Shakespeare for language and literature students: choosing texts and extracts

In the seventh of our posts covering the MaWSIG-LitSIG joint Pre-Conference Event Creative Arts and Materials Writing in Liverpool on 1 April 2019, Christina Klein Wolf and Edward Wolf describe how they design materials for teaching Shakespeare in the classroom.

The 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016 generated a renewed interest in his life and works. It also prompted various organisations, such as the British Council and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, to create a wealth of materials to help teachers and learners engage with his drama and poetry. Generally speaking, these materials either target learners in primary and secondary schools, or are designed to introduce English language learners to Shakespeare. Typically, ELT materials use videos and worksheets which focus on biographical information and summaries of the most popular plays, along with some language work on famous lines and Shakespearean idioms. Very few put the text of the plays and poems as the driving force behind the materials design, a notable exception being the new Helbling series for schools. In addition, most materials are designed to work with school pupils, with more advanced ELT learners being often overlooked.

Materials dealing with Shakespeare’s language often take specific linguistic features that they deem relevant and interesting as their organisational principle. Helpful and insightful as this organisation may be, we adopt a bottom-up approach instead. We take selected extracts as the starting point for the exploration of language, going in whatever direction the texts take us. We let Shakespeare decide for us which language should be explored in the materials.

In the workshop, we briefly discussed the principles that underline our approach to designing materials to teach Shakespeare to language and literature students. We argued that a focus on contextualisation, close reading and independent study can provide a solid basis for the design of engaging materials for upper-intermediate and advanced learners, thereby fostering language awareness, critical thinking and creativity.

Play selection is an important first step. Although different sociocultural backgrounds and teaching contexts are crucial when making a decision about which plays are suitable and which ones are less so, there will be a point at which materials writers will have to make choices. We suggest the following criteria: popularity rates, accessibility to full texts and video recordings, thematic relevance, linguistic relevance and genre diversity.

Similarly, choices will have to be made when selecting which parts of a play will provide material for the activities and tasks. We suggest the following principles when making a decision on this: plot relevance, presence of distinct language features that can contribute to students’ language development, presence of specific rhetorical devices, and a mix of soliloquy and dialogue.

The points below summarise the beliefs that inform our approach to the designing of materials to work with Shakespeare and language materials:

  • The play is at the centre of the stage.
  • Text and performance are in dialogue with each other.
  • Language focus and work are largely determined by the text.
  • Language analysis and interpretation are interdependent.
  • Close reading is the foundation stone upon which language awareness, interpretation and critical analysis are built.
  • Classroom work and autonomous learning are interdependent.

Suggestions for further reading

Adamson, S., Hunter, L. Magnusson, L, Thompson, A. and Wales, K. (2001) Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language: A Guide. London: Arden Shakespeare.
Crystal, D. (2008) Think of my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Crystal, D and Crystal, B. (2002) Shakespeare’s Words. London: Penguin.
Eisenmann, M. and Lutge, C. eds., 2014. Shakespeare in the EFL Classroom. Heidelberg, Neckar: Universitatsverlag Winter.
Gibson, R. (1998) Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hall, G. (2015) Literature in Language Education. 2nd Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Johnson, K. (2013) Shakespeare’s English. Harlow: Pearson.
Thompson, A. and Turchi, L. (2016) Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student-Centred Approach. London: Bloomsbury.
Bickley, P. and Stevens, J. (2013) Essential Shakespeare. London: Bloomsbury.
Danson, L. (2000) Shakespeare’s Dramatic Genres. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eagleton, T. (1986) William Shakespeare. Oxford: Blackwell.
Greenblatt, S. (2018) Tyrant: Shakespeare on Power. London: The Bodley Head.
Harris, J.G. (2010) Shakespeare and Literary Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jardine, L. (1996) Reading Shakespeare Historically. London: Routledge .
Kermode, F. (2000) Shakespeare’s Language. London: Penguin.
MacDonald, R. (2001) Shakespeare & The Arts of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shakespeare, W. and Greenblatt, S. (2008) The Norton Shakespeare. New York & London: W.W. Norton.
Smith, E. (2007) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wells, S. and Orlin, L.C. (2003) Shakespeare: An Oxford Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dr Christina Klein Wolf (formerly Lima) is a lecturer, researcher and teacher educator. Her academic interests lie in the interdisciplinary field of English literature and language, especially in the roles of fiction reading in the process of language learning. In the field of literary studies, her expertise is in Shakespeare, but she is also interested in the development of Tolkien Studies. She is a Higher Education Academy Senior Fellow (SFHEA) and currently works at the University of Leicester, UK. Email her here.

Dr Edward Wolf is an earlier career researcher. His research is in the interdisciplinary fields of literature, game studies and film studies. He is especially interested in narrative forms in different media. In the area of literary studies, his main interests are in the Old Norse and Old English Heroic Epic and in the Fantasy Novel. His research mostly focuses on the relationships between literature, film and video games. Email him here.

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