A Guide to Teaching Shakespeare Part 1 - Tell a Story

Guide to teaching Shakespeare 1

Three top tricks for exploring Shakespeare in primary schools, as suggested by our Creative Director Abi, are to tell a story, break it down and get physical with it!

In this blog series I’m going to be taking those points in turn and delving deeper into each of them to give you a stronger understanding of what they mean, and provide ideas and suggestions for how you can deliver them in your own classroom.

Tell a story

Shakespeare was a poet and writer first and foremost. His plays are famous, yes. But sets, lighting and roles like directors were limited if not non-existent in his time. The story is the essence of his writings. He wanted his stories to be told and heard. So let’s start right there.

How can you become a brilliant storyteller of Shakespeare?

1. Find a suitable version or adaptation of the story

Find a version of the play that is suitable for the age/ability of your class.

  • I highly recommend Andrew Matthews’ Shakespeare Stories (4 books in one). Easy to follow, well adapted language.

  • Marcia Williams’ Mr William Shakespeare’s Plays, where the stories are presented in comic-strip style, are also a fun, engaging variation for kids!

  • Usborn Illustrated Stories from Shakespeare has stunning illustrations throughout for children to examine, analyse and enjoy. Great for helping to create characters and scenes later, too.

2. Practice reading it aloud

Reading aloud can be daunting - even to little’uns. Practice reading the story out-loud a number of times to yourself first. Doing this ensures you are familiar with the story, who’s who and who’s doing what in advance, enabling you to find and use a rhythm in your reading. This is especially important in Shakespeare, as it also allows you to get your mouth around any unusual words or phrases: “I dare do all that may become a man; Who dares do more, is none” (Macbeth)

3. Make eye contact

Involve and include your listeners. Your voice can work wonders alone but eye contact really enhances an individual’s experience. Not only do you individualise a listener’s experience, you also present your face - and so facial expressions - to your entire audience.

Not only are students then drawn into the story but you also actively re-engage any wanderers. This is especially effective with dialogue in a story! “Some are born great, (look at one student) some achieve greatness, (another student) and others have greatness thrust upon them (and another student!).(Twelfth Night)

4. Note and utilise emotion

Most of us are used to doing this with our face, especially when working with children, but storytelling requires emotion in your voice as well. And Shakespeare offers so much opportunity to have fun with it: “O me, you juggler, you canker-blossom, you thief of love!” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Now, this isn’t ‘putting on voices’ for different characters. Instead, it is focusing on features used in everyday speech and how they can be utilised in line with a narrative. Loud or quiet? High or low? Fast or slow? These features are what constitute intonation and make speech more interesting. Intonation is communicating the exact meaning of what we want to say, and so hugely important in storytelling. Try the line quietly, speeding up, or even declaring it to the skies! What effect does each version have?

(Interested in intonation and want to know more? Read this article from the University of Cambridge, Tuning into the melody of speech.)

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Having read and enjoyed the story together, now check that your class understand the story and can recall and retell it successfully. Utilise simple drama games to help students identify characters, key plot points and story sequence:

  • Seat your class in a circle. Taking either the whole story, or the section you have read that day, ask children to retell the story one sentence at a time, one-by-one around the circle. Once successful as a whole class, can students repeat the process (faster) in pairs?

  • When you’ve finished the story, invite a student to the front of the class and ask them to retell the full story in just 2 minutes. Keeping as much detail as possible, ask them to retell the story again but in just one minute. Then 30 seconds! Then 15! Lots of fun and great for really ingraining the story and remembering key details.

  • Create a timeline. Can students dissect the story into its four, five or six most important sections? Have groups draw their own interpretations of these scenes/sections. Stick them around the room. Invite a student to walk around/along the timeline and retell the story based on what they see.

  • Create a human timeline! Either as a development to their drawings or instead of them! (This is touching on physicalising Shakespeare here…) What freeze frames or statues can students make to represent the key plot points?

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Studying Shakespeare’s plays as stories first is a great way of gaining a thorough understanding of the narrative before dissecting it into parts and scenes. Continue reading to see how we do just that as I explain how best to break it down in Part 2!

- Sarah