Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak after she had a nightmare in which she heard a girl screaming. That girl ultimately became Melinda Sordino, Speak’s narrator and protagonist. When the book was published in 1999, it was a National Book Award Finalist and was considered one of the “Top 10 First Novels of 1999” by Booklist. An article in the New York Times by Ned Vizzini credits the success of Speak with showing that books for young adults could have both literary and commercial value. In its gritty depiction of rape and its aftereffects, Speak communicates with adolescents about subjects that, while difficult, are also very significant in their lives.
Speak is an emotionally wrenching narrative about Melinda’s freshman year of high school. While Melinda speaks very little to her family, teachers, or classmates, her narrative voice is wrought with pain, loneliness, and suffering. The first year of high school is rarely an easy one, as the uncomplicated friendships formed throughout elementary school and middle school frequently break up or are challenged by new cliques and an often harmful rumor mill. For Melinda, freshman year is nothing short of a nightmare. An outcast, she is reviled for calling the police to the scene of a summer party, and she won’t tell anyone the horrible reason for her call. Melinda struggles with social isolation, depression, self-loathing, and the threatening presence of IT, the senior who hurt her at the party.
Melinda’s pain and recovery, so movingly recounted in Anderson’s novel, resounds with others who have suffered from sexual abuse or rape. Anderson has received mail from thousands of readers over the years who identify with Melinda’s struggles. Those letters include lines like “I was raped, too,” and “this book cracked my shell.” Speak allows victims of sexual abuse to see that their complex feelings are not unique and that someone understands how hard it is to speak about what they have experienced.
According to Anderson, the novel’s staying power isn’t solely due to its treatment of rape; she believes it has resonated with so many because it is also a book about depression. “Today’s teens have to cope with massive amounts of stress and conflict,” she said in an interview with her publisher. “Way too many of them understand the pain of not feeling like they can speak up.” Even without enduring the trauma of sexual abuse, young people often find navigating the high school terrain to be a difficult, lonely journey.
Speak has won accolades for its literary artistry, but it also has drawn the attention of censors who feel the subject matter is inappropriate for students. A 2010 op-ed in the Springfield, Missouri paper News-Leader referred to Speak as soft pornography. The American Library Association ranked Speak number sixty in a list of top banned books of the first decade of the twentieth century. To critics who would censor the novel, Anderson responds that literature is a safe place to learn about the world and a medium through which values can be passed on to the next generation; moreover, she points out that refraining from speaking to teens about difficult issues leaves them vulnerable. Anderson believes that “books save lives.” Given young readers’ heartfelt responses to Speak, Melinda’s story likely has saved lives.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how and why many of the authority figures in Melinda’s life fail her.
2. Describe Melinda’s metamorphosis from silent to strong.
3. Identify how Anderson uses symbolism to chart Melinda’s healing.
4. Explain the power of voice in the novel and the various forms voice can take.
5. Compare and contrast Melinda’s outward behavior and appearance with her inner life.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
- The Study Guide is organized for a section-by-section study of the novel. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
- Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each section and to acquaint them generally with the section’s content.
- Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
- Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each section are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the Study Guide vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each section that are most appropriate for them.
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the actual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Teaching the Literary Elements
Before students read through the novel, point out to them the following themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed:
- Sexual purity
- Female friendship
- Academic success vs. personal/social success
- Difference vs. sameness (fitting in vs. being independent)
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs:
- Biological growth (seeds, trees, flowers)
- Written notes vs. oral communication
- Cutting and lip biting
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have your students talk about how the author uses the following symbols and look for other symbols on their own.
- Melinda’s bedroom
- Sprouting plants
- The closet
- Changing mascots
1. Melinda assigns nicknames to people at school, names like Principal Principal, Hairwoman, and Basketball Pole. Why might she do this? How does it affect the voice of the book?
2. Melinda’s classmates tease her when they learn that linda means pretty in Spanish, saying that Melinda is Me-no-linda. Melinda reflects, “This is how terrorists get started, this kind of harmless fun.” Do you agree or disagree?
3. What larger points about identity and belonging is Melinda making when she recounts the uproar over the school mascot?
4. Melinda becomes very angry with her father when she goes to work with him. What might explain the surge of feeling she has while observing him at work? What role does gender play in her anger?
5. Melinda makes several references to the futures of her classmates, such as when she notes that Heather has the next ten years figured out or speaks of the great things David is destined for once he passes the minor stage that is high school. Why can’t she see her own future?
6. Is it fair for Melinda to want Heather to stick up for her with the Marthas? Would Melinda say anything to support Heather if their roles were reversed?
7. Though she offers hints, Melinda does not reveal what happened to her until the end of Third Marking Period. Why does it take so long for her to tell the story, and what is the effect of placing this information where it appears within the structure of the book?
8. Melinda has a strong aversion to authority, withholding her trust from her parents, teachers, guidance counselor, and the police. Why doesn’t she trust them? Are her instincts correct? Should she trust them?
9. Examine Melinda’s experiences with basketball, tennis, and bike riding. What role does physical activity play in...
(The entire section is 534 words.)
abstinence: the practice of avoiding something such as alcohol or sex
bellow: to shout loudly
blathers: talks inanely
blotter: a sheet of paper used for soaking up ink or water
crocheted: woven together in a complex pattern by a single thread
demented: entirely irrational
demerit: a mark against one’s record indicating misconduct
dryad: Greek mythology a spiritual being believed to live in trees and forests
errant: behaving in an unacceptable manner
floundering: being in serious difficulty
idiot savant: a person affected with a mental disability who exhibits brilliance in some limited field
indoctrination: the process of teaching a belief thoroughly and systematically, with the goal of discouraging independent thought
morphing: transforming from one image to another
pas mal: French all right, good
reconstituted: brought back to an original state, usually by adding water to a concentrated, dried, or powdered form
1. Describe the narrator’s tone in “Welcome to Merryweather High.” How does it set the stage for what’s to come?
The narrator is unhappy and reports about the world around her in a negative light. She is full of dread and angst, recounting one moment after another when she feels insecure and ostracized. This first segment suggests that the narrator has been through something awful, and we will learn what it is.
2. What clan did the narrator used to belong to, and what has happened to that clan?
The narrator used to belong to the Plain Janes, but they “splintered and the pieces are being absorbed by rival factions.” Nicole has become a Jock, Ivy a Suffering Artist or Thespian; Jessica moved away, and Rachel has a new group of friends.
3. What suggests that Rachel’s treatment of the narrator is particularly painful? Why might that be?
The narrator identifies Rachel as her ex-best friend and recollects how much the two experienced together and how much she trusted Rachel. Given their closeness, the current separation is more painful. The narrator also describes biting her lip and needing to sit down after Rachel mouths “I hate you.”
4. Why does the narrator write “I am Outcast”?
Whereas everyone else is a part of a clan, the narrator is not.
5. Why might the narrator compare herself to a zebra instead of another animal? What does the metaphor of a wounded zebra and a predator suggest about the way she feels?
The narrator feels very visible, in the same way that zebras are very noticeable animals that do not easily blend in with their environment. A wounded zebra is not easily able to get out of the way of predators, in the same way that the narrator feels powerless to escape hurtful people. Through this metaphor, the narrator is conveying how vulnerable she feels.
6. What is the significance of sitting next to people?
The narrator exerts a lot of energy thinking about whom she will sit next to at various events. In her social environment that is clan-based, whom students sit next to indicates whom they belong with, and since the narrator doesn’t belong with anyone, it is never clear with whom she will sit.
7. The narrator uses the words “indoctrination” and “lies” when she describes the messages at school assemblies and rallies. Why might she feel so negatively toward her school’s administration?
School authority figures claim that rules are fair and reasonable and that they are on students’ side, but the narrator does not feel this is true. She might have had a bad experience with authority when she trusted adults, but they did not come through for her.
8. The narrator suggests that her social studies teacher suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from “Vietnam or Iraq—one of those TV wars.” What does this comment suggest about the narrator’s knowledge of current events and her attitude about them?
The narrator is disconnected from the world at large. The wars in Vietnam and Iraq are very different, occurring in different parts of the world and separated by decades. Calling either of them a “TV war” suggests that it doesn’t exist in her world; she is so caught up in her own conflicts and misery that she is aware of little else.
9. Why doesn’t the narrator tell Mr. Neck why she left the lunchroom?
She doesn’t tell Mr. Neck why she left the lunchroom because it’s easier not to. She...
(The entire section is 1978 words.)
abysmal: extremely bad or severe
conjugate: to state the different forms of a verb
drone: noun somebody who does not contribute but relies on the work or energy of others
Eurocentric: focusing on Europe, often in a way that is dismissive of others
forum: a place to express oneself
gleam: to shine brightly
guppies: small freshwater fish
homely: plain or less than pleasing in appearance
hypothalamus: the central area on the underside of the brain controlling involuntary functions
ice floe: a sheet of floating ice smaller than an ice...
(The entire section is 1573 words.)
banshees: spirits who warn of death
bigoted: prejudiced, intolerant
conundrum: a confusing and difficult problem or question
imbeciles: those with low IQs
marsupials: animals that have a pouch
spangled: decorated with shiny, glittering objects or particles
vespiary: a colony of wasps or hornets
1. Melinda is nearly to Fayette’s, the town bakery, when she decides not to go to school that day. What makes her decide to skip?
Melinda sees Andy coming out of Fayette’s. He offers her a bite of his doughnut, and she runs. Once she is away from him, she...
(The entire section is 1100 words.)
bichon frise: a small breed of dog
blight: a plant disease
decomposing: in the process of decaying
devious: secretive and calculating
indentured servitude: the historical practice of contracting to work for a set period of time in exchange for necessities like food, clothing, and housing
self-incrimination: speech or action that suggests one’s own guilt
sniggering: laughing at in a mocking way to show contempt
stucco: wall plaster
1. Contrast Melinda’s childhood memories of Easter with the Easter of her freshman year. What suggests that Melinda wishes her family...
(The entire section is 1600 words.)
1. The line “We are now the Merryweather Tigers. Roar.” conveys
E. school spirit.
2. Melinda frequently compares herself to which of the following animals?
A. a puppy
B. a bunny rabbit
C. a hornet
D. a tiger
E. a bear
3. Which of the following best describes Melinda in First Marking Period?
(The entire section is 936 words.)
1. Describe three things Melinda does that help her get her voice back before her final encounter with Andy. How do they enable her to speak?
Throughout the first three marking periods, Melinda’s voice falters and then quiets altogether. Getting her voice back is a painful process, but she endures; during the fourth marking period, she succeeds. At the conclusion of the novel when Andy traps her in the janitor’s closet, Melinda is ready to fight back; she screams “NNNOOO!”
Though the reader receives hints about the horrible abuse Melinda suffered at the party, Melinda cannot bear to really look at it herself until the end of Third Marking Period, when she sits on the porch roof and recounts her rape....
(The entire section is 1950 words.)