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How to Teach Shakespeare

I’m going to venture to say that most of us did not grow up with Shakespeare as a regular part of our education. In my school years, I had only one Shakespeare play introduced to me and that was a last-minute, “Here, let’s watch this movie,” by a substitute teacher. 

But Charlotte Mason believed that Shakespeare’s plays help instruct your student’s conscience and reinforce in story form the difference between right and wrong. And his powerful use of the English language was a valuable bonus.

So let’s walk through a simple and effective way to teach Shakespeare.

What You Will Need

You will need three things: a narrative of the play, written in story form; a copy of the script in Shakespeare’s words; and a live or recorded performance of the play. 

How To

For each play you want to study, go through three steps. And let me just tell you that this is the same process that is used in our Shakespeare in Three Steps guides

Step One: Read aloud the narrative version. This story form presentation will help your students get familiar with the plot and the characters, just as they do with other living books that you read to them.

Step Two: Now that your students have the story framework in mind, go to Shakespeare’s words. Walk through the script in short sections. You can assign different people to read characters’ lines or (and this is my favorite) listen to a dramatized recording of the section and follow along in the script. The Arkangel dramatizations are excellent.

Here’s what a typical Step Two lesson would look like. It’s basically the same sequence you would use for other living books: review, introduce, read. 

First, you remind the students of what part of the story was read last time and ask what they recall about it. Now with that section of the play brought to the forefront of the mind, you can present the next section and the student will attach it to the previous one. So do a quick review first.

Next, introduce the section for today. Give a brief overview of what is coming up in this section and go over any key words that will be helpful for understanding it. You may want to highlight a couple of Shakespeare’s lines that are especially interesting or well known in that day’s section.

Then read or listen to that section. Happily, Shakespeare’s plays are divided into acts and scenes, which can make great natural sections. Try to keep Step Two lessons to no more than 20 minutes—focused and short.

Step Three: Once you have read the story form of the play and gone over the script of the play, watch a performance of that play—whether live or recorded. Your students will be able to follow along and enjoy it much more since they have already become familiar with the plot, the characters, and some of the lines. Of course, choose your performance carefully, to make sure it is well done, true to the original, and appropriate for your students.

Level Up or Down

You can easily introduce Shakespeare to your children in this way beginning in fourth grade—some plays, even second grade. Don’t underestimate what your child can glean from these powerful works.

Here are some ways to level a Shakespeare study up or down.

One way to level it down is in the story version that you select for Step One. You can share shorter picture book versions, such as those written by Bruce Coville, or audio retellings, such as those by Jim Weiss

Or level up to moderate-length narratives, such as those written by E. Nesbit and Charles and Mary Lamb. Those are the ones included in the Shakespeare in Three Steps guides.

Another way to level up or down is in how many plays you cover each year. You could introduce one play every year or every two years; or you could level all the way up to three plays each year, covering a different play each term.

You can also level up or down in Step Two as you work through the actual script. It all depends on how deeply you want to dive into Shakespeare’s words. 

You can simply highlight a couple of lines from each scene, discuss what they mean, and leave it at that.

Or you can highlight several lines in each scene and spend more time discussing and narrating them.

You can assign some lines to be memorized.

Or you can level up again by selecting an entire scene to memorize and present—either as a recitation or as a performance with various actors.

And of course, you can level up again by putting on a presentation of the whole play yourselves.

It’s up to you how much you want to level up or down. Just keep in mind the three-step process: read the story, hear the script, watch the play. And your students (and you) will enjoy some of the greatest literature ever written: Shakespeare’s plays.

The Shakespeare in Three Steps guides make the three-step process easy, plus they give you a heads-up on any lines that you might want to skip and several candid reviews of video recordings of each play to help you choose the performance that will fit your family best. And you can get the Arkangel audio dramatization along with each one.

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