Dr Chris Lima provides five more top tips for teaching Shakespeare to both language proficient speakers and language learners alike, in the second part of this series.
In the first part of this series on teaching Shakespeare, I briefly discussed Shakespeare’s popularity around the world and gave my top five tips for teaching Shakespeare to both language proficient speakers and language learners alike. In Part 2, I add another five useful tips for those who wish to explore Shakespeare’s language with their students.
6. Cherish the language.
Shakespeare loved the English language. He was not afraid of bending its rules, crafting new words and exploring the language to create rich and multiple nuances of meaning. There are certainly passages that can be quite obscure in terms of grammar construction and vocabulary but these are not the rule. Most of Shakespeare’s language is actually remarkably similar to the English we use every day. Select the right passages for your students: the language should be understandable but at the same time pose some challenge so learners can see there is a gain in terms of vocabulary. Ask your students to think critically about the lines and ask the possible reasons for Shakespeare’s word choices. For example, when Othello tells Desdemona, ‘Heaven truly knows that thou art false as hell,’ ask your students to analyse the sentence construction and see if they can spot the mirroring effect and the clever word choice that seems to create a game of opposites. (This sentence is in the first of my Shakespeare lesson plans: Introducing Shakespeare.)
7. Don’t be deceived.
Although the language in some lines can be remarkably simple, don’t be misled by this apparent simplicity. As Professor David Crystal (2008, p.11) says, we need to make a distinction between simplicity of language and simplicity of thought. For instance, there is nothing linguistically difficult in ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. However, the possible meanings of Hamlet’s statement are so many and so deep that we have been discussing it for 400 years. EAP students, and advanced learners in general, need to develop their critical thinking skills and the ability to look at ideas from different points of view. Discussing possible meanings for short ‘simple’ sentences in the texts can be a powerful exercise to help with that.
8. Open your mind.
As teachers, we usually like to be in control of the content of our lessons and able to give the right answers to our students. Moreover, some students expect this from us. While we do need to have some good knowledge of the texts we are proposing to our learners, when we teach Shakespeare – perhaps more than any other writer – we need to be open to different interpretations and points of view. There will be activities in the classroom for which you may have an answer key and ‘the right answer’ but at this level, students’ responses to the texts, both in writing and in speaking, are likely to be complex and varied. Make sure you follow your students’ arguments and are open to their views, as long as they are reasonably argued and supported by textual evidence.
9. Believe in your students.
Sometimes we teachers are more afraid of Shakespeare than our learners are. Either it is because we think that we don’t know enough of Shakespeare to teach it or it is because we may think our learners cannot really cope with texts with which we once struggled ourselves. Firstly, remember that you don’t need to know all the possible meanings and interpretations of a given passage simply because no one does! Secondly, remember that students have an extremely high tolerance to unknown words and complex texts. They have been trained to infer meaning and to deal with challenging reading by years and years of experience as language learners. They are willing to learn new words and new ways of using language.
10. Do your homework.
Not having the burden of knowing ‘everything’ about Shakespeare and/or a particular play in the syllabus does not mean that you don’t need to have some fair knowledge of the content you are teaching. Read the plays yourself, watch a film version, or recorded theatrical performance if you don’t have access to theatre performance near you, and use the internet to brush up on your Shakespeare. The sources in the box below can give you some good teaching ideas and also some ready to use lesson plans and classroom materials.
In the next article, I will be bringing the last five tips to help you and your students engage with Shakespeare both inside and outside the classroom. Keep coming to onestopenglish and don’t forget to share these ideas with your teaching colleagues.
Crystal, D. (2008) Think of my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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