By being intimidated by the multilevel narrative and the stylised language we are missing out on some exceptional teaching materials. By depriving our EFL teens of Shakespeare we are depriving them of some of the most riveting, contemporary stories ever to be told in the English language. In your EFL classroom don’t skip it – exploit it! Don’t dumb it down – jazz it up!
- Why teach Shakespeare?
- What should I teach?
- How can I teach Shakespeare?
Why teach Shakespeare?
- The fantastic stories.
His plays are crammed with stimulating plots and sub-plots. His characters endure bloody battles, deaths by poison, huge family feuds, problems between siblings, problems between parents and children... The plays are also littered with parties, weddings and funerals. They are quite simply action-packed.
- The stories are timeless
Not only are the storylines exciting, they are still relevant today. Shakespeare’s plays are dramatic and full of conflict. He captured the essence of human conflict in his writing which transcends eras.
- His words are influential
An estimated 3000 words and expressions that we use today originated in Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. It’s enriching for students to see well-known expressions in their original contexts.
- He is an icon
Shakespeare played a huge role as part of the history of English Literature. He is a VIP in British culture. EFL lessons are not just about teaching language. We need to teach culture to our students to provide them with the full picture.
- He is inspirational
We can find references to his work all the time. He has influenced not only other literary giants such as John Keats, Milton and Dickens but also how fiction and drama is approached. According to Jill Levinson ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was the first time romance had been used as a context for tragedy. Teens might also be interested to know that Moby Dick was inspired by King Lear.
What should I teach?
- Plays that motivate and excite you
If you know and love a play then you are already better equipped to sell it to your teenage audience.
- Plays on exam lists
The plays for 2008 are The Tempest, Richard III and Much Ado about Nothing. After consulting teachers last year, plays that will be recommended for use in class from 2009 are ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, ‘As you like it’ and ‘Julius Caesar’. These have yet to be confirmed. The benefit of teaching one of these plays or extracts from them is that EFL students will have common knowledge with their British contemporaries.
- Stories that have been re-told
Learners have different learning styles and reaching them through a film of the play is a valid option. The 2005 BBC version of four of Shakespeare’s plays ‘Shakespeare Retold’ is presented as a modern drama. Much Ado About Nothing takes place in a television studio and Beatrice and Benedick are bickering TV presenters. There is even Billie Piper as the ditzy weather girl, otherwise known as Hero.
They are short and consequently accessible. In his thesis ‘Teaching Shakespeare in the EFL classroom’ Vince Máté refers to Sonnet CXXXVI and gives examples of how to teach it in class. More accessible to lower levels is Sonnet 18 ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day.’ The link below takes you to a lesson plan based on this sonnet.
- Modern vs original
You don’t have to completely stick to the original text although you should obviously use it. To compare it with updated versions can be very motivating for EFL students and will help them gain a better understanding of Elizabethan English. However don’t fall into the trap of only using a modern version. This is ultimately someone else’s work.
How can I teach Shakespeare?
- Emphasize the story first
The story should always be the focal point of the lesson. The language is obviously the key to unlocking the story but it could prove to be overwhelming, even off-putting for some teenagers if they get bogged down with a mass of confusing words. I’m not saying to discard the language, just don’t use it as the entry point. Why not grab their attention and exploit the storylines before they even realise they are studying Shakespeare then see their amazement when they realize they are studying Shakespeare.
- Make it fun and interactive
Shakespeare plays are just that – plays. They were written to be performed so when teaching them to your students I would always advise to work towards a performance. This doesn’t have to be an end-of-year extravaganza – it could be a 1-minute dialogue in front of another pair. It just needs to be taken off the page and reproduced by the students themselves.
- Split it up
Concentrate on small sections or scenes. Don’t feel you have to slog through a whole play from Act 1, Scene 1 to the final curtain. You can pick out the main scenes; ones you feel are more accessible to your students. The idea is to arouse their interest and leave them wanting more rather than overloading them and putting them off.
- Personalise it
There are several themes and situations running through the major plays that can be related to today: anger, jealousy, infidelity, corruption, power and love to name but a few. Once you have acknowledged these themes and discussed the relationships between the characters in the plays, move on. Let the students explore the same themes in their own lives or in the lives of people they know. Let them discover how the themes are universal and relevant to them.
Teaching Shakespeare in an EFL class is definitely not a time-filling activity: it requires preparation and dedication. The end result for both you and your students is however rewarding and well worth the extra effort. The sense of achievement for you, the teacher, when you have introduced Shakespeare to a group of EFL teenagers will be huge. The sense of achievement they will feel when they have conquered one of Shakespeare’s plays or even a sonnet will be even bigger.
Further Reading and Resources
There are endless articles about Shakespeare and his work on the internet. I have chosen here links to teaching-related websites. The most valuable reading you can do before teaching Shakespeare in an EFL class will always be Shakespeare himself.
Teaching Shakespeare in the EFL classroom: Vince Mate http://seas3.elte.hu/angolpark/Texts/VinceMate/VinceTeachingShakespeare.pdf
A lesson plan where students discover the rhythm of sonnets and then write their own.
Activities to use in class based on various Shakespeare plays
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Jo Bertrand, Paris
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