Was Churchill a great orator?

The sources have been carefully selected from the Churchill Archive to explore the question of Churchill’s skills as an orator, concentrating on reactions to his speeches and reports of them rather than the speeches themselves.

This task is not just about the sources but also is about establishing criteria to test a hypothesis. The initial source, ‘The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’, has been selected to provide students with a set of criteria to judge whether they think Churchill was a good orator or not. If this source is worked through as a class exercise and the criteria established, teachers could then ask groups of students to work on the rest of the sources.

It is important that students realise that some of the sources may not meet all the criteria. A first look at the sources might suggest that some of them can tell us very little about Churchill’s oratory. Students will need to think about what they can infer from the sources. For example, one of the criteria is ‘good diction’ – it may not be clear from a letter whether or not Churchill had good diction. Yet, if the writer seems to know what Churchill has said then it might be appropriate to assume Churchill had clear diction.

The sources are varied. Some are letters about a speech, others are newspaper reports, some are extracts from speeches, others are shorter speeches. It is difficult to reproduce whole speeches here due to their length but if students want to read them in their entirety the full speeches or articles are contained in the archive.

Activity 1: Speech makers as orators

When introducing this topic, teachers might like their students to look at a selection of speeches on YouTube to see whether they thought that the speech makers were good orators. These could be the speeches of modern politicians as well as those from the past.

These could include:

Hitler’s speeches

Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream speech’ speech


Activity 2: What makes a great orator?

Ask students to take part in a brainstorming exercise listing the attributes of a good orator before they look at Churchill’s thoughts on this in Source 1, 'The Scaffolding of Rhetoric’ article (CHAR 8/13/1-13).

Alternatively, ask students to look at Source 1 first and apply the criteria to modern speeches so that they have a good idea of what is being asked of them in the analysis of the later sources. This will help students to work on the sources independently.

Activity 3: Alternative analysis framework

There is a detailed analysis framework on each source page but teachers may want students to make assessments of Churchill’s prowess as an orator as they go along. An alternative analysis framework like the one below could be given to accommodate this:

Name of Source and its context Date What it says Which of the criteria it meets Does it show that Churchill was a good orator? Yes/No

Activity 4: Does the context of the speech affect the language?

The context of a speech is vital: the time it was made, the purpose of the speech and its audience. This could be a good focus for some extension work or a discussion either as a class or in small groups. Students could discuss the importance of the audience and the situation/context of speech. They could consider whether they think Churchill was telling people what they wanted to hear? Did he change his language to his audience? Did his approach change as he got older and more powerful?  


Context of the speech:
What was the date and historical circumstance of the speech?

Audience and purpose of the speech:
Who is Churchill addressing and why?

Language of the speech:
Give a few examples of the language used

What people thought about the speech


Another line of enquiry could be to investigate the archive and come up with other sources to illustrate Churchill’s prowess as an orator.

Conclusion: Using the sources, was Churchill a great orator?

Students should answer this question using the information they have gleaned. This can be done collaboratively in groups or as individuals.
They will need to use the sources and their interpretations of them, looking at the cases for and against the question. (The tables that they have completed can act as a framework for the piece of writing).

To help the students it might be appropriate to co-write introductions and conclusions in groups or plan the piece of writing in groups.

If it is more appropriate to work through the writing as a class, an extension activity could be: Is Churchill’s reputation as a great orator justified?

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