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How to make Shakespeare easy for English language learners

By Genevieve White

22 April 2015 - 17:46

Have you ever had difficulty relating Shakespeare to learners of English? Tutor and resource writer Genevieve White comes to the rescue, in time for Shakespeare Day and English Language Day today.

Last year, I wrote an article extolling the joys of teaching Shakespeare to learners of English and outlining the reasons why teachers should bring the Bard into the classroom. Some of the comments I received on this post suggested that the linguistic challenges presented by sixteenth-century English are just too great to overcome.

It is true that Shakespeare’s texts may present difficulties for contemporary readers, particularly those who do not have English as a first language. Luckily, however, there are a number of ways in which we can reduce the language barrier between our learners and Shakespeare’s greatest work. Read on to find out how you can take the sting out of Shakespeare.

Make it attractive from the start

Begin by piquing your learners’ interest. You want their first brush with the Bard to be a treat, not torture! There are a number of ways you can set the scene for an exciting first encounter. Shakespeare’s plays have been interpreted by countless filmmakers. Showing your learners an intriguing film trailer will leave them wanting to know more: always a good start! There is a wealth of Shakespeare trailers online: choose the Shakespeare play which interests you and take your pick.

One of my own personal Shakespeare favourites is his famous tale of revenge, deceit and jealousy: Othello. You can lead into this play by talking about jealousy: an emotion which I’m sure we have all experienced at some point. Give an example (real or invented) of a time when you felt jealous. Ask students to work in pairs to discuss their own experiences of jealousy and come together to share these stories. Explain that one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays deals with jealousy and its terrible consequences.

In the past, I have introduced my learners to the story and its characters with this trailer. Before watching, I tell the class that they should write down any questions they have on first watching. Questions may include: Why do Othello’s feelings about his wife change? Does he kill his wife at the end? Why does he do this?

Learners can then watch an animated summary of the play. After you have played the summary, ask learners to tell you if they found the answers to the questions which they came up with while watching the trailer. If the language in the summary seems too high-level, you can mute the sound and discuss what is happening in each of the pictures. Take your time and generate as much language as possible. Students can then use the pictures as prompts to retell the story (a great way to practise narrative tenses).

A similar approach can be used with just about any Shakespeare play. Once the students have had the chance to engage with the themes and basic plot line of the story, you can progress to more detailed study.

Get the students to re-enact tabloid versions of the plays

Shakespeare’s sensational plot lines would not look out of place on today’s red tops, and this is beautifully demonstrated by the BBC’s selection of 60-second newspaper front pages. The BBC site contains newspaper front pages revealing fourteen different Shakespeare scandals, and provides a convenient springboard for language work, genre study and drama activities.

A front-page wedding splash on celebrity couple Petruchio and Katherina (from The Taming of the Shrew) can be used, first and foremost, to introduce learners to this play’s story line and characters. Read the newspaper article together, beginning with the 'Who’s Who' towards the middle of the page. Prepare a list of simple comprehension questions to check your learners’ understanding. Ask your learners who they feel more sympathy with: Petruchio or Katherina?

This can lead onto more detailed language and genre work. List the typical features of a tabloid news report (alliteration, short sentences, direct quotations, and so on) and ask learners to find, identify and comment on these features. Ask learners to find and underline the character adjectives used in the piece. Discuss the meaning of the adjectives and use these as the basis for some role-play activities. Ask students to choose one of the character adjectives and read a short dialogue (from their course book) pretending that the adjective they have chosen applies to them (brave, shrewish, flirty etc.).

The tabloid report lends itself to a range of drama projects. Learners could work in three to prepare a role-play between Katherina, Petruchio and a marriage guidance counsellor. Alternatively, they could write (and film) their own interpretation of the farcical wedding which takes place in The Taming of the Shrew.

Use contemporary-English versions of Shakespeare next to the originals

Websites such as No Fear Shakespeare are a gift for the teacher who yearns to introduce Shakespearean dialogue to learners but fears being met by rows of blank and uncomprehending faces. No Fear Shakespeare presents the reader with a contemporary translation of Shakespeare’s work (set beside the original text). This allows key speeches to become a lot more accessible to learners.

The first decision you have to make is what text to choose. Start small. Use the ideas outlined above to introduce your learners to the basic plot and characters of the play you wish to study. Then, choose a short text to work with. Here are some ideas:

1. Look at the monologue in which Macbeth battles with his own conscience over the planned murder of King Duncan. Even the simplified text is reasonably complex, so shorten and simplify it a little further if necessary. Read the text together and ask your learners to make a list of Macbeth’s murder pros and cons. Use the monologue as a basis to look at the rich metaphor within (for example: pity is compared to a new-born baby and tears are compared to 'a horrible downpour of rain'). Ask learners to create their own similes for different qualities, emotions and actions, for example: justice, jealousy and forgiveness. Finally, divide your class into two halves. You should take the part of Macbeth. One half of the class should be your 'good angels' and try to persuade you not to commit the murder. The other half should be 'bad angels' and try to talk you into doing the deed. The winning team is the one that manages to persuade you to follow their advice.

2. Quick-fire dialogues are a great way of focusing on pronunciation, intonation and word and sentence stress while acquainting your learners with the work of Shakespeare. Try your learners with this fun exchange of insults from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Make sure your learners deliver their lines in as nasty as way as possible! And if you sense that they are enjoying a verbal spar, why not introduce your class to the joys of the Shakespearean insult kit?

3. One of the most complex and fascinating figures in Shakespeare’s plays is that of Shylock. After introducing learners to the plot line and themes of the play, look at the scene in which Antonio and Bassanio ask Shylock for money. Shylock’s response reveals the prejudice and cruelty which he endures from Christian Venetian society and is a good way of opening up a discussion into prejudice in your learners’ own cultural context. Ask your class to consider the following question: if Shakespeare was alive today and writing in your learners’ culture, who would Shylock be? Discuss this question in groups and in a class and ask your learners to work together to write a scene from their own contemporary version of the play.

So, be not infirm of purpose! Show that you are made of sterner stuff and let your vaulting ambition lead you to try some of the above ideas. The wealth of online resources and materials means that it is not all that difficult to keep Shakespeare simple.

Watch out for brand-new Shakespeare teaching materials, which will be available on TeachingEnglishLearnEnglishLearnEnglish Kids and LearnEnglish Teens in 2016. In the meantime, check out the Shakespeare lesson plans on the Teaching English site.

Find out about the Shakespeare Lives 2016 programme of activities.

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