The Gettysburg Address: Identifying Text, Context, and Subtext


This lesson is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These resources were developed to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Through a step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.


Over the course of this lesson, students will examine text, context, and subtext, as well as the types of rhetorical devices that Lincoln employed in the Gettysburg Address. The teacher should provide more modeling for middle-level grades.


This lesson should be used within a larger Civil War unit. It asks students to identify and explain how an author crafts and structures a text in order to frame central ideas.



Students may encounter vocabulary and phrases they are unfamiliar with. Students should attempt to reason out the meanings of words and phrases within the context of the text. If students become stuck, post words and phrases and discuss as a whole class what they might mean.


  1. Discuss the following with your students:
    • Tier 1: Common Everyday Speech - Words they use normally.
    • Tier 2: Domain Crossers - Words they don’t use every day but know (e.g., irony, absurd).
    • Tier 3: Domain Specific Vocabulary - Words like emancipation, or other terms that the teacher expects them to define, that a book puts in bold, or something they might look up in a index, etc.
  2. Handout: The Gettysburg Address with Text, Context, and Subtext. Read the address aloud and then have them look for tiered vocabulary. Say: Lincoln doesn’t use many T3 words. Why is that?
  3. Ask them for the context: Where is he giving the address? What happened there? Have the class brainstorm events leading up to the Gettysburg Address.
  4. Have students circle adjectives within the text and underline any words that repeat. Tell them that many times adjectives and repeating words indicate the tone of a document (how the author feels) and allow us to better understand how someone in the audience might have felt (mood). Brainstorm and discuss tone and mood words. Ask for the words they see repeated the most. Then show them the wordle sample. Words that are repeated the most are the largest in the wordle.
  5. Ask them to think of one word that best describes the document as a whole and to write it down. Have the students share out their suggestions.
  6. Students summarize what is in the address.
  7. Give students the handout of Lincoln’s Literary and Rhetorical Devices. Go through each device together and have them think of their own examples. You can even assign this as homework and have the students come in with a few of their own. The Internet is full of examples of such literary and rhetorical devices and explanations of them.
  8. Discuss the steps in analyzing rhetorical and literary devices.
  9. Had out the Gettysburg Address: Literary and Rhetorical Device Analysis worksheet.  Go through the first part of the address with the students and discuss the example.
  10. Students finish analyzing the text and the devices used and then compare it to their first reading of the address.


  • Encourage students to use Wordle when they are writing their own essays. They can paste in an entire essay and wordle will identify their own repeating words. Students can use the feedback it provides to analyze the extent to which they focused on a particular idea in their own writing.
  • The list of rhetorical and literary devices can be used on most speeches, political cartoons, some letters, and other nonfiction texts. Encourage students to identify them and use them throughout the year.