The Power Of Words

“Do you love words? Not just speaking them… But the actual words themselves? Do you delight in certain words? Think others are ugly? Do you believe that words have the power to wound, move — even to heal?” J. Engle, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Emily Spear, who is Kiowa and Cheyenne, at a Kiowa Pow Wow in Oklahoma. Credit: Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

Excerpt: The Sacred Spell of Words By  Jeremy Engle, The New York Times

“In The Sacred Spell of Words, N. Scott Momaday, an author, poet and playwright, writes:

“Words are powerful. As a writer, my experience tells me that nothing is more powerful. Language, after all, is made of words.

Words are conceptual symbols; they have denotative and connotative properties. The word ‘power’ denotes force, physical strength, resistance. But it connotes something more subtle: persuasion, suggestion, inspiration, security.

Consider the words of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”:

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war;

That this foul deed shall smell above the earth

With carrion men, groaning for burial.

We might be hard pressed to find words more charged with power to incite, to inflame, to affect violence and destruction. But there are, of course, other expressions of power in words.They can be especially personal. They can touch our sensibilities in different and individual ways, perhaps because they have different associations for us. The word ‘Holocaust’ frightens me because survivors of the Nazi death camps have told me of their suffering. Notwithstanding, the word is intrinsically powerful and disturbing.

The word ‘child’ delights me; the word ‘love’ confounds me; the word ‘God’ mystifies me. I have lived my life under the spell of words; they have empowered my mind…It may be that the essential power of language is realized by word-of-mouth expression. The oral tradition is inestimably older than writing, and it requires that we take words more seriously. One must not waste words. He must speak responsibly, he must listen carefully, and he must remember what is said.”

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer

Directions:  Ask students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them  examine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.

Pre-reading chart by J. Swann


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Words are conceptual symbols.
  2. The word ‘power’ denotes force.
  3. The word also connotes something more subtle: persuasion.
  4. The word ‘power’  can also mean resistance.
  5. We might be hard pressed to find words more charged with power to incite.
  6. The word Holocaust frightens most people.
  7. Some words are intrinsically powerful and disturbing.
  8. Some words confound me.
  9. Words can nourish my soul.
  10. The oral tradition is inestimably older than writing.

ELLteaching 2.0 vocabulary chart


 Grammar Focus: Structure and Usage

Directions: The following groups of sentences are from the article. One of the sentences in each group contains a grammatical  error. Students are to identify the sentence (1, 2, or 3 ) from each group that contains the grammatical error.


  1. Words are powerful.
  2. They can be especially personal.
  3. They can touched our sensibilities.


  1. The word God mystifies me.
  2. I have lived my life under the spell of words.
  3. There are expression of power in words.


  1. Words is sacred.
  2. They nourished my soul.
  3. One must not waste words.


Reading Comprehension Fill-ins

Directions: Place students in groups and after they have read the entire article, have them complete the following sentences  taken from the article. They can use the words and terms from the list provided, or provide their own terms. They are to find the meanings of any new vocabulary.

When I was first able to___ my way in___ my ___American father, a___ of the ___tribe, told me stories from the ___oral tradition. They ___me. They ___and thrilled me. They nourished my___.

WORD LIST:  imagination, member,  transported,  Kiowa, make, Kiowa,  language,  Native,  fascinated,

Discussion Questions for Comprehension /Writing

  1. Do you agree with  the author that words are power?  Explain why or why not. Provide an example.
  2. What is your favorite word?  Why?
  3. If you speak more than one language, which one can you use more effectively in writing and speaking?
  4. With your group provide a list of words that you feel have power, a list of words that make you laugh, and a list of words that make you sad or angry. Share your responses with the class.


Directions: Allow students 5 minutes to write down three new ideas they’ve learned about the topic from the reading,  two things they did not understand in the reading, and one thing they would like to know that the article did not mention. Review the responses as a class.


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