small groups. 

Close-Reading Questions (30 minutes)

Read the first section. What was one popular invention at the exhibition of 1851 in London? (key details) A popular invention was a toilet that flushed. Reread the last sentence of the section. Why do you think the author ends with a question? (author’s craft) The question makes readers want to find out more about the flush toilet.

Read “A Stinky Life.” What was life like for people before the flush toilet was invented? (summarizing) The air smelled bad. Life was dangerous. Waste contained many germs that could make people seriously ill or even die. 

What were cesspits? (key details) Cesspits were ditches where people tossed their waste. How did these cesspits help spread disease? (cause and effect) Cesspits overflowed when it rained, contaminating the drinking water in wells.

Read the first section of “A New Kind of Toilet.” What are two differences between the Peepoo and a flush toilet? (compare and contrast) Unlike a flush toilet, the Peepoo is disposable. Also, the Peepoo uses waste to help grow crops.

Why is the Peepoo such an important invention?  (drawing conclusions) Almost a third of the people in the world do not have toilets. The Peepoo gives these people a way to dispose of their waste.

Read “Helping the Poor.” What kind of person is Anders Wilhelmson, the inventor of the Peepoo?   (inference) He is a kind person who wanted to help the poorest people in the world. He is a careful person who worked on his invention for many years to make sure it was safe and effective.

Critical-Thinking Question (10 minutes)

What is the same about how the flush toilet and the Peepoo changed people’s lives? What is different?   (compare and contrast) Both the flush toilet and the Peepoo changed people’s lives by helping them to dispose of their waste safely. However, in some 19th-century European cities, the flush toilet enabled people to dispose of waste through a sewer system. The Peepoo has changed people’s lives in poor countries in the 21st century by letting them use disposable bags to get rid of their waste.


Connecting Texts

• Distribute our Compare and Contrast activity sheet. Have students work in pairs to complete it.

• Discuss the writing assignment in the Think and Write box on page 13. Have students complete the task in class or as homework. Ask volunteers to read their paragraphs aloud in small groups.

Differentiate and Customize
For Independent Readers

Have students reread thearticles independently. Askthem to look for ways that the invention of the flush toilet and the disposable toilet affected people’s lives. They can use sticky notes to mark these details in the stories. 

For Guided Reading Groups

Read the articles together in your guided reading groups. Discuss any information or vocabulary words in a section that confuse students. Then ask students to make up two close-reading questions for each article. 

For ELL Readers

Have students listen to the lower-Lexile audio version of the article and read along. Ask them to look for details that tell how the flush toilet and the Peepoo are the same and different. 

For Advanced Readers

Have students each make a poster advertising Peepoo for people in a village that doesn’t have flush toilets. The posters should explain what the product is and the problem it solves. Kids can discuss their posters in small groups.

For On Level Readers

In what ways are the toilet and Peepoo alike? In what ways are these inventions different? Answer in a well-organized paragraph, using details from both texts.