Speak - Sometimes Even Silence Makes a Sound

Anderson,Laurie Halse. Speak. New York: Penguin Group, 1999.


"Nobody really wants to hear what you have to say."

Melinda Sordino started her freshman year at Merryweather High School with a bang, albeit a silent one. She called the cops during a summer party and got a lot of people in big trouble. Everyone knows that she's the one who busted the party, but no one knows why. Melinda's determined to keep it that way, but she's so afraid to speak the truth that she simply stops speaking altogether.

In her silence, Melinda is able to make some keen observations of high school life. She finds the absurdity in high school traditions many never question. She also finds friends in unexpected places, like her art classroom where her teacher, Mr. Freeman, pushes her to express herself and where her ex-friend, Ivy, eventually warms up to her again. After nearly a year of hiding in an old janitor's closet, avoiding her family, and chewing her lips shut she begins to the find the strength to expose what really happened to her on that summer night.

In her year of silence, Melinda questions whether anyone really wants to hear what she has to say. When she finally "speaks up," in the form of a note, she discovers the power of her words. The one time outcast is suddenly seen as a hero and we all learn that even silence can make a sound.

Laurie Halse Anderson tackles the hot issues of teenage life using literary elements to connect to both of the most important realms of high school; the academic and social. Her writing style will intrigue your students, and her underlying stories are both obvious and relevant enough to build lesson plans around. Speak is ripe with inspiration for students from topics they deal with on a daily basis to literary devices, such as character development and theme. Speak pairs exceptionally well with the classic The Scarlett Letter and Dick Gregory's short story "Shame." Despite some of the controversial topics involved in Speak, don't miss a chance to really connect with your student on issues that are meaningful to them, but also on the very important idea of the power of their words.

Recommendations for Teachers

Here are a few specific ideas to use in the classroom:

  • CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: The way Anderson explores character development through Melinda, who doesn't speak and rarely interacts with other charters, is unavoidable. Using her techniques, you could prompt your students to:
    • Select a person to write about. This can be a fictional character, a friend or family member, a famous person, a character that they have previously written about etc.. Keeping this muse in mind, have your students sketch a picture of their bedroom. Have them really think about the colors they would choose, the objects they would own, the art they would display,etc... Melinda discusses how she doesn't feel at home in her room, but she makes very deliberate design choices to create a safe haven in the janitor's closet. She also takes special notice of her friends' rooms and how they represent the tenant's identity. Other places are described in a way that creates a visual for the reader and leads them to make judgements about, for example, the art teacher. Students are always told to "show, not tell". Following in Anderson's footsteps, students can have a more concrete idea of how to go about this. You can further this exercise by having them share the choices they made and why or journal from the perspective of their bedroom occupant. This exercise may really speak to a visual or artistic student.
    • Melinda's words are carefully chosen and Mr. Freeman often has valuable words of wisdom. The dialogue in this book, while few and far between, is often significant. After reading a section, students can, individually, pick out a quote that really spoke to them and then move around the classroom to get into groups. Groups can be based on the theme of the quote they chose or based on the speaker. Once grouped, discussion and participation will flow as the students share why they chose what they did and what it means to them.
    • Since the dialogue is so carefully crafted, this may be a good time to do a lesson plan on how to write using dialogue (beyond the grammatical level). Go online and find a few head shots of random people. As a class, pick a few of them to get to know. Have a list prepared of what you would like to know about the people in these photos; this list can include their name, age, profession, deep-dark secret, fears, dreams, last book read, favorite movie, astrological sign, political sway, quirks, pet peeves, etc... After profiling two of them, create a situation in which they would interact. Pair the class off and have each one choose a character to speak for. Spend the next chunk of class completely silent with the pairs of students communicating only through written dialogue in the same manner of passing a note back and forth. While it may start slowly, the stories will begin to develop and the students will experience flow. It can be difficult, especially at the secondary level, to create dialogue that isn't forced. Through this exercise, students will have practice that can be applied in their next written piece to utilize their new and developing skill in a way that adds depth. This exercise is one way to involve the whole class in a lesson on dialogue fused with a lesson on character development!

  • THEME: Anderson uses Melinda's daily regime to relate to her audience of young adults. As a teacher, you could maximize on what might otherwise be overlooked to build lesson plans that center around the relatable themes. Here are a few ideas:
    • Melinda experiences a plant unit and a frog dissection in her biology class, basketball and tennis in her gym class, a The Scarlet Letter unit in her English class, the tree project in her art class, and a suffragette project in her history class. Anderson uses each of these lessons to construct allegory. Using these in conjunction with the many recurring symbols (trees, the closet, silence/Melinda's mouth, etc...) students can engage in a discussion about the themes that they feel are important in this book.
    • After the students have considered some of the themes, they will be able to make personal connections to the book. One way to do this is to first make comparisons to another piece of literature. Dick Gregory's //Shame//,is a short account of growing up as a poor, black boy. Gregory and Anderson use different mediums to connect back to the same theme: shame. Here are a few sample questions that you can ask your students in either class/small group discussions or, for the more sensitive topics, in writing prompts:
      • Gregory says, "Everybody's got a Helene Tucker, a symbol of everything you want". Who or what is Melinda's 'Helene Tucker'? Who is yours?
      • Gregory points out that his teacher thinks he is 'stupid' and 'a troublemaker'. How is Melinda misunderstood? Who is she misunderstood by? Can you relate to either of these characters?
      • When have you felt shame? Did Dick Gregory feel shame because he was poor and fatherless? Did Melinda feel shame about what happened at the party? Or did they feel shame secondary to the unexpected cruelty from those around them? Why did you feel the shame that you did? How did they overcome their shame? How did you?
      • At the end of Gregory's piece, he says, "I waited too long to help another man.", do you agree? How do you feel about the note that Melinda wrote to Rachel/Rachelle? Does 'paying it forward' empower these characters or create more problems?
    • Laurie Halse Anderson wrote a poem, //Listen//, in response to Speak. This additional piece can be explored before, during, or after reading the book- regardless, it will add another level of understanding. The poem is constructed of excerpts from e-mails received by Anderson from young adults reacting to Melinda's story. Not only is this a great resource to share with students, it is also rich in poetic elements. Students can dissect the choices Anderson made and even take it a step further to write their own poem in reaction to the way they felt after reading Speak.

  • RAPE: By the end of the story the audience comes to realize the reason for Melinda's silence is that she was raped at the summer party where she called the police. Melinda is constantly tortured by the boy who raped her, who is a popular jock who seems to get away with anything he wants. Although rape is a touchy subject, it is a highly relevant one. Here are a few ideas for guiding safe discussions or reading prompts on this important topic:

About Laurie Halse Anderson


Laurie Halse Anderson is a writer of picture books, historical fiction, and young adult novels. Many of her books are written from the perspective of a female character and her young adult novels often tackle difficult subjects like rape and eating disorders.

Her books have been on the New York Times bestseller list numerous times and both Speak and Chains were National Book Award finalists. She also won the 2009 Margaret A. Edwards Award from the Young Adult Library Services Association for her contribution to young adult literature as a whole.

She is the mother of four children and she lives with them and her husband in Northern New York.

The author's biographical information was gathered from the author's website.

Other Young Adult Titles by Laurie Halse Anderson:


The video above is a trailer of the film version of Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. Starring Kristen Stewart, the book's main character, Melinda Sordino, is given a real-life personification for readers to sympathize with as her story progresses. This video captures pieces of what Melinda experienced during the summer party, as well as shows bits of the aftermath of it all. The mocking by peers, the isolation, and the inner turmoil are easily characterized in this clip.


The movie poster seen here is one of the posters that has been used to advertise the movie rendition of Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak. This poster in particular has an excellent way of showing Melinda's isolation from the rest of the world that she is living in. Even if a person has not read Speak it is obvious from this poster that Melinda cannot escape the theoretical fog that has accumulated around her...preventing her from being able to speak or to reach out to anyone for help.

Additional Resources:

  • Laurie Halse Anderson Home Page - Author's Website: Contains lesson plans, discussion forum, ideas for dealing with censorship and much more.
  • Speak Unit Plan - A unit plan based on the novel that includes online discussion, journal topics, interdisciplinary connections, and activities.
  • Web English Teacher - A website with numerous links to lesson plan ideas for many of the author's books.
  • Speak Webquest A fun way to help students explore the book and the overall ideas of the book. Includes a quiz at the end of the webquest.
  • Background Info Gives readers a further background on the author. Includes a list of all of her works for both young adult readers, her middle school works, as well as her picture books.
  • Official Publisher Page Laurie Halse Anderson's publisher's website. Interviews and a biography are found on this website.
  • Study Guide A study guide that can be given to students to guide their reading of Speak.
  • Laurie's Livejournal This is Laurie Halse Anderson's livejournal account. Here she reflects on her own life, but she also raises the issues of sexual assault and she showcases other literary challenges (like the reading of banned books for example).
  • Media Connections The University of Texas offers some great outside tools in the form of connections to movies, television, and related texts. There are also a few teaching ideas included.
  • Lesson Plan Outline LSU shares a 15 day lesson plan.
  • Analyzing the Pledge of Allegiance The freedom of speech is enjoyed by American citizens. This lesson cross-references the first amendment of the constitution and a 2001 Wisconsin state legislature decision promoting the importance of reciting, daily, the Pledge of Allegiance in schools. This webpage includes a news article and a follow-up worksheet to make a connection between Speak and Social Studies.
  • Pre-Reading Activity Anticipation/Reaction guide worksheet to some of the hot-topics covered in Speak; how will reading this book alter the way your student's beliefs? (Click "Lesson Plan Zone" and download "Speak Anticipation Guide" under the sub-heading "Speak".)


--Andria Barberi, Natasha Alexander and Sarah McCoy The Lightning Thief Review 1