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January 12, 2016

Highlights from State of the Union Address — Lesson Plan


Social studies, government

Estimated Time

One class period to explain the assignment, one class period to go over the worksheets and discuss the State of the Union address.

Grade Level

Middle School and High School


Students will discuss the elements of a successful political speech and watch President Obama’s State of the Union address. Watch the full speech 2016 HERE.


The purpose of this lesson is to teach students about the history and purpose of the State of the Union, and to teach them how to evaluate the speech.


  1. Ask students if they have heard of the State of the Union and if they have ever watched it on television. Ask them if they know why the president makes this speech every year. Do they think that the President can choose whether or not to give this speech?
  2. Explain the purposes for the State of the Union. According to the Constitution, one of the duties of the president is to report to Congress. Students can look at the actual text of the Constitution and find the relevant clause (Article II, Section III) at:
  3. Also, as chief executive, the president helps guide policy by proposing the creation of laws. The president can use this speech to explain his ideas to Congress and to encourage Congress to pass certain pieces of legislation. The president can propose new initiatives, and he also uses the State of the Union to speak directly to the American people. He can try to gain public support for new programs.
  4. Students should examine the history of the State of the Union speech using the TIMELINE HANDOUT. The speech has become more important due to mass media, first television and now social media. All of the major networks and cable news channels preempt regular shows in order to broadcast the State of the Union address.
  5. Ask students if they know who writes the speech for the President. Explain that the President has a staff of advisors, researchers and speechwriters who help him to write the speech.
  6. Ask students what elements make a speech successful – i.e., content, rhetoric, style of delivery, tone of voice, coherence, etc. What do they think makes a speech easy to understand and interesting?
  7. Explain the HOMEWORK WORKSHEET on the State of the Union address. If time allows, students can begin to fill out the top part of the worksheet. With the class, brainstorm possible topics and issues that the President might discuss, such as immigration, gun safety, national security, violent extremism, taxes, the Syrian refugee crisis, climate change, Social Security, education, cyber security, student loans, the economy, health care, etc.

Homework Activity

Students should fill out the worksheet on the State of the Union address. The first part of the worksheet should be completed before viewing the speech, while the rest of the worksheet will be filled out after the speech.

If students have trouble predicting topics President Obama may speak about, suggest issues such as national security, terrorism, gun violence, immigration, the Affordable Care Act, education, climate change, the economy, etc.


Student understanding should be assessed through:

  • Class discussion
  • Accurate completion of worksheet and analysis of the State of the Union address

Extension Activity

Students can watch the PBS NewsHour’s post-speech analysis or READ about the speech to see how journalists and political analysts evaluate the speech. Students then can see if their assessments of the speech are similar to or different from those of the media.

About the Author

Stephanie Schragger teaches American and European history and has taught at the Lawrenceville School and York Preparatory School in New York City. She currently teaches at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn. Stephanie has a B.A. in History from Princeton University and a M.A. in History from Yale University.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.8 Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.8 Assess the extent to which the reasoning and evidence in a text support the author’s claims.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.8 Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.

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