Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Their Understanding Begins to Swell

~by Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger

Elementary students during a summer School Visit Workshop

I met with a terrific group of bi-lingual students today who came to tour the Folger and see the London exhibition. When I asked them what they already knew about Shakespeare, one of the first things they said was “He wrote in really old English that we don’t understand.”

It was as if I had written the script!

When I asked how many of them had trouble understanding Shakespeare’s language, lots of hands went up. So we had a great opportunity to chat about Shakespeare’s language, how similar it really is, and how they can get at some of the words they don’t (yet) understand.

To help them access the language, I had them do what Shakespeare intended all along: gave them lines from the plays to act out. We started with insults from the plays—perfect for eighth graders. I encouraged them to use their bodies (we quickly established a “no touching” rule) to reinforce what they were saying. Within moments, the students were practicing hurling insults at each other. Then in groups they insulted other groups and, eventually, the whole class.

After this activity, I had them look at their scripts. When I asked if there were any words they didn’t know, they said there were. I had them tell me how they figured out what they were saying and how they should act out the words. They had several good suggestions: look at the surrounding words, look for parts of words they did recognize, or sound the word out. It turns out that although several students didn’t recognize words in their scripts, not one student let that get in the way of enthusiastic participation. In other words, by acting out the language, they understood it.

I reminded the students what that Shakespeare is meant to be an experienced, that the words are alive and intended to be spoken and acted. By giving them an opportunity to do so, they were able to make sense of the words by turning them into action. It was wonderful to see them own these lines and recognize their own ability to understand language they had thought was too difficult.

Carol Ann Lloyd Stanger is the Docent Liason for Folger Education, a frequent contributor for Making a Scene, and a published writer for Calliopemagazine. 

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