Interesting Ways to Commence Language Studies: Using commencement speeches

graduation capI have briefly mentioned the possibility of using commencement speeches in the past, but coming across some good ones recently inspired me to consider additional ideas in detail.

Do you have a favorite speaker? I really enjoyed Steve’s Job 2005 speech at Standford and J. K. Rowling’s 2008 speech at Harvard. is one of a number of sites that offer a list of all-time best commencement addresses, and both Jobs and Rowling made their list. Marlo Thomas of the Huffington Post put together her list of the best addresses from 2014.

No matter which speech you or your students choose to use, there is sure to be inspirational content along with useful expressions and a good listening sample of authentic language. Some considerations:

  • Length. The addresses are long by nature, so you may consider using an address in parts or simply choose to focus on an excerpt that students can work with to target different skills. They can always be encouraged to listen to or read the full address independently.
  • Difficult content. I don’t really mean the complexity of the language, for all the addresses will use formal language and higher level vocabulary. I’m referring to the anecdotes speakers tend to use to refer to adversity and realities of the world. You’ll have to decide what is appropriate for your students. For example, if you choose an excerpt from J. K. Rowling’s address, you would not want to focus heavily on the accounts of  torture victims.  You’d be wise to focus more on her description of failure.
  • Format. There are some interesting high school commencement speeches that have potential for classroom use, but unless there are accurate captions or a transcript, you may want to make another selection. The high profile speeches, like Rowling’s, are sure to have both the video (with clear audio) and the transcript. Having the speech in both formats allows you more possibilities and gives the students richer resources.

What are the classroom possibilities?

  1. Reading skills. Other than the the traditional approach of listening to the speech, posing comprehension questions, and then discussing the content, you might choose to focus on the structure. Can students look at the speech as a whole and make an outline? Can they identify the main theme, subtopics, and supporting details? Once this is done, then you can move into discussion and reflection.
  2. Listening/reading skills. You could provide the basic outline and students could be asked to complete it.  If no title is shown at first, invite them to provide a title. You can write in the supporting details and ask them to identify the main points.
  3. Writing skills. Can students look at the speech as a whole and critique the structure? Is there a consistent theme, development, and enough support? Evaluate the strength of the conclusion.
  4. Listening skills. You can create a true-false quiz that students can answer as they listen to the speech. I’d suggest focusing on the personal anecdotes and the facts of what happened.  A second quiz can be created for post-listening. At that stage, students can handle reflection and answer true-false questions about what is implied.
  5. Speaking/writing skills. Most commencement addresses include quotes. Ask students to scan the transcript for quotes and then paraphrase or summarize each one. After they share their work, they could be invited to comment on the meaning and state agreement or disagreement. They may also share their own personal stories that illustrate the quote.
  6. Vocabulary. As a class, students can create a vocabulary notebook. Invite each student to read an assigned segment and highlight 2-3 new vocabulary items. Have them use dictionaries (offline or online) to find the meanings. Each student is responsible for teaching their words or expressions to the class. All information can be compiled and shared as a reference tool.

Do you have ideas of your own? I’d love to hear them.


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