Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

Watch Your Tone

Tone Analysis Through Music and Nonfiction

K20 Center, Gage Jeter, Aimee Myers | Published: June 2nd, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 10th, 11th
  • Subject Subject English/Language Arts
  • Course Course A.P. Language and Composition, A.P. Literature and Composition, American Literature
  • Time Frame Time Frame 2-3 class period(s)
  • Duration More 120 minutes


Students will use close reading strategies to analyze an author’s tone within nonfiction texts. The class will begin with modern music lyrics, then shift to famous passages of nonfiction writers. Through collaborative exercises, students will scaffold knowledge of word choice and structure to analyze tone within several messages. Expansion of knowledge will develop through an analysis of the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., which will be assessed through written compositions. While this lesson is currently aligned only to 11th grade standards, it would be appropriate to teach in grades 10 through 11, adjusting standards as needed.

Essential Question(s)

How does someone’s tone affect his or her message?



Students act out a short scenario with partners in front of the class. Each group is given the exact same scenario to act out, and even though the scenario stays the same, the tone changes according to the word assigned to the group.


Students analyze lyrics from two different songs, both titled "Freedom." After analyzing the lyrics, students listen to the songs to confirm their interpretations of the tone. Students then create a Two-Voice Poem comparing/contrasting the tones of these two songs


Students analyze tone in small reading passages from famous pieces of writing by using the Why-Lighting strategy. Groups create a claim about their tones and defend their claims with textual evidence. Groups also use the Fishbowl strategy to share their tone claims and defense.


Students listen to an audio recording of the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., then use the Jigsaw strategy to analyze passages of the speech for tone. Students use the CUS and Discuss strategy to annotate the text. After sharing their assigned portion, students view a Word Cloud visual and discuss the text as a whole.


Students vote on a topic that is important to them. After a topic is chosen for the class, students may choose a tone word and write a paragraph addressing that topic in that tone. After the paragraph is complete, students are required to choose a tone that is the opposite of their original tone and write a new paragraph over the same topic. A literary analysis essay is also an option for evaluation. Students choose a two-word tone for the "I Have a Dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. and write a thesis statement building a claim for that tone. The essay has textual evidence to support the claim and commentary to offer analysis over the evidence provided.


  • Argument Essay Rubric (attached)

  • Attitude Words Categorized (attached; 1 per student)

  • Background Info on Civil Rights (attached; 1 per student)

  • Fishbowl Method (attached; 1 per student)

  • George Michael Lyrics (attached; 1 per student)

  • Literary Analysis Essay Rubric (attached)

  • Rage Against the Machine Lyrics (attached; 1 per student)

  • Tone Passages (attached; 1 per student)

  • Tone Scenario (attached; 1 per pair)

  • Tone Words (attached; 1 per student)

  • Two Voice Poem (attached; 1 per pair)

  • Word Cloud

  • Highlighters

  • Writing materials: pen, pencil, paper, etc.


Ask students to get with a partner, then give each pair the attached Tone Scenario handout.

Instruct pairs to choose (on their own) a tone with which they are familiar: joyful, sad, angry, happy, lively, etc. You could brainstorm a list of tone words together as a class and write them on the board. Pairs could then choose from this whole-class generated list for the first part of this activity.

Once pairs have chosen a tone word, they should brainstorm, practice, and perform the scenario they were given using a tone word of their choice. After each pair performs, students in the audience have to guess which tone is being used.

Distribute the attached Tone Words handout to students and have them repeat the previous exercise using one of the more complex tones from the list.


Distribute the attached lyrics for both "Freedom" songs: George Michael Lyrics and Rage Against the Machine Lyrics.

Have students first analyze the song by Rage Against the Machine. Allow students to read the lyrics, then as a class, choose a tone word from the Tone Words List handout. After the class comes to an agreement on the tone, allow them to use highlighters to mark words, phrases, imagery, or symbolism that builds that tone for the song. (The tone of this song leans toward anger or, more specifically, bitterness.) Have students share out their highlighting. For the words/phrases shared, discuss why that word or phrase was chosen and ask students to write this information in the margin, next to the highlighted portion. This strategy is called Why-Lighting. After examining the lyrics, allow students to listen to the song. The music is loud, fast and angry. It confirms for them that examining the text assisted them in evaluating the tone without having to hear the song first.

Now, have students analyze the song by George Michael. They should use the Why-Lighting strategy and develop a tone for the song based on words from the list. Students should discover that even though this song focuses on the same topic and has the same title, the lyrics create a very different message from the previous song. Allow students to share their thoughts with the class. This song is more complicated than it seems in the beginning. On the surface, it is very upbeat and positive, but when breaking down the text, students should notice a rebellious or somber undertone. Encourage the class to come up with a two-word tone for this song (such as joyously resistant).

Allow students to get with a partner and distribute the Two-Voice Poem handout. Give students about 10 minutes to create a poem comparing/contrasting these two songs and their messages. A Two-Voice Poem is used just like a Venn Diagram. Encourage students to use textual evidence from their Why-Lighting in the margins. Ask for volunteers to share poems.


Ask students to get into groups of 4-5. Distribute the Tone Passages handout. Inform the groups that they are to read the passages and choose a specific tone for each passage. Students could use Why-Lighting again to annotate if they need visuals to help them break down the text.

Students should each record their group answers below the passage on their own individual sheets to use later for the Fishbowl activity.

Allow groups to choose a passage to defend in a Fishbowl activity. Use the attached Fishbowl Method instructions to assist. This activity is a strategy used to listen in on the thinking of a group of students. Students defending sit in a small circle in the middle of the room. The remaining students form a large circle on the outside of the room and watch. Each group should take a turn discussing a passage. They then share their claim for a tone and then as a group offer textual support from the passage to defend their tone. Students on the outside can ask questions.


To extend the idea of tone to historical documents, print or provide online access to the I Have a Dream speech transcript by Martin Luther King, Jr. It is very useful to allow students to listen to the speech before any analysis takes place.

A visual of civil rights issues with a short discussion is incredibly useful for creating an appreciation of the content within the M.L.K., Jr. speech. Photos and videos can enhance student engagement and understanding. If placing photos in a PowerPoint presentation, leave the last picture of M.L.K., Jr. up on projector while students listen to audio.

Use the Jigsaw method for students to breakdown this text. Students should get into small groups of about three. Instead of reading the entire text, have students only examine an assigned portion of the text.

After students have received the assigned reading portion, draw their attention to a board where the CUS and Discuss strategy is posted for them to see. While students read and discuss their assigned passage, they should be annotating the speech with the CUS technique. Remind students to focus on tone words in order to determine how the speaker's tone affects his message, similar to the previous activities.

After all groups have completed their assigned portion of the speech, have groups present their findings to the class. This can be done in a quick one-minute share-out. Encourage the students in the audience to participate by adding the information presented by their classmates to their copy of the speech. If students will be doing a formal essay for the evaluation piece, taking notes over the other areas of the reading would be highly beneficial to their support and understanding of the text.

To assist students in understanding the structure of a text and the use of diction, show the Word Cloud Wordle image on an overhead, Smartboard, or in handouts. The image shows the words that are repeated or emphasized by King in the speech. Ask students leading questions about the representation of the speech (i.e., Is there anything on the visual that surprises you? What three words are emphasized more than any others? What is the connotation of a key word? Why would King choose "freedom" more than any other word?"


There are several possible evaluations for this tone analysis lesson.

  • Creation: Students show their knowledge of tone by creating pieces of their own writing with distinct tones. Students vote on a topic that is important to them. Topics such as required uniforms or cellphones in class are strong topics often chosen because they are provocative and popular. After a topic is chosen for the class, students may choose a tone word and write a paragraph addressing the topic in that tone. Students should focus on word choice, imagery, and details to develop the tone. After the paragraph is complete, students are required to choose a tone that is the opposite of their original tone and write a new paragraph over the same topic (i.e., if a student chooses a tone like bitter, in the second writing he or she should choose a word in the positive spectrum, like victorious.

  • Literary Analysis Essay: Students choose a two-word tone for the "I Have a Dream" Speech by M.L.K., Jr. The student writes a thesis statement, building a claim for that tone and defending it in an essay. The essay shows textual evidence to support the claim and commentary to offer analysis over the evidence provided.

  • Argumentative Essay: Students write an argumentative essay choosing which "Freedom" song most closely represents King’s attitude in "I Have a Dream." Students need to consider both songs and choose which attitude toward freedom best matches King’s tone in his speech. They need to search the speech and the song for similarities in tone, not content. A claim defending their choice of song needs to be developed through evidence from both the song and the speech. Well-developed commentary should build on their evidence to develop a solid argument.