Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Words, Words, Words (again)

I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of podcasts – listening to a story or discussion while I walk to work instead of the eclectic playlist I haven’t updated in 18 months.  This past weekend I was enjoying a 2010 Radiolab podcast on Words in which they explored how we use words to think and communicate with each other. To my surprise, they had a whole segment with James Shapiro discussing the variety of words Shakespeare invented, or was, Shapiro hastened to clarify, “the first to use it in print or on stage”

We give away posters at NCTE featuring quotes we know Shakespeare was the first to use, many of which Shapiro cited in this interview. What I love best about recognizing the scope of what Shakespeare coined in our vernacular is how we teach it to our youngest students in our Shakespeare Steps Out residency program.

Telling the students that Shakespeare made up words to fit what he needed them to mean (even by adding an “un” before a word to make it “not” what it was, ie: unreal) widens their eyes to the possibility that they can do the same thing. We give them a handout with blanks on them for new words and ask them to make up words to fit in the blanks (not scanning for iambs, but who says the latest music player on the streets isn’t a “boomshaka”?).

It’s also great to be able to tell kids that words they recognize, words they use were first used by the man who wrote the play they’re about to study. It takes away a bit of the the intimidation factor that comes with preparing to read Shakespeare, who may seem foreign to new readers.

What say you? Are your students surprised to learn that Shakespeare used the first Knock Knock joke? Or that he created the word “eyeball”? Tell us in the comments!

Shameless reminder of offerings: Folger has its own series of podcasts! Look us up in iTunes, or online to stream them.


  • Another great thing about teaching kids about how Shakespeare made up words is that it reinforces the idea that he played with language. I’ve seen some of the kids I was working with really light up at the idea that language is something to be played with.

    Here’s a fun activity inspired by the brilliant Danielle Drakes: she mentioned that students can be active with words and be an “athlete with language.” So we had the students choose a page from the play they were reading (Much Ado about Nothing) and select a interesting word from that page. They then turned that word into a sports-like action. It was a great way to get them playing with language.

    The more students (young and old!) become comfortable with Shakespeare’s words and phrases, the more they enjoy them. And what could be better than that?!?!

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)