Parallel Structure in MLK Speech

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SWBAT learn an important rhetorical device, parallel structure, through a mini lesson and by collaborating with a partner to identify examples of this.

Big Idea

Students are learning devices they will hopefully use when they begin to draft their own speech.


We have been working with MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech for the last two class periods. In the previous lesson, students were given a list of devices to identify in the speech and they worked with the first three. Today we tackle parallelism.

This lesson is one of many that are leading to the final assignment of the school year. These are the directions for the final speech/talk. We have watched a couple of TED talks and we are also reading a few speeches. Because of this, I am calling this final assignment a speech/talk.

Before tackling parallelism, I want to give students an opportunity to brainstorm possible topics for their speech/talk.

Brainstorming Topics

15 minutes

To brainstorm possible topics I engage students in a free write following these Directions For Free Writes. I remind students that these free writes can help them access good ideas they may not be aware exist in their mind and that they may find the perfect topic for their speech/talk. I give back the free writes students wrote in a previous lesson, in which they have highlighted any interesting ideas they may want to continue exploring. I give them the option of expanding on those ideas today or to begin to explore a completely different topic. In this sample free write, the student decides to continue exploring the topic of animal abuse. 

When we are done free writing, I ask students if they have a topic in mind already and how sure they are that this is the topic they will use for their final speech/talk. I whip around the room to get a sense of where every single student is. I point to each student and they use the phrases, “Yes/No I have a topic in mind” and “I am/am not positive about this topic.” About 25% have a topic in mind but only about 10% are positive about that topic. I did the same after students finished the previous free write. This constant checking-in helps maintain the expectation that it is important to select a topic they are genuinely interested in exploring.


Mini Lesson On Parallel Structure

20 minutes

I begin by reading the definition of parallel structure off of the list of devices students have. The definition needs to be explained with the use of an example so I select one from the “I Have A Dream” speech. In this video, I explain how I use this example to explain parallelism.


15 minutes

I now give students time to add this device to the booklet they started in the previous lesson, in which they are keeping track of the different devices I selected for this unit by creating a page for each device where they include the definition and a good example. This is one sample page a couple of students work on today, though the second example was included in a later lesson.

As they work, students spend a good amount of time looking through MLK’s speech to search for a good example of parallelism. This is a challenging task for them because an understanding of parallel structure requires an understanding of parts of speech and the specific functions of words within a sentence. Parallelism in a sentence produces a complex structure difficult for my students to grasp given that they are still developing their ability to control language. One common error I see today is that students are looking for a pattern across several sentences. They are confusing parallelism with repetition. I ask for their attention to clarify. I specifically have to tell them that we are looking for a parallel structure within one sentence. I have to double-check the sentences students select for their booklet as they work.

Next Steps

5 minutes

I take a couple of minutes to explain allusion and diction. Diction is easy to explain. I simply tell students that it refers to the careful selection of words to craft sentences that effectively communicate a desired point. To identify it, I tell students to pay attention to the words that draw their attention. I share my observation that they are very good at doing this. My students are good at identifying powerful language because powerful language naturally stands out. Analyzing the effect of powerful language is another story, but they are only required to identify examples for this part of the assignment. I then explain allusion as any instance when the author mentions something that is so well known that he/she assumes the reader is familiar with it and they do not provide a definition or explanation of what it is. This includes characters, historical figures, historical events, famous places, quotes… To illustrate, I use the phrase from the “I Have A Dream” speech, “Five score years ago.” I explain that these words refer to Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address that begins with the words, “Four score and seven years ago…” and that MLK is using them to establish a connection to the famous words of the president who is known for giving African Americans the rights MLK is proclaiming have not been delivered.

We are running out of time today so I ask students to look for examples of these two in MLK’s speech for homework. They appear concerned about tackling this task on their own. I tell them to give it a good try and that we will be talking about this tomorrow.