Lesson plan: The State of the Union Address

Monday, February 4, 2019


President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union speech on Feb. 5, 2019, a week later than originally scheduled. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi postponed the address during the 35-day partial government shutdown over Trump’s demand for border wall funding. It was the first known time that a Speaker of the House rescinded an invitation to deliver the speech.

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, speech and debate

Estimated Time

Some flexibility: 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 and learn how to evaluate the State of the Union speech.


  • 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

  • As chief executive, the president helps guide policy by proposing the creation of laws. The president can use this speech to explain ideas to Congress and encourage Congress to pass certain pieces of legislation. The president can propose new initiatives and use the State of the Union to speak directly to the American people. 

  • 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 and now the internet. PBS NewsHour live streams the speech, so if it’s easier, have your students watch it here on Tues. Feb 5, at 9pm EST. All of the major networks preempt regular shows in order to broadcast the State of the Union address.

  • Ask students, who writes the speech? Explain that the president has a staff of advisers, researchers and speechwriters who help 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, interesting and memorable?

  • 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 international relations, immigration, taxes, Social Security, education, health care, the war on terrorism, the economy, social spending, energy, homeland 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 Trump may speak about, suggest issues such as the health care, jobs, the economy, taxes, education, abortion, U.S.-Mexico border wall, immigration, the environment, terrorism, social security, energy, climate change, etc.


Student understanding can be assessed through:

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. PBS NewsHour is live streaming the event, so they can stay right on the homepage at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/. Be sure to check out coverage from at least three other news outlets, so you can see how they are similar or different from one another. Students 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 24 years. She is in her 17th year teaching at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn and previously taught at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. Stephanie has a B.A. in History from Princeton University and an M.A. in History from Yale University.

Visit PBS NewsHour Extra for more education resources designed to help teachers and students identify the who, what, where and why-it-matters of the major national and international news stories. You can read the original story here@NewsHourExtra