Speak is a compelling, oftentimes brutal coming-of-age story about Melinda, a high school freshman. The novel deals with the sensitive subject matter of rape and depression, while allowing students to relate to and empathize with the narrator and discuss these topics in a constructive and safe setting. Before teaching the specifics of the novel, you might consider facilitating an open conversation on sexual assault, consent, rape culture, and explain how to both seek and offer support. It may also be useful for students to journal their thoughts and reactions, either while reading or upon completion of the book. They will likely have much to say.

This novel depicts high school cliques and the damaging effects of bullying and isolation. Students will not only analyze how these social dynamics play into Melinda’s deterioration, but also recognize their own experiences or at least those of a loved one. Bullying remains an epidemic in schools, and Speak is a reminder to support one another and treat one another kindly.

Speak has literary importance, too. Anderson uses symbolism to represent Melinda’s trauma and recovery. Students can discuss the significance of trees, the closet, and Melinda’s art. Infusing art into lessons on symbolism and emotional therapy would engage students who are more visual or hands-on learners. Anderson also uses intertextuality and references The Scarlet Letter, Maya Angelou’s writing, and classic fairy tales. Students should be familiarized with these works and authors so that they understand why and how these allusions maintain Speak’s themes.

Below, you’ll find Prestwick House’s 9 Simple Goals for How to Teach Speak.

1. Summarize Speak

After calling the police and getting the senior party broken up at the end of summer, Melinda Sordino is ostracized by her peers. She refuses to explain why she called the authorities and becomes severely depressed, barely speaking at all. When Melinda admits to herself that senior Andy Evans raped her at the party, she slowly begins to heal and communicate her emotions through art. After she is forced to confront Andy to protect herself and her friend, other girls at the school reveal that they, too, have silently suffered Andy’s attacks. At the end of the school year, Melinda completes her art project and tells her art teacher, Mr. Freeman, what happened to her.

Content Warning: Speak deals with underage drinking, bullying, self-mutilation, and sexual assault.

2. Identify Objectives for Teaching Speak :

  • Trace Melinda’s personal growth over the course of the novel.
  • Identify and discuss Anderson’s use of sensory images and how they relate to Melinda’s emotions.
  • Understand the use of tone in key scenes.
  • Discuss how this is a coming-of-age novel for Melinda.
  • Identify the antagonist(s) throughout the novel.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness of the title and discuss the irony of the word Speak as it relates to the book.

3. Pinpoint Key Facts and Literary Elements

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1999
  • Length: 208 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 690
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10
  • New York Times Bestseller; 1999 National Book Award Finalist; 1999 BCCB Blue Ribbon Book; 2000 ALA Best Books for Young Adults; 2000 Printz Honor Book

Literary Elements

  • Allusion
  • Antithesis
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Inference
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Symbol

4. Understand Themes and Motifs

  • Isolation – One of the main themes in the novel involves Melinda’s silence and her inability to talk to others about what happened to her.
  • Grief – This novel exemplifies the immobility that derives from grief and depicts the true dangers of depression.
  • Hope – It is relieving to see Melinda finally tell someone about her attack and undergo a transformation from the sullen, quiet girl she was at the beginning, to a person with a renewed sense of self.

5. Explore Related Works

Theme of Isolation

Theme of Grief

Theme of Hope

6. Employ Films and Other External Resources

7. Consider What Your Students Will Love

  • Melinda’s sarcastic thoughts about school, her teachers, and her classmates.
  • The many images and metaphors that Anderson creates throughout the novel.

8. Anticipate What Your Students May Struggle With

  • The sensitive subjects of the novel. Some students may be triggered by the traumatic events presented in the text, and it is important to provide substantial warning and a safe space for these students.

9. Order Speak Resources from Prestwick House:

Resource Format
Speak Paperback Student Edition
Speak Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Speak Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Speak Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Speak Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set