Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

“But then begins a journey in my head”: Stepping into Sonnets

I was on the train when I began this blog, heading home from a Shakespeare competition where students performed monologues and recited sonnets. It was a terrific event. All of the participants were surefooted, and no one froze in the headlights of competition. The students had every reason to be proud of their work, for it was clear that they were exploring the text from the inside out.

The chance to perform Shakespeare’s language is transformative for the students. By working with a passage in such an in-depth way, the students go on a powerful mental/physical/emotional/artistic journey, but it always helps to have a few sure-fire ways to help them get started on this path. Here are several starting points:

Sonnet Scramble  (This exercise is an active introduction to the sonnet format in general.)

  • Place the students in groups, and give each group a scrambled version of the same sonnet. (Sonnet 29 works nicely.  I print the text in a large font, cut it up into fourteen strips, and mix up the strips.)
  • Have each group read through the lines and put the lines into what they believe is the correct order of the sonnet. (Once students are content with their order, have them tape the lines onto another sheet of paper.)
  • Ask each group to prepare a choral reading of its version of the sonnet. Every person in the group must say at least part of the sonnet out loud, and at least one of the lines should be spoken together by everyone in the group. Encourage experimentation. They may repeat, echo, and/or whisper lines. They may add movement to their presentations as well.
  • Have each group present its reading.
  • Discuss what qualities of the sonnet helped them unscramble it.
  • Read/discuss Shakespeare’s version of the sonnet.
  • Identify the characteristics of a Shakespearean sonnet.



Punctuation Walk  (This exercise, which was developed by Cicely Berry, helps students understand the mental process and pacing of a piece of text. Each student will need a copy of a sonnet. The students may all work on the same piece or on individually selected sonnets. It’s helpful to work in an auditorium, but if that space isn’t available, simply push the desks aside.)

  • Spread the students throughout the workspace.
  • Have the students read their sonnets aloud to themselves while walking.
  • At every mark of punctuation, the students should stop, change direction, and then continue reading and walking.
  • Once everyone has finished, bring them together and process the activity. How many needed to change direction frequently? How many were able to walk in one direction for an extended amount of time? What happened to the pace of their reading/walking? What might these observations indicate about the speaker’s frame of mind in each sonnet? (Sample Observations: Frequent changes in direction may reflect uncertainty/confusion. Long stretches without a change in direction may reflect commitment to one train of thought or emotion.)

Illumination Work  (This exercise helps the students bring the images of a sonnet into vivid focus by having them amplify text through the use of pictures, color, background, and fonts.) 

Option #1: Have the students explore the entire text.


Sonnet 87


Option #2:  Have the students explore the images that speak to them the most.


Sonnet 60

Explore the sonnets! These activities will help students find a path into the structure, content, and soul of sonnets in ways that will remain with them long after their expeditions have ended.