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January 20, 2015

Lesson plan: The State of the Union Address

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



Social studies, history, civics, current events, government


Estimated Time

One 50-minute class period to learn about the history of the State of the Union address and explain the assignment.

One 50-minute 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. They will watch President Trump and President Obama’s State of the Union addresses.



  • 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?


  • 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: U.S. Senate Learning Resources


  • 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.


  • Students should examine the history of the State of the Union speech (see handout). The speech has become more important due to mass media, particularly television. All of the major networks preempt regular shows in order to broadcast the State of the Union address.


  • 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.


  • 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?


  • 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 Iraq, taxes, Social Security, education, the war on terrorism, the economy, welfare, health care, energy, domestic security, etc. (Note: Students can save the worksheet and fill it out again for future speeches.)


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 the Affordable Care Act, education, the environment, terrorism, the economy, welfare, health care, energy, 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 has been teaching American and European history for over nine years. She 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.


Extra, extra read all about! You may have heard the term “Student Voice” in school or over social media. What does “Student Voice” mean to you? If you think you have a good idea for an opinion piece, consider sending a pitch to NewsHour Extra’s Student Voice blog. The blog is full of powerful, original pieces by students. Write newshourextra@gmail.com for more info. We’d love to hear from you!


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