A Modest Proposal Activities

Instructor: Jaclyn Scotto

Jaclyn is a high school English teacher and college professor. She has a doctorate in Education.

~'A Modest Proposal~' can sometimes be a challenging text to teach due to its language, age, and use of satire. However, there are activities that can improve understanding and make this reading fun!

Students often complain about reading older texts due to the difference in language from 'modern' English. In addition to the language challenges, A Modest Proposal also relies heavily on satire, to which students may be unaccustomed. There are a variety of activities you can use to help students get past these two roadblocks of reading so they can enjoy the text.


One common complaint from students in regard to this text is that the vocabulary is too difficult. Since it was written in 1729, this is an understandable frustration! There are multiple methods for helping students define vocabulary words before really interpreting the text. Depending on your students' level, you can adapt this to fit your needs. Keep in mind it is best to have students define vocabulary words during a first reading of the text, before you start getting into any deep analysis.

One very effective way to teach new vocabulary is to use a vocabulary square. Start by making a list of vocabulary words that students must know in order to interpret the text effectively. Then, you can decide how many words to assign to each student or group. For example, each group of four could be in charge of four words, or each individual student can be in charge of two words.

A vocabulary square is a piece of unlined paper that is divided into four sections: 'Etymology/Part of Speech,' 'Synonyms/Antonyms,' 'Logo/Illustration,' and 'Sentence.' There should also be a box in the center for the word itself. Each vocabulary square is dedicated to one word. Students fill in all four sections using a dictionary for assistance. If you want to add a technological component, have students use a website like

Since not all students make vocabulary squares for all words, it is important that there is an opportunity for sharing their work. You can do this by photocopying all students work and distributing to the rest of the class, or having students present their squares while others take notes.

There are three main benefits for using this to learn vocabulary. First, it engages students in active learning and requires them to do the work of looking up the words. Secondly, it provides a 'cheat sheet' to keep next to them while reading. When they come across these previously unknown words, they will have their own personal glossary in front of them! Finally, it makes them responsible for both their own and others' learning. Since other students will be also using their work, it may motivate them to be more thorough!

Recognizing Satire

Many students have seen satire in their daily lives but just don't realize it. Since satire is such a huge part of A Modest Proposal, it is important that all students can identify different examples of it before reading the text. One way to do this is to have students watch a film or television clip that provides multiple examples of satire. Some examples are Family Guy, The Simpsons, or any of the Shrek movies. Regardless of what you choose, the method is the same.

Create a chart or graphic organizer for students to use, where they fill in examples of satire while viewing. You can determine how many examples you want students to find based on the length of the clip. There should be sections for both of the following: 'Example of Satire' and 'What Makes This satire?'

Let's use the original Shrek movie as an example. One instance of satire is Princess Fiona saves Shrek and donkey by fighting off robbers with her martial arts skills (this would be written in the first section for an example of satire). In the section that asks for an explanation of why this is satire, a student may write the following: Stereotypically, Fiona should be the damsel in distress. Shrek should be the one saving her.

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