There is no need to say that teaching English to young adults is challenging. On the one hand, in order to help students meet exam requirements, teachers must follow a certain curriculum and, on the other hand, they want to create a comfortable and inspiring learning environment. I strongly believe that in this respect, reading is of invaluable help. While, as a norm, set books are read in Polish, foreign language teachers should encourage to break this custom and engage students in reading the classics anew. The process of reading in a foreign language “immerses” learners in a pool of unknown words within specific contexts, thus allowing them to learn and reinforce meanings. It also helps them gain something more than just some vocabulary: a long and beautiful relationship with an author and their books. William Shakespeare seems to be a most logical choice for this purpose as he is acclaimed as one of the most culturally influential and universal writers and credited with introducing a multitude of words and phrases still used today. Giving his works for students to read as a part of English classes and designing various themed tasks will help them extensively improve their language skills mostly in terms of fluency and vocabulary, and, at the same time, provide them with an unforgettable insight into the world he created.
Origins of a Shakespeare-driven language learning approach
Thousands of books have been written about him, his works have dissected by countless academics; he provided an unfailing source of inspiration for all sort of artists. Thanks to him people wait for things “with bated breath,” and some news “make their hair stand on end,” and these are only a few examples of how he enriched English with hundreds of phrases and over 1700 words introduced into the language. He is also partly to be blamed for one of the catastrophes in American aviation. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the one and only William Shakespeare!.
In this way I have come to begin my students’ adventure with the Bard. It all started in 2014 when I asked my junior high school students if they felt like dressing up as their favourite book character for World Book Day. They were all eager to participate and I thought I might dress up too and let them guess who I was. I chose Lady Macbeth, found fitting garment, ordered bottles of artificial blood and rehearsed mad expressions and a wild stare. The next day
I went into the classroom and as soon as I said “Out, damned spot!” and rubbed my hands vehemently to get rid of the blood, with long dress rustling and the practised look on my face, a few of my students shouted “Lady Macbeth!”. Pleasing as these answers were, there was also something equally perplexing that came moments after, a question:
“Why Shakespeare?”. And then another, which baffled me even more: “Why us?”. Those two questions made me consider why I chose Shakespeare, why I wanted my students to feel, if not thrilled, then at least intrigued enough to read some of his plays and actually enjoy and benefit from reading them. I would find the answer to those questions not in the writings of the Bard himself but in a tweet made by John Green, a highly influential figure among writers of young adult fiction and also among my students. Green (2013) said, “as a reader, I don’t feel a story has an obligation to make me happy. I want stories to show me a bigger world than the one I know”. This precisely is what Shakespeare’s plays give me, a bigger world in terms of facts, ideas, and language. And since “all the world’s a stage”, to use the Bard’s own words, through his bigger universe we can see emotions reflected, rehearse them like members of a theatre company and see how we would fare confronted with the two most powerful actors cast both in Shakespeare’s world-encompassing theatre as well as the true theatre of the world: Love and Death.
Shakespeare in class and in life
As stated earlier, Shakespeare’s plays can be an efficient tool both for language learning and introducing young adults to a rich literary culture. That is why, in order to fully achieve both objectives, my first piece of advice for students is to go and watch his plays. Blasphemous as it may sound to many teachers, this is exactly what the plays were written for, as the vast majority of Shakespeare’ contemporaries was illiterate. Despite the fact that now we can read and understand Shakespeare on our own, it is still performances of his creations that allow us to draw from the wealth they offer. There is no question that watching
a play helps to understand the language and reinforce what has once been learnt. And direct contact with professional actors equipped with a perfectly developed ability to deliver speech means the audience can benefit by learning proper pronunciation and intonation. The fact that staging plays in English is a rarity in Poland is no hindrance as the best of British theatre is offered in cinemas thanks to the British Council and the National Theatre. As a part of their project, they have already given international broadcasts of plays such as “Hamlet”, “Twelfth Night”, “As You like It”, “Julius Caesar”, “Othello”, and “King Lear”.
Although my first piece of advice was to go out of the classroom and experience Shakespeare first-hand, there are still many activities that can be introduced in class. Some can be fast-paced and designed to target specific language skills and some, broader in scope, to be completed over a longer period of time. One comprehensive task I conducted involves students being grouped in Search and Research Teams, introducing an element of competitiveness to language learning. In these SAR Teams the students are faced with several tasks which together test both the receptive and productive language skills of a learner. First, the teams choose a play by Shakespeare from a list prepared by a teacher and...
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