Close Reading: "A Modest Proposal" by Jonathan Swift

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SWBAT establish the central ideas and rhetorical strategies of complex older texts.

Big Idea

Considering the rhetorical situation and connections to the modern world are good strategies for entry into complex older texts.


In order to give students some practice reading more complex older texts, and to give them exposure to one of the classic pieces of satirical writing, today we will work with Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”  It is one of those pieces I still remember reading from high school because of how over the top crazy it is, so the students should have no problem engaging this text as they analyze the rhetorical appeals and why this piece has lasted so long in the canon.  Also, we will do some work with vocabulary through practice in answering multiple choice questions on this piece.

Group Discussion of Rhetoric

25 minutes

When I teach a piece that is this off-the-wall, I like to let the students just talk for a few minutes about it before launching into any organized lesson, because they just naturally fall into that space anyway.  And, it also gives me a chance to see who read it if it was a homework assignment (the kids who did not are suddenly trying to read it so they understand what the rest of the students are talking so excitedly about—it is rather obvious!).  So, if the students are in fact talking about the piece on their own, or launch in to comments when I first ask them to take books out, I’ll listen to their comments and enter the discourse they are having, waiting for a time to ask about rhetorical appeals, or a particular phrase, etc., or to enter one of the “Questions for Discussion” from page 410 in the textbook into the discourse.  The questions point toward considering the rhetorical situation of the piece, as well as comparing to a modern context (Swift Questions-1.m4v)—I want the class to consider these, because I think starting at this space is a good way for students to enter more complex texts.   The vocabulary and syntax is more challenging, so it is important to consciously consider that situation and context before considering the smaller language details.

Multiple Choice and Vocabulary Practice

35 minutes

This spring semester I’ve been trying to provide some reading comprehension through multiple choice style practice as part of the lesson, particularly with older, more complex texts, since these are the ones students will likely find most challenging in a timed environment.  So, after the broader class discussion, students will all do a set of ten multiple choice questions based on paragraphs 4-10 of “A Modest Proposal.”  Students will re-read this section and answer the questions ( I will give them about fifteen minutes to put them into a testing situation) before we go over the answers, and they have a chance to clarify anything they didn’t understand.  Some of the questions deal with vocabulary—either from the text or in the answers regarding tone and diction (for example, the choices for the question asking to describe the speaker’s diction are formal, pedantic, lyrical, mocking, ambivalent, a question about tone includes answers like pensive and didactic, and immature and nostalgic).   Given that this is a good way for them to review and learn vocabulary, I will also allow them to use their phones (or an actual dictionary!), and encourage students to look up the words.  I will also emphasize that this isn’t being graded, so they should look up the words to build their own vocabulary, not just to find the answers (I will also refer them to a good website that has a collection of words used to describe tone).