Teaching and learning resources for the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak, about a ninth grader who struggles to recover after her life and sense of identity are destroyed by a traumatic act of violence, is one of my favorite books to teach to late middle school or early high school students because it’s written in a compellingly insightful and sarcastic voice and because it’s a powerful tool for teaching empathy.

Students might find the interviews with Laurie Halse Anderson linked on this page interesting for the context they provide and for the insights they offer into both the novel and the author’s life, as well as the intersection between the two. They may also prompt further discussion of the novel and stimulate interest in Anderson’s other works.

Speak lends itself to interpretation in different media, and both the film version (which, unfortunately, got little attention) and the 2018 graphic novel version have been well-received by critics.

Study Questions

First Marking Period

1. In what tense is the story told? What effect does this choice have on the reader’s perception of the narrative?

2. Describe Melinda—her personality and her emotional state. What effect does feeling like an outcast have on her behavior?

3. What information does this first section of the book give us about what Melinda did to make her friends reject her and why she did it?

4. What is Melinda’s attitude toward high school life—school itself, extracurricular activities, students, teachers, and school officials? What comments does she make about these things?

5. Describe Heather. How are she and Melinda different? What is their relationship like?

6. Describe Melinda’s parents. What is her relationship with them like? What is their relationship with each other like?

Second Marking Period

1. What purpose does Melinda’s closet at school serve? Why does she cover the mirror, and why do you think she covers it with a poster of Maya Angelou?

2. How do you interpret the artwork that Melinda makes with the turkey carcass and the Barbie head?

3. Why do you think Melinda views David Petrakis as a hero?

4. What almost makes Melinda tell her parents about what happened? Why does Melinda end up not telling them? What does this passage tell us about the state of their relationship and what Melinda needs from them? What is the symbolic and thematic significance of the cartoon about Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer? (Consider, for example, Rudolph’s comment about being independent.)

5. What reaction does Melinda have to her experiences in her parents’ workplaces? Why do you think she is so deeply angry with her father?

6. Why does Melinda go along with the basketball coaches’ requests at first? Why does she decide that she won’t show up to teach the Basketball Pole?

7. Why do you think Melinda has such a strong reaction to dissecting the frog?

Third Marking Period

1. Why does Melinda wish she were “in fifth grade again”?

2. What do you think the author’s opinion about analyzing books is—do you think she believes that authors intentionally use symbolism in their writing? How do you feel about that kind of analysis?

3. Why does Melinda consider Mr. Freeman the sanest person she knows?

4. Do you think it’s still true that it’s “easier to floss with barbed wire than admit you like someone in middle school”?

5. Why does Heather break off her “friendship” with Melinda? Why does Melinda suddenly feel that Heather is very important to her? What thoughts does Melinda have about Heather’s decision? How do you feel about Heather and her decision?

6. What makes Melinda decide to leave the hospital?

7. What reaction do Melinda’s parents have to her skipping school and her reluctance to talk? Why doesn’t she explain her behavior? How do you feel about how her parents deal with this situation? How should they handle it instead?

8. Why did Melinda call the police at the party? Why didn’t she do more to resist what was done to her?

9. What signs do you see in this chapter that Melinda is beginning to change—that she has begun to deal with what happened to her?

Fourth Marking Period

1. What further signs are there in this chapter that Melinda is beginning to recover emotionally?

2. What dilemma does Melinda face regarding Rachel/Rachelle? What conflicting feelings does she have? Why is she uncertain about how to handle it? How does she finally decide to handle it, and why?

3. What topic does Melinda choose for her report? Why is this topic appropriate for her? What is ironic about her refusal to present her report for the class?

4. What conclusion does Melinda come to about whether she was raped? What makes her doubt whether it was really rape? Why do you think she hasn’t spoken up about it?

5. What happens in this chapter to make Melinda and Ivy begin to bond more deeply?

6. What encounter does Melinda have with Heather in this chapter? How does Melinda respond to Heather, and what does this show?

7. What reaction does Rachel have to the revelation that Andy Evans raped Melinda? Why do you think she has this reaction?

8. What is the significance of the trimming of the tree in Melinda’s yard?

9. What is the significance of Melinda’s visit to the site of the rape?

10. What is the climax of the book? How does Melinda deal with the situation she finds herself in, and what does this show?

11. What positive things happen after that incident (the climax) for Melinda, both psychologically and socially?

12. Why do you think Melinda adds birds to her last drawing of the tree?

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Questions © 2002 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.

Speak Reading Journal Instructions

I would like you to keep a journal of your thoughts—specifically, your observations about, reflections on, and reactions to the book—as you read through each section. The number and length of your journal entries will vary depending on the length of each reading assignment, the topic you’re writing about, etc., but you should write enough to show that you’re really processing what you’re reading.

Don’t focus on summarizing the story in your journal entries.  Plot summary is too simple; it doesn’t require much thought. I want you to analyze the story and react to it. You can use these questions to guide your thinking:

  • What events in the story are important plot developments, and why?
  • How does the story make you feel, and why?
  • Can you relate to the characters’ experiences? Be specific.
  • What points is the author trying to make?
  • What things in the book have a symbolic meaning?
  • What thoughts do you have about the characters in the story—what do their words and actions reveal about them?
  • What changes do the characters go through?
  • How would you describe the author’s style? What literary and rhetorical devices does the author use, and what effect do they have?
  • What plan or meaning can you see in the way the author chose to structure the story?
  • What predictions might you make about what will happen later in the story?
  • What important questions do you have that you would like to discuss in class?

Note: I don’t expect your comments about the story to sound as if they were written by someone with a degree in literature or philosophy. And although I would like your writing to be as grammatically correct as possible, the most important thing is to show me that you are thinking about the story.

Sample entries for the First Marking Period

The first two pages tell us the situation Melinda is in: she is an outcast, rejected by her friends for something she has done. It’s clear that the story will deal with how she becomes accepted again (and how she learns to accept herself).

There were cliques (clans) in my high school as well, but I never wanted to be stuck within one group, to be limited to one identity. I’ve always tried to make many different kinds of friends. Although I’ve never been an outcast, I can relate to her feeling of alienation, because there’s so much about the world that doesn’t make sense to me—the apathy and cruelty shown by those who don’t care about the effects of their actions, the narrow-mindedness of so many conservative older people, and the superficiality of so many younger people. Although I’ve always been able to make friends easily, it’s sometimes hard for me to find close friends I can really relate to.

“If there is anyone in the entire galaxy I am dying to tell what really happened, it’s Rachel.” This tells us that Melinda has some kind of secret that she can’t tell anyone, a secret that would explain why she did whatever she did that made her friends hate her. This must have to do with the title of the book: Speak.

Melinda makes a lot of sarcastic comments. This shows that she is intelligent and perceptive and that she has a great sense of humor, but it also shows that she is feeling hurt, angry, depressed, and isolated. For example, her list of “the first ten lies they tell you in high school” is funny, but it also expresses her frustration about the difficulties high school students face and the way that adults treat them, as well as her cynicism about the quality of high school education. The title of the next section, “Our Teachers Are the Best,” is also very sarcastic and cynical—obviously she doesn’t think that her teachers are very good.

The project her art teacher assigns is interesting, and I think it will be a major part of the story. Melinda will learn to express her feelings through her artwork. Why did the author decide to make her object a tree? Trees can symbolize life, growth, and resilience, so perhaps the painful experiences Melinda is having will lead to some kind of spiritual growth for her.

The primary motif of the novel seems to be alienation. Melinda feels that everything around her is alien to her, and she doesn’t fit in. She is alienated from her friends and peers, who have rejected her, she is alienated from adults in her world, who don’t understand or want to understand the source of her strange behavior, and she is alienated from her parents, who don’t have a close relationship with her and don’t express concern for her. She is even alienated from herself, because she doesn’t have a clear sense of her own identity. The word “alien” itself even appears twice in the text of this first part.

The feeling of alienation is something that many people in modern society, especially teenagers, can relate to. In traditional societies, people had a clear sense of identity and a feeling of belonging to certain groups. They identified with their own ethnic groups, their own nations, their own communities, and their own families, and they had clear role models whose footsteps they could follow in. These relationships, and the cultural environments people grew up in, heavily influenced their values and goals in life. But modern society is much more complex. We are now exposed to different values and belief systems, and relationships are much more diverse—families often aren’t so close, and we often form relationships with people of other ethnicities and nationalities. One of the results of this can be alienation, the feeling of not identifying with the world around us, of not belonging. But this situation is good in some ways as well. In the past, people’s identities were largely determined by others, but now we have more freedom to choose our own identities, to determine for ourselves who we are.

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Instructions and sample entries © 2002 and 2018 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.