I Have a Dream Speech: Teaching Adult ELLs Parallelism

August 28th marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech.  This speech, by one of America’s greatest orators, is a perfect vehicle for introducing advanced adult ELLs to both the history of the civil rights struggle in America and to one of the rhetorical devices Dr. King used to such stirring effect—parallelism.

I typically lay the groundwork for Dr. King’s speech by showing students an excerpt from PBS’ outstanding documentary, Freedom Riders. This riveting film, for which a full transcript is available , follows in the footsteps of the young civil rights protesters who risked their lives to challenge segregation on interstate buses in the Deep South in 1961.  In the 15-minute segment that I show (beginning at approximately the 19:28 minute mark), the film cuts back and forth between interviews with the now elderly civil rights activists and archival film footage of the savage attacks on the bus riders when they reached Anniston and Birmingham, Alabama.

I encourage students to consider and discuss, in small groups, what kind of racial divides have existed in their own countries and cultures, their own experiences with racial prejudice, and their fears and preconceptions about different racial groups in the United States.  I then ask them to try to imagine what would lead someone to risk their life to bring about the kinds of changes the Freedom Riders sought. Together, we paint a picture of what life was like for Black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, sometimes drawing on archival photographs of public lynchings to illustrate the horrors of Jim Crow

We then take a breather and look carefully at the concept of parallelism and how parallel structures contribute to clarity and beauty of expression.  Drawing on what the students learned from the Freedom Riders documentary, I ask them to work in pairs to use parallel structures to improve the following clumsy sentences I devise for them to edit:

  • The Freedom Riders were expected to be psychologically tough, physically fit, and mature in their emotions.
  • The civil rights protesters were prepared to risk everything: their jobs, their freedom, and would even risk death.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King expected three things of civil rights workers: hard work, that they have integrity, and self- discipline.
  • Eager to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, thousands of demonstrators flocked to Washington, DC, in August 1963, traveling by bus, by car, by plane and took the train.

Finally, we listen to Dr. King’s speech, available on YouTube both with English subtitles and without English subtitles.   The speech itself is approximately 16 minutes long.  If pressed for time, I show the final, most famous 8 minutes.  If more time is available, I show the entire speech.   Either way, I typically play it at least twice.

Then, using a printed transcript, which I download and share with my students, we go searching for examples of parallelism, which abound in this impassioned speech:

  • We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with fatigue, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.
  • Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom has left you battered by storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.
  • I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
  • With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
  • With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

I have students take turns declaiming these words, matching their intonation and pacing to Dr. King’s own cadences.  I do this both to help them to practice their pronunciation and to give them a feel for how Dr. King used parallel structures to such stirring effect.  And for homework, I encourage them to listen to the speech again at home at least three times, choosing a paragraph to memorize and to recite out loud.

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she brings to the classroom the experience gained from years of creating workshops for judges, lawyers, physicians, social workers and journalists. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom and self-directed learning strategies that students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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