Another Favorite Language Lesson: Parallel Structure

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This is the second entry in a series I’m doing on some favorite spring grammar/language lessons. Here is a link to the first one.

My grammar and language lessons as a new teacher generally didn’t go well. I would be up at the board diagramming a sentence or coaxing the difference between an adjective or adverb out of a room of very quiet seventh graders, and suddenly I would be hit by a realization that even I was bored. There was one notable exception though: parallel structure.

In my first year, I did a lesson on how writers use parallel structure to bring their writing alive in big moments, and I showed my students the speech from the movie Miracle (which was popular at the time) and an excerpt from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” This was fifteen year ago, but I can still clearly see the faces of the students. The polite indifference and quiet clock-watching that normally accompanied grammar lessons were gone, replaced with a not-so-quiet buzz of genuine interest and engagement.

And yet we were talking about grammar. About the same things that regularly put them to sleep like sentence construction and verb conjugations. This moment marked my first realization that there were maybe better, more practical ways to approach grammar because while this lesson had the usual grammar topics, the infusion of a real-world application—how Dr. King and Herb Brooks used sentence structure and verb conjugations when the stakes got high—changed everything.

My parallel structure lesson has changed over the years, but what remains consistent is that it is always one of the most highly-enjoyed, instantly-applicable, easily-grasped lessons for students (and it is also a wonderful springboard into a host of other language-related topics, from commas to tenses to hyphens). If you are looking to get back into language lessons—while also looking for a great springtime topic—it can be pretty great place to start. Here is what I do:

We begin with some clips from famous speeches from movies/history, and I ask the moments what they notice about the speeches. Here are a few I often use:

Martin Luther King’s Final Speech: I’ve Been to the Mountaintop. Any other important Dr. King speech would also have copious amounts of parallel structure, as he is arguably the best user of parallel structure of all time.
Herb Brooks’ (played by Kurt Russell) speech from Miracle
And the original Moon Landing

We watch these, and then I ask the students what they notice about the language. It doesn’t take long for them to recognize all the purposeful repetition—or in other words parallel structure.

The next step is for students to get a definition. Here is mine: Parallel Structure is where you repeat the same words, phrases, or sentence structure for dramatic effect, and it is a fantastic way to add emphasis and style that can help to make good writing into great writing for those moments that really need great writing.

Once the basic definition of parallel structure is established, the class learns about the various types of things that can be repeated. Here is a link to this sheet. 

Next we take a look at a piece of writing and try to find examples of parallel structure. The “Letter From Birmingham Jail” might still be the single best example of parallel structure I’ve ever seen, but you also couldn’t go wrong with something like Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Valadoras” or Toni Morrison’s Nobel Acceptance Speech.

And then we spend the rest of the time playing around with it. My favorite way to do that is to have students write a mock “big” moment speech, where they use parallel structure to create a short inspirational speech about something mundane and yet still tricky. Think waking up instead of hitting snooze button or not looking at one’s phone in bed. Another more serious prompt that has worked for me is simply to have them write about a topic that they feel passionate and use parallel structure to bring that passion across.

And then, lastly, and maybe most importantly, we make sure to revisit parallel structure regularly. It is everywhere, and when students begin to see that, suddenly the rest of their lives becomes a study in the various ways to use it!

Thanks for reading and yours in teaching,


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One response to “Another Favorite Language Lesson: Parallel Structure”

  1. […] and rhetoric, we now talk about the tools we have to capture the cadence of our voices, add emphasis, or—for this week’s favorite language lesson—add some style to our […]


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