Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Learning to Read”

Created August 21, 2014


The Lesson


Learning to Read screencap

An actress playing Aunt Chloe, a character created by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

Credit: Crafting Freedom.

But some of us would try to steal
A little from the book,
And put the words together,
And learn by hook or crook.

From the poem, “Learning to Read” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

In this lesson students learn about African American literacy before and immediately after Emancipation through the poem “Learning to Read” by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825–1911). Harper was a free­born African American poet, author, and public speaker who used her high degree of literacy to advance herself and also to uplift others of her race through the power of her words. This lesson engages students in three types of learning: 1) verbal information: identifying historical facts about the pursuit of literacy by African Americans during and after slavery; identifying facts about Harper’s life and her contributions; and identifying historical facts referenced in “Learning to Read”; 2) intellectual skills: practicing the skill of “close reading”; and 3) attitudes: instilling positive attitudes in students about being literate in the 21st century.

In “Learning to Read,” Harper deploys the character of Aunt Chloe, an elderly former slave, to convey the value of literacy to blacks during and after slavery. During the era of slavery, the enslaved viewed literacy as a key to freedom and coveted it. After Emancipation, literacy was viewed as a key to self-empowerment and economic independence. Aunt Chloe became literate in her 60s, and through her voice, Harper conveys that it’s never too late to learn to read and write.

The lesson can also prompt students to reflect on the value of traditional literacy and 21st-century literacies in their own lives, such as financial literacy and technology literacy. (For example, financial literacy can open the door to greater economic independence.)

Guiding Questions

  • How did Frances Ellen Watkins Harper use her literary talent to advocate for literacy for others African Americans?
  • How was literacy in the antebellum period connected to opportunity, freedom, and success in life and how is it connected to them today?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify facts about the life and contributions of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in the context of African American history and literature
  • Analyze the poem “Learning to Read" for its historical significance
  • Explain the ways in which 21st-century literacy leads to greater opportunities

College and Career Readiness Standards

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Individual Grade
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.1 Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.4  Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including analogies or allusions to other texts
  • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.8.6  Determine an author's point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how the author acknowledges and responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.


Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was a 19th-century literary phenomenon who expressed her social and political views through poetry, novels, short stories, and speeches. Born to free black parents, Harper launched her career at age 20 with Forest Leaves, her first book of poetry. In 1859, she wrote “The Two Offers,” the first short story ever published by an African American woman. In 1892, she published Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted, her most famous novel. Harper was an advocate for African American literacy and in “Learning to Read” she describes the value of literacy to African Americans and how they acquired it before and after slavery. (See the Biography handout under Preparation and Resources.)

Enslaved people had good reason to desire to be able to read and write. A literate slave could forge passes or free papers and use these in their escape. As Aunt Chloe observes in “Learning to Read,” some slaves learned to read and write from white children, who were less aware of laws against enslaved literacy. Others took newspapers and studied the letters and words. Frederick Douglass in his 1845 Narrative spoke for thousands in bondage when he wrote “nothing seemed to make her [his mistress] more angry than to see me with a newspaper.” Douglass added, “She seemed to think that here lay the danger.”

African American political activist David Walker in his Appeal wrote, “for coloured people to acquire learning in this country, makes tyrants quake and tremble on their sandy foundation” with knowledge that “their infernal deeds of cruelty will be made known to the world.” Literate African Americans did indeed make known to the world the evils of slavery in their correspondence, slave narratives (or memoirs of slavery), and in their literature. In 1830, North Carolina passed a law that forbade teaching slaves to read and write, stating that literacy has a “tendency to excite dissatisfaction in their minds and to produce insurrection and rebellion to the manifest injury of the citizens of this state.”

Some slaves held underground schools in secret hiding places. Former slave, Charity Bowery of North Carolina, in an interview decades after Emancipation, stated, “I have seen the Negroes up in the country going away under large oaks, and in secret places, sitting in the woods with spelling books.” In sum, African Americans were creative in finding ways to learn to read and write because they knew that literacy led to knowledge that could lead to freedom.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing Harper and Aunt Chloe

As a prompt for this activity, ask students: What is literacy? Encourage them to list examples of literacy in the 21st century beyond reading and writing (such as technology literacy, cross-cultural literacy, financial literacy, civic literacy etc.). Emphasize that most forms of literacy in the 21st century have reading and writing as a prerequisite. Record the responses on blackboard/flipchart. Ask students: How are you literate? Do you value your literacy? Why?

  • Introduce Harper as a prolific 19th-century African American literary figure and a staunch advocate for both black freedom and black literacy. Distribute the Brief Biography of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and use it to provide an overview of Harper’s life or have students read it independently. (Students should already have some basic background knowledge of the difference between ante bellum and post bellum African American history.
  • Segue to the video “Learning to Read” by explaining that the author uses the character of Aunt Chloe, an elderly former slave, to describe “learning to read” for blacks before and after Emancipation.

Ask students to write a response to the following:

How does Francis Ellen Watkins Harper’s life and achievements, as represented in the brief biography, differ from those of Aunt Chloe in the video? What do they have in common? What things do they prize most highly?

Activity 2. A Close Reading

(Refer to the Background section of this lesson to provide more information about how and why enslaved people taught themselves to read and why slave masters were generally opposed to enslaved literacy.)

Distribute the poem “Learning to Read.” The verses are numbered to aid in the close reading of the text. Have student read the poem once to themselves, and then for a second time, the teacher or a student can read it aloud in class. Tell students to circle any words that they may not know, such as “Yankee,” “Teachers,” “Rebs.”

Ask students what the poem is about. As an aid to interpretation, ask them what Aunt Chloe and the other characters in the poem want.

Next, pass out copies of the annotation worksheet of “Learning to Read.” Tell students they are going to “chunk the text” into two segments and label them either “A” (After Slavery) or “B” (During Slavery). Explain that “chunking the text” into meaningful units is an aid to close reading and that they are only going to look at the segments marked “A” for now. [Note to teacher: A) verses 1–2/13–20 refer to the period immediately after Slavery, also known as the era of Reconstruction; and B) verses 3–12 refer to the period during Slavery.]

After students have completed these steps, ask them about their circled words:

  • Have students read A) verses1–2 and 13–20. Ask them to summarize each verse in writing in the wide right margin.
  • Do they know who the “Yankee Teachers” were? (Either distribute the handout Yankee Teachers to students or explain to them the historical significance of the term.)
  • Ask them if they know to whom “Rebs” refers. [Explain that “Rebs” is a shortened form of “rebels” or Southerners who rebelled against the United States government and formed the Confederacy, a new government. The “Rebs” were defeated by the Union army in the Civil War.]
  • Discuss the meaning of any other terms students don’t know.
  • Ask students to also “dig deeper” into the text to ferret out meanings about the motives of the characters and the message of the poem. What words are especially important in this poem? Why? What messages are implied by Harper, but not directly stated?
  • Use the annotation worksheet “Learning to Read”: Teacher Version to lead a discussion of slavery and education in A. Verses 1–2; 13–20. When you have finished, explain to the students that they will be required to closely read B. Verses 3–12 in their assessment.

Under slavery, it was a crime to teach an enslaved person to read and they were punished if they gave evidence of literacy. What explains the great efforts the newly freed persons made to learn to read? Base your answer on the evidence in the poem as well as facts you have learned about Francis Watkins Harper.

To help inculcate positive attitudes about literacy in your students, you may also wish to use yourself as a role model by explaining how you are literate and by describing how your literacy/literacies have benefited your life.


Distribute the Final Assessment, designed to measure achievement of the three stated Learning Objectives by way of a combination of multiple choice questions and student paraphrasing of the meaning of the poem. See the Assessment Answer Sheet to correct responses.

Extending The Lesson

Return to the opening prompt of the lesson. What is literacy? Encourage students to list examples of literacy in the 21st century beyond reading and writing (such as technology literacy, cross-cultural literacy, financial literacy, civic literacy etc.) and why they are important. Emphasize that most forms of literacy in the 21st century have reading and writing as a prerequisite. Record the responses on blackboard/flipchart. Ask students: How are you literate? Do you value your literacy? Why? What were the benefits of being able to read and write for black people in the 19th century?

  • What are the benefits of reading and writing in the 21st century?
  • What are the benefits of 21st literacies such as financial literacy?
  • Cross-cultural literacy?
  • Technological literacy?

The speaker in “Learning to Read” is the character, Aunt Chloe. Ask students to write a poem or a diary entry about the events Aunt Chloe describes in the poem, but from another point of view such as a Southerner (Reb) or a Yankee teacher who went to the South to educate former slaves. Ask students to think about how they would perceive Aunt Chloe and write from their perspective or viewpoint.

The Basics

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Common Core
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Crafting Freedom
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • Laurel Sneed (NC)