The death penalty

Resources for improving your language skills through the issue of capital punishment

Activity 1: Vocabulary

Important vocabulary for discussing this issue:

the death penalty
the death sentence
capital punishment
the ultimate punishment
a life sentence
to be sentenced to
to be executed
to be hanged
to murder / a murderer
violent crime
to rape a rapist
a deterrent / to deter / deterrence
rehabilitate / rehabilitation
human rights

Activity 2: Reading: the basics

Read this straightforward introduction to the topic about the death sentence from the BBC newsround site.

Activity 3

This reading is more advanced than the previous one. As you become more comfortable with the arguments surrounding the topic you will be able to deal with similar arguments put forward in more difficult language.
This comes from an American site and uses terms from their legal system.
It’s here.

Activity 4

Nine years ago a ten-year-old boy was stabbed (knifed) to death in London. His father thinks the death penalty should be reintroduced (brought back) because the fear of being sentenced to death by the court would deter people from carrying out such crimes. He believes this would be a deterrent. Another boy has recently been killed in London and so the father of the first boy has repeated his call. Read the news article here.

Activity 5

This is an excellent language learning video. The speaker is a British actor called Jeremy Irons. He speaks slowly and deliberately so you can easily follow his speech about what he thinks about the death penalty. The words are below the video. Watch the video first without looking at the words, then look at them to help you understand the bits you couldn’t understand.


There are many arguments against the death penalty. It’s not a deterrent against the crimes that it punishes: societies who use the death penalty don’t have lower crime rates than those that do(n’t). When a country abolishes the death penalty they are not plunged into criminal chaos. But even if the death penalty did reduce crime rates would it then be acceptable? The death penalty targets the economically disadvantaged: those who can’t afford good legal counsel, those without a voice in society. There’s a saying in the US: ‘capital punishment means that those without capital get the punishment’. Statistics show this is true. But would it be acceptable if people from all sections of society were executed: does killing a rich man make killing a poor man right? The death penalty is irreversible and results in the death of innocents. When someone is dead a retrospective pardon is of little use to them or their family. Since 1990 in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the USA there have been 51 recorded executions of child offenders, some as young as 14 years old. But even if no more innocents or children are killed, should we tolerate the death penalty? The death penalty is never acceptable. It abuses two of our most basic human rights: everyone has the right to live and no one should be subject to torture. The death penalty obviously kills people, but it also tortures, physically by the brutal nature of execution and psychologically by forcing individuals to wait to be killed. They wait, sometimes for decades, while others are led to their deaths. The horror if this waiting is unimaginable. Human rights are thus called because they apply to all human beings. They belong to all of us equally. An attack on these fundamental rights anywhere is an attack against all of us. The right to life is inalienable: it cannot be given and it cannot be taken away, no matter how terrible the crime. In a world of uncertainty human rights human rights are a clearly drawn line a line between what is right and what is wrong. The line between imprisonment and execution. Every individual facing the death penalty is, whatever they stand accused of, still a human being. However much we revile them, however much we are outraged by their actions, however much we want revenge, they are still human beings. They may well have killed and tortured, they’ve crossed the line, but do we really want to join them?

Activity 6

Finally take a look at an example essay written discussing the death penalty here.

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