Great Speakers of the 20th Century

Author: Jill Torrey Emmons

Time: 2 class periods
30 minutes to make copies and collect audiovisuals
Materials: Film or audio versions of speeches by JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Churchill, and Malcolm X, copies of each speech (see below), tape player or TV/VCR


As students enter into the next learning cycle, we will be looking at famous speeches from the 20th century. Students will have a chance to experience hearing four great speakers: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Winston Churchill. The students will be analyzing how these authors used persuasive appeals in their writing to make powerful, convincing statements to their audiences. Consequently, each individual made a powerful impact on society and history.

Purpose – The purpose of this lesson is to engage the students and get them interested in speech writing and presentation.

Students will be able to:
1. Analyze visual texts and describe what makes them persuasive in writing.
2. Identify the use of persuasive appeals in formal speech writing.

National English Education Standard
Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts.

Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

Teacher Background
The teacher should be familiar with oratory techniques and analysis. Instead of simply reading the speeches, where possible the class should be able to at least hear, if not also see the actual delivery of the speech in order to see the facial features and gestures of the speaker. The teacher may find these speeches online, on video, or on audiotape. Public and school libraries often carry collections of famous speeches on video (see below). If you wish, you may substitute other persuasive speeches for the ones listed here: “I Have a Dream” by Martin Luther King Jr., “Inaugural Address” by John F. Kennedy, “The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X, and the “Fight Them on the Beaches” speech by Winston Churchill.

Resource Websites
Video speeches online (this is a great site!) http://www.americanrhetoric.com/

History Channel Speech Archive (this is a wonderful resource)

“ Fight Them on the Beaches” by Winston Churchill http://www.earthstation1.com/wcwwii.html

Speeches by Malcolm X

“ Great Speeches of the 20th Century” (on CD)




Day One
1. Before students enter the classroom, make sure you have the TV/VCR set up if you are viewing speeches on video, or have a tape player or online connection ready to play the audio versions of the speeches. Also, have text copies of the speeches available so that students can read along and refer back to them for deeper analysis. On the board, write the starter activity for the day: “Divide your paper into four quadrants, writing one of the following names in each square- Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, John F. Kennedy, and Winston Churchill. In each box, write down everything you know about each man.”

2. Give the class 5-10 minutes to fill in their chart with all the background information they know about these four speakers, or the four that you have chosen (since this lesson will take two days, plan to present two speeches on day one and the others on day two). Discuss with the class the information they know about each of these men. Write this background information on the board if you wish, and add any important details, which students may have left out. This is a good opportunity for the teacher to evaluate the student’s familiarity with these historical figures.

3. After briefly discussing the role each of these men played in our history (in order to place them in context), explain to the class: We are going to be studying these men as authors of great speeches. Over the next two days you will view and/or listen to their speeches and analyze what it was that made them great speakers. Our goal is to learn about what great speakers do to make such a persuasive impact on their audience so that we can incorporate these techniques into our own speeches.

4. Pass out the text for the two speeches you have chosen to listen to today. Ask students to watch / listen carefully to each speech and take notes if they wish. At the end of each speech, ask the class the following questions to help begin analysis and discussion:

  • What is the first thing you notice about this speech?
  • How does the author’s speaking voice add or detract from the message he delivers?
  • What is the message of this speech?
  • What persuasive appeals does the speaker use (logic, emotion, ethics)?
  • How do the facial features and gestures of the speaker contribute to or detract from the power of his message?

Day Two
1. Begin the class period with the question of the day, which you should have written on the board: “Think about the two speeches we watched yesterday. Which did you find more persuasive? Why?” Allow the students about 5 minutes to respond in writing.

2. Briefly discuss student responses to the question of the day. You may wish to collect their papers for evaluation. Ask the students to recall the primary persuasive appeals, which were used in the two speeches from the previous day. Students should keep the persuasive appeals in mind as they watch the two remaining speeches during today’s class period.

3. Watch / listen to the remaining two speeches, having the students answer the same 5 questions from the day before for each speech. You may decide to have the class do this in writing, instead of during discussion, so that you may evaluate their written analysis.

Discuss what persuasive techniques were most commonly used in the speeches and how these techniques contributed the success of each speaker.

Embedded Assessment
Each day, the students can be evaluated during discussion to see if they are correctly identifying the three persuasive appeals. Also, the written responses to the discussion questions may be assessed.

Select one of the speakers we have studied and find another speech he has written. Read the speech, and determine if the author uses persuasive techniques similar or different from those in the speech we saw in class. (optional)

Embedded Assessment




PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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