English Language Arts, Reading Literature
Material Type:
Lesson Plan
High School
  • Grade 12 ELA
  • Jonathan Swift
  • Satire
    Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial

    A Modest Proposal

    A Modest Proposal


    In this lesson, students will begin to study Swift’s famous essay “A Modest Proposal,” and answer the question, what is Swift really arguing?


    • Read the lesson and student content.
    • Anticipate student difficulties and identify the differentiation options you will choose for working with your students.

    What Shocked You?

    • Give students 3 minutes to write their answers before starting the Whole Group Discussion.
      • ELL: Be sure all ELLs understand the meaning of backfire and how it is used. Consider asking your students to create examples using the word if you feel it is necessary.


    Complete a Quick Write.

    • Describe a book, film, story, speech, or show that shocked you.
    • What might be the result of shocking your audience? Can this backfire?

    Open Notebook

    Then discuss your response with your classmates.

    Poverty in 18th-Century Ireland

    • The essay itself is so horrific that learning a little background information may help students to understand Swift’s bitter tone.
    • Give students time to read and annotate in class.
    • Identify students who may need extra help in reading, and join them in a small group or allow them to work with partners.
    • Help students choose among the different ways to access this text.
    • More adept students or those especially interested in world history may be assigned the task of finding information for the rest of the class.
      • SWD: Monitor that students have wisely chosen the members of their group to ensure that they can engage in this activity productively.

    Work Time

    Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is concerned with 18th-century Ireland.

    • To better understand this important essay, read about 18th-century Ireland and the economic conditions there.

    You Have a Choice
    You can choose whether to read and think about the text independently, with a partner, or in a small group. Or request a conference with your teacher. If possible, listen to the text being read.

    A Modest Proposal

    • There is a lot to talk about here! You can introduce the term verbal irony, when an author or speaker says one thing and means another. The entire essay is really an exercise in verbal irony, as students may note.
    • You can talk about text, the apparent meaning of the essay, as you talk about students’ first impressions as they read the piece. Then you can talk about the subtext, what’s going on beneath the surface, as you talk about what they came to see as they kept reading.
    • An annotation for “A Modest Proposal” is provided for your support.
    • Distortion is another useful term since Swift’s entire piece is such a bizarre twisting of reality and actual possibilities. Understatement is an important strategy in setting up the distortion, as well.
      • ELL: When introducing new words, remember to allow ELLs to use a dictionary. Repeat the new words at a slower pace, and write them down, asking some of the students to repeat after you. Be sure all ELLs feel comfortable with the pronunciation.

    Work Time

    This, of course, is an essay written in a somewhat strange way. It’s not at all what it appears to be!

    Discuss the following with your classmates.

    • What does Swift appear to argue as you begin reading the essay?
    • Can you cite any evidence from the essay that supports this thinking?
    • What do you think he’s really arguing?
    • Again, is there any evidence that supports your thinking?

    A Modest Passage

    • Here you begin the process of breaking the essay down into important chunks.
    • By giving students a choice of passages to consider, you increase the likelihood that they’re invested.
    • You can use as many of these passages in the next lesson as you like; they form a great bank of potential discussion points.
    • For struggling students, you can pull a passage, and ask students to explain what makes it especially disturbing.


    Look at “A Modest Proposal” again.

    • Identify one piece of the text from Swift’s essay that you found especially interesting, moving, or horrific and annotate it.
    • Share the example and a sentence on why you chose the passage for your classmates to read.

    A Modest Comment

    • Let the class know that you will be reading and commenting on their passages.


    Look at your classmates’ passages from “A Modest Proposal.”

    • Comment on at least two of the passages.