Analyzing Famous Speeches as Arguments
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Traditionally, teachers have encouraged students to engage with and interpret literature—novels, poems, short stories, and plays. Too often, however, the spoken word is left unanalyzed, even though the spoken word has the potential to alter our space just as much than the written. After gaining skill through analyzing a historic and contemporary speech as a class, students will select a famous speech from a list compiled from several resources and write an essay that identifies and explains the rhetorical strategies that the author deliberately chose while crafting the text to make an effective argument. Their analysis will consider questions such as What makes the speech an argument?, How did the author's rhetoric evoke a response from the audience?, and Why are the words still venerated today?
ReadWriteThink Notetaker: Students use this interactive tool to help them track their notes they take in preparation for their essay.
Peer Response Handout: Students use this worksheet to examine and answer questions regarding their peer's essay.
Essay Rubric: This rubric is used as a guide for students as they are writing their essay, and for teachers to use as a grading tool.
From Theory to Practice
Nearly everything we read and hear is an argument. Speeches are special kinds of arguments and should be analyzed as such. Listeners should keep in mind the context of the situation involving the delivery and the audience-but a keen observer should also pay close attention to the elements of argument within the text. This assignment requires students to look for those elements.
"Since rhetoric is the art of effective communication, its principles can be applied to many facets of everyday life" (Lamb 109). It's through this lesson that students are allowed to see how politicians and leaders manipulate and influence their audiences using specific rhetorical devices in a manner that's so effective that the speeches are revered even today. It's important that we keep showing our students how powerful language can be when it's carefully crafted and arranged.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
Materials and Technology
This website contains audio of the Top 100 speeches of all time.
Included on this site is audio of famous speeches of the 20th century, as well as information about the speeches and background information on the writers.
The "Great Speeches Collection" from The History Place are available here in print and in audio.
This website includes information on finding and documenting sources in the MLA format.
- Review the background and information sheet for teachers to familiarize yourself with the assignment and expectations. Consider your students' background with necessary rhetorical terms such as claims, warrants, the appeals (logos, pathos, ethos), and fallacies; and rhetorical devices such as tone, diction, figurative language, repetition, hyperbole, and understatement. The lesson provides some guidance for direct instruction on these terms, but there are multiple opportunities for building or activating student knowledge through modeling on the two speeches done as a class.
- Check the links to the online resources (in Websites section) make sure that they are still working prior to giving out this assignment.
- Decide whether you want to allow more than one student to analyze and write about the same speech in each class.
- Look over the List of Speeches for Students to decide if there are any that you would like to add.
- Look over the suggested Essay Rubric and determine the weights you would like to assign to each category. For example, you might tell students that Support and Research may be worth three times the value of Style. Customize the Essay Rubric to meet the learning goals for your students.
- Reserve the library for Session Three so the students can do research on their speeches.
- Find a 10-minute clip of a contemporary presidential speech to discuss in class on Session Two. You may want to provide hard copies of the text of the speech as well. Possible choices include
- President Obama’s Inauguration Speech.
- Former President Bush’s Defends War in Iraq Speech.
- Former President Bush’s 9/11 Speech.
- Former President Clinton’s “I Have Sinned” Speech. Additional clips and choices can be found on news sites and The White House homepage.
- analyze a speech for rhetorical devices and their purpose.
- identify an author’s purposeful manipulation of language.
- identify elements of argument within a speech.
- write an analysis of a speech with in-text documentation.
- Begin the lesson by asking students what needs to be present in order for a speech to occur. Though the question may seem puzzling—too hard, or too simple—at first, students will eventually identify, as Aristotle did, the need for a speaker, a message, and an audience.
- The class should discuss audience and the importance of identifying the audience for speeches, since they occur in particular moments in time and are delivered to specific audiences. This is a good time to discuss the Rhetorical Triangle (Aristotelian Triad) or discuss a chapter on audience from an argumentative textbook. You may wish to share information from the ReadWriteThink.org lesson Persuasive Techniques in Advertising and The Rhetorical Triangle from The University of Oklahoma.
- Next distribute Queen Elizabeth’s speech to the troops at Tilbury and use the speech and its historical context as a model for the processes students will use on the speech they select. Provide a bit of background information on the moment in history.
- Then, as a class, go over Queen Elizabeth’s speech and discuss the rhetorical devices in the speech and the purpose for each one. Adjust the level of guidance you provide, depending on your students' experiences with this type of analysis. The questions provide a place to start, but there are many other stylistic devices to discuss in this selection.
Discuss the audience and the author’s manipulation of the audience. Consider posing questions such as
- This is a successful speech. Why?
- Elizabeth uses all of the appeals – logos, pathos, and ethos – to convince all of her listeners to fight for her from the loyal follower to the greedy mercenary. How?
- The tone shifts throughout the selection. Where? But more importantly, why?
- If time permits, discuss how politicians and speech writers employ rhetorical strategies to influence the opinions of their audience members. Refer to recent elections, if possible, and/or bring in flyers and/or brochures. Here’s one example from the past you could use:
Martin Luther King, Jr. uses an appeal to pathos in his “I Have a Dream” speech through his historical allusion to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: “Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.” This is particularly effective for his audience of people sympathetic to the cause of African American men and women who would have been especially moved by this particular reference since it had such a significant impact on the lives of African Americans.
- Continue the work from the previous session by distributing the Analyzing Famous Speeches as Arguments handout and discussing the assignment and what it requires. See the background and information sheet for teachers for more details.
- Tell students they will be getting additional practice with analyzing a speech as an argument by showing a short 10-minute clip of a presidential speech. Ask students to think about how the particular moment in history and the national audience contribute to the rhetorical choices made by the speaker.
- Lead a discussion of the speech as an argument with regard to purpose and intent. Work with students to identify warrants, claims, and appeals.
- Ask students to consider how the author manipulates the audience using tone, diction, and stylistic devices. What rhetorical devices aided the author’s manipulation of his audience? Discuss a particular rhetorical device that the President used and the purpose it served.
- Share the Essay Rubric and explain to students the expectations for success on this assignment.
- Allow students to select a speech from the List of Speeches for Students. If they wish to preview any of the speeches, they can type the speaker's name and the title of the speech into a search engine and should have little difficulty finding it.
- Take the students to the library and allow them to research their speeches. They should locate their speech and print a copy for them to begin annotating for argumentative structure and rhetorical devices.
- Ask students to research the history of the speech. Provide a copy of the Historical Speech Research Questions to give students a place to start:
- What was the speaker up against? What is the occasion for the speech?
- What did the author have to keep in mind when composing the text?
- What were his or her goals?
- What was his or her ultimate purpose?
- What was his or her intent?
- What was the speaker up against? What is the occasion for the speech?
- Remind students that the writer of the speech is sometimes not the person who delivered the speech, for example, and this will surprise some students. Many people assume that the speaker (president, senator, etc.) is always the writer, and that’s not always the case, so ask your students to check to see who wrote the speech. (They might be surprised at the answer. There’s always a story behind the composition of the speech.)
- Help students find the author of the speech because this will challenge some students. Oftentimes, students assume the speaker is the author, and that’s sometimes not the case. Once the speechwriter is identified, it is easier to find information on the speech. Help students find the history behind the speech without getting too bogged down in the details. They need to understand the climate, but they do not need to be complete experts on the historical details in order to understand the elements of the speech.
- If they wish, students can use the ReadThinkWrite Interactive Notetaker to help them track their notes for their essays. Remind them that their work cannot be saved on this tool and should be printed by the end of the session so they can use it in future work.
- For Session Four, students must bring a thesis, an outline, and all of their research materials to class for a workday. Remind them to refer to the Analyzing Famous Speeches as Arguments, the Essay Rubric, and any notes they may have taken during the first two sessions as they begin their work.
- The thesis statement should answer the following question: What makes this speech an effective argument and worthy of making this list?
- Set up students in heterogeneous groups of four. Ask students to share their outlines and thesis statements.
- Go around to check and to monitor as students share their ideas and progress. The students will discuss their speeches and their research thus far.
- Have students discuss the elements of an argument that they plan on addressing.
- Finally, have students work on writing their papers by writing their introductions with an enticing “grab” or “hook.” If time permits, have students share their work.
- For Session Five, students should bring in their papers. This session would happen in about a week.
- In this session, students will respond each other's drafts using the Peer Response Handout.
- Determine and discuss the final due date with your students. Direct students to Diana Hacker’s MLA site for assistance with their citations if necessary.
- Remind students that their work will be evaluate using the essay rubric. They should use the criteria along with the comments from their peer to revise and polish their work.
- During the process of analyzing Queen Elizabeth I’s Speech, consider showing the related scene from the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Though the text of the speech is drastically cut and altered, seeing one filmmaker's vision for the scene may help reinforce the notion of historical context and the importance of audience.
- Allow students to read and/or perform parts of the speeches out loud. Then, they can share some of their thinking about the argumentative structure and rhetorical devices used to make the speech effective. This activity could happen as part of the prewriting process or after essays have been completed.
- Require students to write a graduation speech or a speech on another topic. They can peruse print or online news sources to select a current event that interests them. Have them choose an audience to whom they would deliver an argumentative speech.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- After peer response has taken place, use the essay rubric to provide feedback on student work. You may change the values of the different categories/requirements to better suit the learning goals for your classroom.