Lesson plan

Vocabulary in the Declaration of Independence

Help students decode tricky language in the Declaration of Independence with an integrated vocabulary and history lesson. After reviewing vocabulary as a class, students will rewrite the Declaration of Independence in kid-friendly language.
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Students will be able to define and paraphrase key vocabulary terms in the Declaration of Independence.

(5 minutes)
  • Write "What is the Declaration of Independence?" on the board.
  • Show students an image of the document (see related media).
  • Provide a brief overview explaining what the document is and why it is important.
    • It is a document that was written and signed in 1776 that declared America's independence from England and established the 13 colonies as an independent nation, the United States of America.
    • Colonial Americans wanted freedom from England because they were being treated badly by the king of England, King George III.
    • The Declaration of Independence establishes the principles of freedom, including the idea that all people are created equal and are born with certain rights.
    • It states that the purpose of the government is to protect people's rights and citizens should have the right to change the government if leaders are not protecting those rights.
    • A large part of the document is a list of grievances, or problems, that the colonists have with the king, like unfair taxes. The authors included these complaints as a way to convince other colonists that there was a reason to go to war with England.
  • Explain that the Declaration of Independence contains a lot of language that is hard to understand. But today we will be looking at sections of the document and analyzing the language used so that we can better understand what it says.
(15 minutes)
  • Introduce the history of the Declaration of Independence with a book or excerpt, like chapter one of What Is the Declaration of Independence? by Michael C. Harris, or show a video like, America the Story of Us by the History Channel (see related media for a link).
  • Draw a large circle on a piece of chart paper and use it as a "brain dump." Leave some space around the outside of the circle to use later.
  • Invite students to call out names, dates, and key words that relate to the Declaration of Independence. Write names in blue, dates in black, and key words or vocabulary in red.
  • Support students in this process by adding additional key words that are missed (e.g., "unalienable rights," "unanimous," and "dissolve")
  • After filling in the brain dump, draw a line out from each red vocabulary word and, in the space outside the circle, write a synonym or short definition for each of the words.
(10 minutes)
  • Hand out the worksheet The Declaration of Independence: Vocabulary Lesson.
  • Read the excerpt at the top of the page aloud as students follow along.
  • Model the activity by guiding students through the first three underlined words and corresponding synonyms.
  • Instruct students to finish the activity with a partner, finding synonyms for each of the underlined words.
  • Encourage students to use a thesaurus if they need help.
(20 minutes)
  • Hand out the Rewriting History: The Declaration of Independence worksheet. (Note: before the lesson, number short sections of the worksheet so that each half page is numbered as a different section; there will be about 10 numbered sections in total.)
  • Have students count off from one to ten. Then tell students to highlight the section of text on the worksheet that corresponds with their number.
  • Explain to your students that this worksheet contains the full text from the Declaration of Independence and that they are going to paraphrase, or rewrite, the section they've highlighted in their own words. Remind them to use the synonyms they found in the earlier activity and encourage them to use a thesaurus or dictionary if they need extra help.
  • Tell students that, when they are finished, they will have collaboratively written a version of the Declaration of Independence in language that is easier for kids to understand.
  • Circulate and offer support as needed.
  • When students are finished, have students group up with other students who paraphrased the same section (i.e., all students who paraphrased section one are in a group together).
  • Instruct them to compare their paraphrased versions and collaborate on parts they were confused about. Encourage them to revise their own writing, if needed, as they talk with their group.
  • Have each group choose one person's version that they would like to share with the class.
  • Then, in numerical order, have a representative from each group read their paraphrased section aloud so that the class can hear the entire paraphrased text.


  • Provide a vocabulary list with synonyms or definitions for a selection of words in the text so that students can use it as a reference (see related media).
  • Strategically assign sections of text during Independent Work time so that students who need support get a shorter section or the section that aligns with the excerpt from Guided Practice.


  • Have students practice their persuasive writing by drafting their own declaration about a topic of their choice (see optional materials).
  • To build on this history lesson, offer students additional reading on key historical figures, like Thomas Jefferson (see optional materials).
  • Precede the lesson with a short video reviewing the historical people and events that led to the development of the Declaration of Independence, like the Liberty's Kids series.
(5 minutes)
  • Read a key word, sentence, or phrase from the Declaration of Independence aloud (or write it on the board), like "we hold these truths to be self-evident."
  • Have students rewrite the word or phrase in their own words on a personal whiteboard.
  • Instruct students to hold up their whiteboards and scan their answers quickly to check for understanding.
  • Repeat with other key words, sentences, or phrases (e.g., "it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it").
(5 minutes)
  • Show a fun parody song to excite students about the Declaration of Independence (see related media).

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