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COMMON CORE UNIT:
A Close Reading of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address
DRAFT – Awaiting review and improvement per the Tri-State quality review rubric

UNIT SUMMARY

This unit has been developed to guide students and instructors in a close reading of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.” The activities and actions described below follow a carefully developed set of steps that assist students in increasing their familiarity and understanding of Lincoln’s speech through a series of text dependent tasks and questions that ultimately develop college and career ready skills identified in the Common Core State Standards.

This unit can be broken down into three sections of instruction and reflection on the part of students and their teachers, which is followed by additional activities, some designed for history/social studies and some for ELA classrooms.

SECTION 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and as an idea



  • Students silently read, then the teacher reads aloud the text of the Gettysburg Address while students follow along

  • Students translate into their own words the first and second paragraphs

  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the first two paragraphs


SECTION 2 From funeral to new birth


  • Students are re-acquainted with the first two paragraphs of the speech

  • Students translate the third and final paragraph into their own words

  • Students answer guiding questions regarding the third paragraph of the Gettysburg Address


SECTION 3 Dedication as national identity and personal devotion



  • Students trace the accumulated meaning of the word “dedicate” through the text

— Students write a brief essay on the structure of Lincoln’s argument

Supplemental Student Activities

Appendix I Samples of non-text dependent questions

Appendix II Additional ELA activities/tasks

Appendix III Additional History/Social Studies activities

Appendix IV Vocabulary
President Abraham Lincoln’s Speech
The Gettysburg Address, 1863

Four score1 and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war2, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate3 —we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain4—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.



section 1 What’s at stake: a nation as a place and an idea

(1–2 days)



Section 1 Activities


  1. Students first read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address silently.

  2. The teacher then reads the text out loud to the class and students follow along in the text.

  3. After listening, students re-read the first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address and translate it into their own words.

  4. The teacher asks the class a small set of guiding questions about the first paragraph of Lincoln’s speech.

  5. After the discussion, students rewrite their translation of Lincoln’s paragraph.

  6. The teacher guides discussion of first line of second paragraph.

  7. Wrap up.



  1. Teacher introduces the text and students read independently







The idea here is to plunge students into an independent encounter with this short text. Refrain from giving background context or substantial instructional guidance at the outset. It may make sense to notify students that the short text is thought to be difficult and they are not expected to understand it fully on a first reading--that they can expect to struggle. Some students may be frustrated, but all students need practice in doing their best to stay with something they do not initially understand. This close reading approach forces students to rely exclusively on the text instead of privileging background knowledge, and levels the playing field for all students as they seek to comprehend Lincoln’s address.

  1. Teacher reads the text out loud as students follow along




Listening to the Gettysburg Address is another excellent way to initially acquaint students with Lincoln’s powerful and stirring words. After students have an opportunity to silently read the text, read aloud the speech slowly and methodically, allowing students to follow the twists and turns in Lincoln’s argument. Do not attempt to “deliver” Lincoln’s text as if giving the speech yourself but rather carefully speak Lincoln’s words clearly to the class, being sure to follow his punctuation and rhetorical clues. Reading out loud with students following along improves fluency while offering all students access to this complex text. Accurate and skillful modeling of the reading provides students who may be dysfluent with accurate pronunciations and syntactic patterns of English.

  1. Students translate the text of the first paragraph into their own words in one or more sentences

This is the second independent activity, in which students attempt to understand on their own the first paragraph. The aim here for students is not to summarize, but to paraphrase, to put it in their own words. Students should write no more than a couple of sentences. In order for students to accomplish a task like this successfully, they will need practice in focusing and writing independently. The aim is not to have them ask questions but do what they can on their own.

4. Teacher guides discussion of the first sentence/paragraph.

Central Concern #1 for guided discussion:

In the first sentence, what does Lincoln tell us about this new nation?

This first central concern aims to guide students to recognize that Lincoln tells us quite a bit, including something about who, what, when, where, and why. He outlines when the country was founded, where (on this continent), by whom (our fathers), and offers something about how it was founded (conceived in liberty), as well as a phrase that describes both what the nation is about and why it was founded (dedicated to a proposition about liberty).


Guiding questions and academic vocabulary:


Text Under Discussion

Guiding Questions

Instructional Commentary

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

  1. What does Lincoln mean by “four score and seven years ago”? Who are “our fathers”?

Lincoln tells us when and by whom the country was founded. Let students know that these details will be addressed later more thoroughly. For now, though keep it simple – that “our fathers” founded the country some time ago. Point out to students that one important thing about reading carefully is that it helps to get a basic gist of a sentence before looking to understand every detail.

  1. What does conceived mean?

Have students do as much work as they can from the context to determine what is meant by conceived here. The sentence defines one key meaning of conceive: to bring forth something new. This is one way in which the nation is new; it did not exist before. [That’s enough to do with conceive for now. Lincoln uses this word in at least two ways and its meanings will be discussed later in much greater detail.

  1. What does proposition mean?

Once again, work with students to gain as much as they can about the meaning of proposition from the text itself – that is, Lincoln gives us an example of a proposition – “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Ask students: what kind of statement is “all men are created equal”? — It is a claim.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

  1. What is he saying is significant about America? Is he saying that no one has been free or equal before? So what is new?

Answering this question will force students to pay attention to two things that Lincoln says – that this nation is “conceived in Liberty” and “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Students need to grasp the structure of the sentence: these two phrases modify and describe the “new nation.”


  1. “conceived in liberty”: Lincoln says the country was “conceived in Liberty,” that is, the people who founded it freely chose to dedicate themselves to a claim – it was not forced upon them. They were able to think freely. During the making of the country our fathers were free to structure it however they wanted and they chose to dedicate it to what?

  2. “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”: what does it mean to be dedicated to a claim? One way to help students grasp the force of Lincoln’s words is to ask them to consider what would be different if the proposition changed – what if the nation were dedicated to the opposite, i.e., that some people are better than others?

  1. Sum up and gather what students have learned so far: have students summarize the three ways in which the nation is new.

  1. The nation did not exist before,

  2. The nation was made through free choice, and

  3. The nation is dedicated to a specific idea – “all men are created equal.”

Central Concern #2 for guided discussion:



What happened four score and seven years ago?
The second central concern deepens the examination of what is at stake in the Gettysburg Address by further examining how Lincoln places his words in context. For now, the emphasis continues to be on what students can draw from the text itself to figure out an answer to this question—not to the historical context.
Guiding questions and academic vocabulary:


Text Under Discussion

Guiding Questions

Instructional Commentary

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

  1. When was “four score and seven years ago”?

Students have the clues they need to calculate the year. They have been told that score means twenty years, and they have been given the date of Lincoln’s speech as 1863. 1863-87=1776

  1. What important thing happened in 1776?

This question, of course, goes beyond the text to explore students’ prior knowledge and associations. Students may or may not know that the Declaration of Independence was issued in 1776, but they will likely know it is a very important date – one that they themselves have heard before. Something very important happened on that date. It’s OK to mention the Declaration, but the next step is to discover what students can infer about 1776 from Lincoln’s own words now in front of them.

  1. (Beyond what students may or may not know about the Declaration of Independence) what does Lincoln tell us in this first sentence about what happened 87 years ago?

Students should now be able to draw on the knowledge that they have gained from reading the second part of Lincoln’s sentence. They should be able to infer: Lincoln says that in 1776 “our fathers” freely chose to begin a new nation dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal.

  1. Who are “our fathers”? What can we know about “our fathers” from this sentence?

All we know about these “fathers” from this sentence is that they started something new. Some students may recall the phrase “founding fathers” which is a nice inference here, since Lincoln identifies these people as “those who brought forth a new nation.”




  1. What is the impact of Lincoln referring to such a famous date?

This is a hard question to answer without moving on to the rest of Lincoln’s speech. It is enough for students, at this point, to recognize that Lincoln frames his remarks within a very important context, the beginning of the country, and an idea on which the country was based. Students should learn to pay close attention to how any author chooses to begin.



  1. Students rewrite their translation of Lincoln’s first paragraph

Based on what they have learned, students rewrite their translation of the first line.








6. Teacher guides discussion of first line of second paragraph.

Central Concern #3 for guided discussion:



What is being tested by this war?

This question furthers the conversation of how Lincoln establishes what is at stake. At issue is not only the survival of the nation, but the survival of the principles on which it is based.


Guiding questions and academic vocabulary:

Text Under Discussion

Guiding Questions

Instructional Commentary

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

  1. What impact does starting the sentence with “now” have on its meaning?

Probe students to clarify their understanding of the shift in time created by beginning the paragraph with “now”—that Lincoln is no longer speaking about 1776 but 1863.

  1. When Lincoln says the nation was “so conceived and so dedicated” what is he referring to?

Students need to draw on what they have learned from the first sentence; that is, this country was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal.

  1. What is the point including the phrase “or any nation so conceived and so dedicated” – what would the sentence mean without it?




Simplify Lincoln’s sentence, looking at it with and without those words:
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation can long endure. (simplified sentence)
“Now we are engaged in a great civil war testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” (original sentence)
Without the phrase, Lincoln would only be talking about the survival of a specific place, the nation founded in 1776 (“that nation”). With the phrase – “or any nation so conceived or dedicated” he says the question is not just the survival of that nation – but any nation built on the same principles. Lincoln says that what is at stake in this war is not just the freedom and quality in this country, but the possibility that you could build a country on these ideals. What is being tested is not just a specific place, but the viability of a set of ideals.




  1. The impact of a word choice: What if Lincoln had used the verb “start” instead of “conceive?”

Conceive means not only to start something, or to give birth, but also to think of or imagine something. They may know this connection from past reading, or may recall it as they think about America as both a place and an idea. It may be necessary to give students the second meaning of “conceive” as thinking since it is difficult to infer.
The impact of Lincoln choosing “conceive” is significant, since in one word it captures the idea that the founding or conception of the country was at once the beginning of a place and a big idea – that “all men are created equal.” Students begin to see the power of Lincoln’s language by looking at this word choice with care.




  1. Wrap up: How does Lincoln’s argument that the war is about more than a place make his speech more compelling?





In summarizing their conversation of the first day, consider reviewing several techniques that have been helpful in understanding these complex two sentences:


  1. Paying attention to the meaning of certain key academic words – like conceive, dedicate, proposition.

  2. Taking apart Lincoln’s long sentences part by part, often simplifying them, by removing the clause.

  3. How does an author establish why what they are saying is important?” is often a very useful first question to ask. It addresses whether a speech or text puts forward a point of view. Students have therefore begun to learn a useful kind of question with which to read in the future.

  4. One of the most important choices any author makes is where and how to begin. Rich, complex texts deserve a lot of attention, particularly at their beginnings. Students are also learning from the deliberate slow attention given to just these first two sentences in this first class that it is not only OK, but wise to invest a lot of time up front with text that is challenging.







section 2 From funeral to new birth
(1–2 days)

Section Two Activities

  1. The teacher sets the scene for Lincoln’s speech: conducts brief discussion of the remainder of the second paragraph.

  2. Students read independently the third paragraph of the address.

  3. The teacher reads the text of the third paragraph out loud to the class and students follow along.

  4. Students translate the third paragraph into their own words.

  5. Next, the teacher asks the class a small set of guiding questions about paragraph three.

  6. Students revise their translation of the third paragraph.

  7. Wrap up.



  1. Teacher sets the scene for Lincoln’s speech: conducts brief discussion of the remainder of the second paragraph

Central Concern #1 for guided discussion:

What are the people who are assembled at Gettysburg there to do?

The aim of this discussion is to clarify the situation and context for the speech, specifically, that it is the dedication of a graveyard to soldiers who lost their lives in the civil war.



Guiding questions and academic vocabulary:


Text Under Discussion

Guiding Questions

Instructional Commentary

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war5, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

  1. Divide the sentence into simpler parts to make the context of the speech clear and ask students to ponder what each part means.

  1. “We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place.” This portion of the sentence makes clear that they are designating part of the field of battle as a graveyard.

  2. “For those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.” This phrase refers to the soldiers that fought on this very field. Note that Lincoln picks up on the idea from the first two sentences, that is, they are fighting for the survival of the country – “so that that nation might live.”

  1. What larger war is this battle a part of?

The context is given by the first sentence in the paragraph: this battle is part of the civil war. Many students will likely be familiar with the phrase civil war. Note that Lincoln calls it a “great civil war,” no small battle, in which citizens of America are fighting each other. The definition of “civil war” is given because it cannot be inferred by the context of the speech alone.
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