Tips and ideas for teaching high school ELA

statue of Martin Luther King Jr; text reads 4 Ways to Analyze Rhetorical Devices in MLK's "I Have a Dream"

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. is known for his powerful speeches – in particular, his “I Have a Dream” speech. Ripe for rhetorical devices analysis and inspired by seminal documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, this speech has become a staple in many ELA classrooms. 

Observant teachers of American literature courses should note some similarities between King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and another famous speech on the rights of blacks – Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave is the Fourth July?”. It is certainly worth noting that the speeches, written almost 100 years apart, address many of the same issues.

With Martin Luther King day just around the corner, and Black History Month following soon after, many teachers are turning to this revered speech for analysis, particularly of MLK’s rhetorical devices. This is the approach I’ve taken in my own classroom in years past (although earlier in the year due to district curriculum maps).

Looking for some structure for your dive into King’s rhetorical devices? Search no further.

rhetorical devices

All good lessons and units begin with ensuring that students are familiar with the vocabulary and terminology (both general and domain-specific) that will be used. At its most basic level, a rhetorical device is “any language that helps an author or speaker achieve a particular purpose”. This purpose is usually persuasion since rhetoric is often referred to as the art of persuasion.

The Basics

When you hear the words rhetorical devices, many of us automatically picture what I think of as the big three – ethos, pathos, and logos. During my lessons with my students, we start by reviewing the definitions of these terms and several examples of each. We then view several commercials and/or ads and determine which of the devices (also often called appeals) is being used AND how it impacts the commercial and/or ad.

A little deeper

Once your students have mastered the art of these three, then it’s time to move on to some other devices. Some of these devices will be familiar to your students as they are often taught as literary devices while others may be completely foreign. The devices you choose to cover will depend on the focus of your unit and your anchor text(s). Commonly taught devices include:

    • alliteration
    • anaphora – repetition of a word or expression at the beginning of successive clauses (“… we cannot dedicate – we cannot consecrate – we cannot hallow – this ground.” The Gettysburg Address)
    • epistrophe – repetition of a word or expression at the end of successive clauses (“of the people, by the people, for the people” – The Gettsyburg Address)
    • hyperbole – extravagant exaggeration
    • metaphor
    • oxymoron
    • simile
    • synecdoche – a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole (creature for man)

Merriam-Webster has a list of the 31 most common rhetorical devices that can be found here.

rhetorical devices in MLK's "I have a dream" speech

Once students have a grasp of the different types of rhetorical devices, it’s time to apply that knowledge to King’s speech. First, have the students annotate for the different devices. Depending on your students’ level, you can assign them specific devices to look for or turn them loose and see what they find. I personally like to color-code all of my annotations. Here’s what my master copy looks like:

annotated rhetorical analysis of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech

Devices and their frequency are easily seen with this method.

From here, students can begin to break down and analyze the devices. There are four ways to do this.

Rhetorical Devices Chart

The easiest way to collect and analyze the devices is a simple chart. Students can list the device in one column, the quote from the text in the second, and an explanation of the device’s effect in the third.

chart for rhetorical devices analysis

Rhetorical pyramid

triangle with points labeled ethos, pathos, and logos; rhetorical pyramid

The second way to analyze King’s use of devices is to create a rhetorical pyramid. For this activity, students simply draw a large triangle in the middle of their page and label each point with a different rhetorical device. I’ve used the tried and true ethos, pathos, and logos, but you can choose any three. Or, let the students choose and have them justify why they chose those three devices. From there, students provide examples of each of the devices. A rhetorical pyramid is especially helpful for visual students by helping them see connections between the devices.

Rhetorical Precis

A rhetorical precis is a type of writing that summarizes a text or speech. It includes not only the summary of the text or speech but also an analysis of its content and delivery. A rhetorical precis has four parts:

  1. 1st sentence – presents author’s name, title, and genre of work. Uses verbs such as “argue”, “claim”, or “assert”
  2. 2nd sentence – explains development and evidence of thesis. Done chronologically
  3. 3rd sentence – state author’s purpose and WHY the author composed the text
  4. 4th sentence – tell about intended audience


The final option is for students to complete a SOAPSTone analysis of the speech. SOAPSTone stands for

    • Speaker
    • Occasion
    • Audience
    • Purpose
    • Subject 
    • Tone 

Examine the speech in light of these different areas. 

An alternate to SOAPSTone would be SPACE CAT, which stands for: 

    • Speaker
    • Purpose
    • Audience 
    • Context 
    • Exigence
    • Choices
    • Appeals
    • Tone

So there you have it. Four ways to analyze “I Have a Dream” rhetorical devices. What’s your go-to rhetorical analysis strategy? Reply below. 


Want to incorporate all these activities? Check out my “I Have a Dream” Rhetorical Devices Mini Flipbook. 


Looking for more American lit teaching ideas? Check out 7 Units for a Complete American Literature Curriculum. 

picture of MLK statue; text reads How to Teach Rhetorical Devices Using MLK's "I Have a Dream"

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