In this series we talk to inspiring teachers who use literature and storytelling to set up reading programmes and use the arts and literature to develop their students’ language and literacy skills. We share real examples from real teachers to show how small (and big) ideas can make powerful learning activities. When they share their techniques and experiences, we realise that no matter how diverse our world is, our students are interested in similar issues and enjoy doing similar creative tasks.
This time we are going to focus on teaching drama and using Shakespeare's plays in the language classroom. For some teachers, working with Shakespeare's original texts can be intimidating at first. But by using the right methods and materials, the Bard's words will soon colour our classrooms and make learning English much more fun for our students. What's more, they can also learn a lot about English culture and literature.
We talk to Deborah J. Ellis, the editor of the Helbling Shakespeare Series. She is also an experienced language and literature teacher, and she shared some great ideas with us.
Find out more about the Helbling Shakespeare Series here.
How long have you been teaching, and where?
I’ve been a teacher for about 40 years now! I’ve worked as both as an ESL and an EFL teacher in different parts of Europe. I’ve been in France and Spain and I was a state school teacher in London. Most of my experience though has been in Italy, first in private schools and then in a state school, a liceo – I’ve been there nearly 20 years.
What inspired you to start using Shakespeare's plays in teaching?
Romeo and Juliet! How can you not share the story of two young people, prepared to defy the world to be together, with your classes of teenagers? That said, so many of Shakespeare’s plays have great story lines that investigate issues and human relationships which are so relevant today - the "star-crossed lovers" are definitely not the only option.
Which other plays are popular with teenagers and young adults?
Apart from Romeo and Juliet, certainly, the comedies such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. The Merchant of Venice also raises so many important issues regarding the nature of friendship, racism, money and affections to make it very popular. Hamlet has all the ingredients to capture students’ attention – love, murder, revenge and a ghost, and the presence of the supernatural in the three witches also makes Macbeth a favourite. Older students find plays like Othello and King Lear rewarding.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for language learners when they read Shakespeare?
The biggest challenge is the language - but then it is also the most rewarding aspect. Teachers need to find the right strategies to ensure that the language does not become a barrier to the enjoyment of the story and, at the same time, make sure that students can savour its beauty.
What benefits do you see in using literature, such as Shakespeare’s works, in ELT classrooms?
Language and culture are inseparable and it is important to introduce students to classic literary texts as part of their cultural education. Literature is also an amazing example of language in use – each word has been carefully chosen by the poet / novelist / dramatist to achieve a specific aim and it is fascinating to unravel the workmanship behind the text. And as I said before, literary texts can motivate interest and learning thanks to the great stories they tell, the powerful issues they raise and the insights they give.
What activities work best?
Reading, writing, speaking, listening – Shakespeare’s texts offer opportunities for all-round skills development. In particular, I find that the productive skills, speaking and writing, can surprisingly be given ample space through interesting, motivating and creative tasks. However, the most important is the fifth skill which is unique to dramatic texts – performing. Students can listen to or watch and discuss professional actors performing a scene, they can analyse a text as a script which needs to ‘come off’ the page, they can work on voice and movement to put across content, they can discuss aspects of production such as costumes, lighting, props ... There is huge potential here for active, interactive, student-centred learning.
Do you have any suggestions for teachers who feel intimidated by teaching with Shakespeare?
Don’t be intimidated. There is so much material to use which overcomes potential difficulties through carefully constructed tasks and activities. I really recommend using ELT texts which have a parallel text in modern English, like the Helbling Shakespeare Series, so you can both avoid using translation and enjoy the original language. Recordings (audio and video) also boost confidence and are motivating for students. Relax, enjoy and learn!
Thank you for the interview, Deborah!
Read more about the Helbling Shakespeare Series here.
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