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Lesson Plan

Language and Power in The Handmaid's Tale and the World

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Language  and Power in The Handmaid's Tale and the World

Grades 9 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Two 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

Suzanne Linder

Suzanne Linder

Champaign, Illinois


National Council of Teachers of English



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From Theory to Practice



In Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the narrator, Offred, regularly interrupts the narrative flow of the text to contemplate the meaning of certain words and phrases.† Often she finds that the meanings of words have changed since the revolution in Gilead, the fictional society in the novel.† In this lesson, students work in small groups to examine Atwood's use of these language musings, as well as neologisms and Biblical language, in an assigned chapter.† Students then share their findings with the class.† Through this activity, students can see the integral role that control of language and abuse of Biblical language play in the totalitarian government of Gilead and the specific ways that Offred challenges that control by the simple act of thinking and writing about language.† This activity can be extended to include an analysis of power and language in our own world.

Although the activities and resources in this lesson refer directly to The Handmaid's Tale, the approach can be applied to a number of Other Books that Focus on Language and Power.

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Examining Language in The Handmaidís Tale Student Handout: students examine three categories of language used in the book.

Examining Language in The Handmaidís Tale Teacher Notes: these notes are a guide for teachers to use with the accompanying student handout.

Copies of The Handmaidís Tale by Margaret Atwood

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In her College English article "'Teaching Them to Read': A Fishing Expedition in The Handmaid's Tale," Harriet F. Bergmann argues that the novel "presents its reader with an exercise in learning how to read for survival" (847).† Specifically, she calls attention to "Offred's survival through language.† In order to stay alive, she learns to use the new language of her own time so as to seem part of the new order that the language reflects.† She quickly understands how much she had failed to value language as Gilead deprives her of word and text.† She then learns to read the subtext of the new culture and so to subvert the illusion of absolute power created by its language" (848).

Just as Offred learns to read the language of her time, students must learn to read the texts teachers give them in the classroom, as well as the language of their time.† Through examining the "multiple ironies," of language in The Handmaid's Tale, students will see the connection between Atwood's specific use of language and the larger themes of the work (848).† Additionally, they will practice the skills necessary to read how the language of power is used in their own world.

Further Reading

Bergmann, Harriet F. "'Teaching Them to Read': A Fishing Expedition in The Handmaid's Tale." College English 51 (1989): 847-854.

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