Close Reading Satire

Okay, I have a guilty confession.  I am a very naïve, gullible person.  I will fall for anything.  So when I was an 18-year-old and was assigned to read “A Modest Proposal,” of course I believed that Jonathon Swift was advocating the eating of children.  I mean, he is a writer.  He wouldn’t lie.  The next day in class I was admonished by my peers and teacher for my stupidity.  People couldn’t believe I was naïve enough to take the text at face value. 

Maybe this is why I make such an effort to provide tricks and tools to help students be better readers.  I want them to be able to trust themselves enough to spot satire when they face it.  Because, this is what satire really is:  recognizing the places in which the reader questions the writer.  While there isn’t a foolproof way to identify satire, this is one close reading strategy that students can practice.  Provide students with a piece of satire.  While The Onion and Saturday Night Live are great examples, these are usually easy for students to spot because they are so contemporary and usually exaggerated.  If looking for a challenge, try providing your students with a story from The Canterbury Tales, Mark Twain’s “On the Decay of the Art of Lying,” or “Ogres,” by William Makepeace Thackeray.  After reading and studying the piece, ask the students to do the following:

  • Use YELLOW to highlight any instance any type of an exaggeration
  • Use ORANGE to highlight any instance in which the author indicates some form of derision
  • Use PINK to highlight any time they doubt the characters, actions, or what the writer is telling them
  • Use GREEN to highlight any words or details that help extract tone

After doing this, encourage them to analyze the instances highlighted and look for any kind of connection between them.  If these are all instances in which the student is examining the ambiguity then, if it is truly satire, there will be some type of connection between the things they highlighted or the students should be able to see trends emerge.  Maybe, after studying their highlighted portions, students recognize that the same character is always highlighted yellow and is exaggerated.  This might signal satire.  Maybe the students recognize that yellow and orange are used simultaneously within a sentence.  This might signal the author revealing his satirical perspective on an exaggeration.  Regardless, studying their highlighted phrases will help determine the degree to which the author is being satirical.  If there is very little highlighted and no clear trends, then it is most likely an instance of satire.

And, above all things, don’t tease your students who genuinely believe Jonathan Swift.  They might just turn out to be English teachers and blog about their teacher teasing them!


  1. Bob gilvdy says:

    Funny how web posts strike a person. Your post was delicious. My favorite all-time essay. I “got it”, even when I was twelve. Will never forget it.
    All the best with your clever efforts,

  2. Bob gilvdy says:

    Damn…Gilvey. IPAD typing. No excuse.

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