Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Shakespeare: Gateway Literature

~by Holly Rodgers

The benefit of exposing students to Shakespeare is paramount to establishing strong literary foundations in the classroom, for all learners, regardless of age and academic abilities.  While I could give testimony of the many advantages to be gained by doing so, I would like to focus on one in particular, the ability of Shakespeare to serve as a metaphorical gateway drug to get students addicted to reading. While I had known that allowing my young ELL (English Language Learner) students to participate in performance-based Shakespeare study would improve their developing language skills, and perhaps make them more critical evaluators of what they read; I had underestimated the stepping stone Shakespeare could provide to gain access to other challenging works of literature.

My 5th and 6th grade ELL students had spent the first nine-weeks of the school year studying Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  While they were enjoying working with the plays, they also began to complain that they missed reading novels.  They wanted something “hard” to challenge them, but I was struggling to find them something that would segue nicely from Shakespeare.  Due to the extensive fantasy worlds woven into the plays my students had studied, I felt the mythology and adventure of J.R.R. Tolkien would suit them well.

We proceeded to read The Hobbit during the month of December and I soon became aware of how well-prepared my students were for the challenging vocabulary, complex plot lines, and colorful characters, which are all signature trademarks of Shakespeare’s works.  While my students were unconvinced that they would ever find another writer  they would worship at the feet of like Master Will, they quickly grew to love Tolkien and reading about the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and his band of dwarves.  Many of the themes and motifs present in the plays we studied were also found in the fantasy world of Middle-Earth.  My students had no difficulty accepting the existence of fantastical creatures such as dragons, dwarves, hobbits, wizards, and elves when they had already been exposed to fairies, witches, and ghosts in MSND, Macbeth, and Hamlet.  The rhythm of Tolkien’s language also required their ears to acclimate, as was also necessary to establishing the beat of iambic-pentameter.  Challenging vocabulary was not intimidating to them as Shakespeare had taught them to have no fear of unknown words.

While Shakespeare will always be their first love, my students are learning that their relationship with The Bard is not exclusive.  There are many great writers out there worth reading and I believe that Shakespeare has given my students the courage to tackle each one with no trepidation.  Always up for a challenge, my students have now chosen to take on a new literary task.  They are attempting to read the entire Lord of the Rings by the end of the school year.  For those of you who would like to follow along with our progress, we are chronicling our reading adventures on our recently-founded blog Teaching Tolkien.   My students are completely hooked on reading and for that, I am eternally grateful, Master Shakespeare.

Holly Rodgers is an elementary school ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) teacher in Fairfax County, Virginia.  She has been a presenter at the Folger Elementary Educators Conference and has created ELL (English Language Learner) and elementary focused lesson plans for the Folger Education Website. She has spent her varied educational career as both a language and music teacher.  She earned her M Ed in Multilingual/Multicultural Education from George Mason University and her BME in Instrumental Music from Louisiana State University.

Keep the conversation going with Holly on Twitter @hmrodgers