6 Speeches by American Authors for Secondary ELA Classrooms

Speeches by American Authors Analyzed for Readability and Rhetoric

American authors such as John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison are studied in the secondary ELA classroom for their short stories and their novels. Seldom, however, are students exposed to the speeches that have been given by these same authors. 

Giving students a speech by an author to analyze can help students better understand how each writer effectively meets his or her purpose using a different medium. Giving students speeches allows students them the opportunity to compare an author's writing style between their fiction and their non-fiction writing. And giving students speeches to read or listen to also helps teachers increase their students' background knowledge on these authors whose works are are taught in middle and high schools. An easy guide to teaching these speeches is described in the post "8 Steps to Teaching Speeches" along with "Question Stems for Teaching Speeches".

Using a speech in the secondary classroom also meets the Common Core Literacy Standards for English Language Arts that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.  

The following six (6) speeches by famous American authors  have been rated as to their length (minutes/# of words), readability score (grade level/reading ease) and at least one of the rhetorical devices used (author's style). All of the following speeches have links to audio or video where available.

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"I decline to accept the end of man." William Faulkner

William Faulkner.

The Cold War was in full swing when William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. Less than a minute into the speech, he posed the paralyzing question, "When will I be blown up?" In confronting the terrifying possibility of nuclear war, Faulkner answers his own rhetorical question by stating, "I decline to accept the end of man."

Delivered by: William Faulkner
Author of: The Sound and the FuryAs I Lay DyingLight in AugustAbsalom, Absalom!A Rose for Emily
Date: December 10, 1950 
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Word Count: 557
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 66.5
Grade Level: 9.8
Minutes: 2:56 (audio selections here)
Rhetorical device used: Polysyndeton - This use of conjunctions between words or phrases or sentences elicits a feeling of energy and multiplicity that crescendos.

Faulkner slows the rhythm of the speech for emphasis:

...by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
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"Advice to Youth" Mark Twain

Mark Twain.

Mark Twain's legendary humor begins with his recollection of his 1st birthday contrasted with his 70th:

"I hadn't any hair, I hadn't any teeth, I hadn't any clothes. I had to go to my first banquet just like that."

Students can easily understand the satirical advice Twain is giving in each section of the essay through his use of irony, understatement, and exaggeration. 

Delivered by: Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
Author of: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Date: 1882
Word Count: 2,467
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 74.8
Grade Level: 8.1
Minutes: highlights of this speech recreated by actor Val Kilmer 6:22 min
Rhetorical device used:  Satire: the technique employed by writers to expose and criticize foolishness and corruption of an individual or a society by using humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule.

Here, Twain satirizes lying:

"Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training."
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"I have spoken too long for a writer." Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Prize for Literature Ceremony because of serious injuries sustained in two airplane crashes in Africa during a safari. He did have this short speech read for him by United States Ambassador to Sweden, John C. Cabot.

Delivered by:
Author of: The Sun Also RisesA Farewell to ArmsFor Whom the Bell TollsThe Old Man and the Sea 
Date: December 10, 1954
Word Count: 336

Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 68.8
Grade Level: 8.8
Minutes: 3 minutes (excerpts listen here)
Rhetorical device used: litotes a means to build ethos, or character by intentionally downplaying one’s accomplishments to show modesty in order to gain the favor of the audience.

The speech is filled with litote-like constructions, starting with this opening: 

"Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize."
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"Once upon a time there was an old woman." Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison is known for her literary efforts to recreate the power of the African-American's language through novels to preserve that cultural tradition. In her poetic lecture to the Nobel Prize Committee, Morrison offered a fable of an old woman (writer) and a bird (language) that illustrated her literary opinions: language can die; language can be become the controlling tool of others. 

Date: December 7, 1993
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Word Count: 2,987
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 69.7
Grade Level: 8.7
Minutes: 33 minutes audio
Rhetorical device used: Asyndeton Figure of omission in which normally occurring conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, so, yet) are intentionally omitted in successive phrases, or clauses; a string of words not separated by normally occurring conjunctions.

The multiple asyndetons speed up the rhythm of her speech:

"Language can never 'pin down' slavery, genocide, war."


"The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers."
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"-and the Word is with Men." John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck.

Like other authors who were writing during the Cold War, John Steinbeck recognized the potential for destruction that man had developed with increasingly powerful weapons. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he expresses his concern stating, "We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God."

Date: December 7, 1962
Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Word Count: 852
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 60.1
Grade Level: 10.4
Minutes: 3:00 minutes  video of speech
Rhetorical device used: Allusion:a brief and indirect reference to a person, place, thing or idea of historical, cultural, literary or political significance. 

Steinbeck alludes to the opening line in the New Testament's Gospel of John:1- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (RSV)

"In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man - and the Word is with Men."
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"A Left-Handed Commencement Address" Ursula LeGuin

Ursula Le Guin.

The author Ursula Le Guin uses science fiction and fantasy genres to creatively explore psychology, culture, and society. Many of her short stories are in classroom anthologies. In an interview in 2014 about these genres, she noted: 

" ... the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures."

This commencement address was given at Mills College, a liberal arts woman's college, she spoke about confronting "the male power hierarchy" by "going our own way." The speech is ranked #82 out of 100 of America's Top Speeches.

Delivered by: Ursula LeGuin
Author of: The Lathe of HeavenA Wizard of EarthseaThe Left Hand of DarknessThe Dispossessed
Date: 22 May 1983,
Location:Mills College, Oakland, California
Word Count: 1,233
Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 75.8
Grade Level: 7.4
Rhetorical device used: Parallelism is the use of components in a sentence that are grammatically the same; or similar in their construction, sound, meaning or meter.

I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people.

Eight Steps to Teach a Speech

A series of steps to help teachers present speeches to students for analysis and reflection.