Hey fam! Uche Nora​​, one of our esteemed Literature teachers posed a question as to how to make the language of Othello by William Shakespeare accessible for her students. I’m sharing this as a post to help anyone who might be in similar position!

William Shakespeare’s works are complex texts and so it will be duly unfair to dump his plays on students and expect them to figure out the language on their own. When I taught my Grade 9 (SS1) students Romeo and Juliet, what I did first was to introduce Shakespeare to them in a series of lessons that lasted a week and two days. We learnt about his life, his writing style, why it is peculiar and his achievements using these tricks:

  1. You can start your first class with a chat on students’ hobbies or favourite people in the world. Ask them why they love these hobbies or people and what is unique about the way they do things. Listen to as many useful responses as you can and applaud their efforts. Then let them know they will be studying about Shakespeare, who also has his own hobbies just like they do, people he learnt from and a unique way of writing. You need to let your students know that they’re about to study a complex text and though the language might be difficult for them, getting past the words to actually understanding the text as a whole and Shakespeare’s use of pun and extended metaphors should be a challenge they should be proud to overcome, just like many great people they like overcame lots of challenges to be great.
  1. Teach them about sonnets and iambic pentameter (there are many useful links online on these — Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, Shall I Compare Thee to A Summer’s Day is a good example to teach iambic pentameter). They might not get it entirely, but let them have fun with pointing out the rhyme scheme in some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This is after you’ve shown them how to. Write the poems on the board, cardboard papers or use a projector if your school has one. Break the students into groups and turn it into a contest of what group will correctly label the rhyme schemes of the quatrains and couplets in the poems. Let the students walk up to the board and write in the rhyme scheme while you cheer them loudly. At this stage, the class is learning about some of the devices used in Shakespeare’s writing: iambic pentameter, rhyme scheme, quatrains, couplets, etc. So review students’ knowledge after the game to make sure they know what they mean. You can give them notes on this, if necessary.
  2. When you think they’ve gotten a grasp of the language, then dive right into reading. Shakespeare’s books often come with a glossary, so explain that ‘ere’ means ‘before’, ‘tis’ means ‘it is’, etc or make a list of those words and their meaning and paste them somewhere visible in class. For me, I allow students replace the Elizabethan words with their modern translations if that will make reading easier for them.
  3. Assign characters to students for every scene. Take up a role too and try to recreate your class, as much as you can, to fit the setting of the scene you’re reading. Encourage students to read out their lines dramatically. Correct their language and for every lesson, have a discussion time when you stop reading to ask students questions to pique their curiosity and turn it into an interactive session. Make sure they are taking notes while they listen (or give them notes, if you think that works better for you).

Not all kids will love Shakespeare, some of my students didn’t too. But assure them that to read and understand Shakespeare will not only make them better writers, but it’s something they should be proud of. If you work in a school with technical support, always look up online for appropriate videos that will add spice to your lessons. I allow my students watch films of books we have read in class and we often do a comparison of book vs film. If your school does not have such support, that is fine too. Do the best that you can in making your class as entertaining as possible and make sure they are learning through a series of formative assessments. Good luck teaching Shakespeare! He was actually my favourite in secondary school. 😀


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