Learning English With William Shakespeare

In honor of U.S. National Poetry Month, I wanted to share with you an activity I did with my Level 6 IEP Speaking & Listening students last semester that drew its inspiration from the words of the most exalted poet in the English language, William Shakespeare.

As explained in my last blog post, my students and I had worked extensively with the movie The King’s Speech. In a pivotal scene in that film, Lionel, the iconoclastic speech therapist, asks Bertie, Great Britain’s soon-to-be king, to read Hamlet’s “To be, not to be” soliloquy aloud.  Distracted by the sound of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony ringing in the earphones that Lionel insisted that he wear, Bertie reads the immortal words without his usual, paralyzing stammer.

Remarkably, virtually all of my students—coming from every corner of the globe—had heard of Hamlet and were aware that his soliloquy contained some of the most famous words in our language.  Several of my students had studied the soliloquy in their own language.  They were consequently thrilled (more so than I would have expected) when I explained that we were going to practice reciting it.

To help in this endeavor, I turned to several versions of “To be, or not to be” that are available on YouTube.  In class, we listened to Kenneth Branagh’s version.  We took it word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase, then line-by-line, listening and then pausing the video so that students could practice repeating what they heard.  We paid close attention to both word stress and sentence stress.

For homework, I asked my students to listen to a YouTube composite video that includes footage of five different Shakespearean actors performing Hamlet’s soliloquy.  Their task was to choose their favorite version and then listen to it as many times as they needed to be able to comfortably give a dramatic reading of the soliloquy, using a handout of the text I had given them and repeating what they heard.

Back in class, students took turns working in pairs to practice reading the soliloquy, and then I called for volunteers to recite for the class as a whole.  The results were quite astounding.  My Saudi and Syrian students, with a long tradition of memorizing and reciting poetry and religious verses, excelled in this activity, reading with heartfelt passion and remarkably accurate pronunciation.  So did my Russian students, several of whom knew Hamlet’s words by heart in their own language.

We then moved on to a paraphrasing activity.   I asked them to work in small groups and try to “translate” Shakespeare’s words into plain English.   It was a struggle, but students gamely took up the challenge.  Here’s what one team came up with:

 Shakespeare’s words My students’ words
To be, or not to be To live or not to live
That is the question That is the doubt
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind Whether this looks [sic] a good idea
To suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune Have the pain of giv[ing] up
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles Or take the bull by the horns
And by opposing, end them. And maybe end the problem.

In retrospect, the paraphrasing activity may have been too difficult for them.  The vocabulary in Hamlet is challenging for fluent English speakers, let alone ESL students.  And the underlying ideas are subtle.  But by choosing just a few lines from the soliloquy with words that are relatively easy to understand, our class was able to come to grips with Shakespeare’s thoughts and negotiate the meaning of those thoughts with their classmates.  ‘T[was] a consummation devoutly to be wished . . .

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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3 Responses to Learning English With William Shakespeare

  1. Rupert Goold says:

    We seek originality in new presentations of Shakespeare (I suppose) in order to confirm our belief that, somehow, there is more flexibility built into his plays than into the work of most other dramatists.http://postmoderndeconstructionmadhouse.blogspot.com/2014/05/macbeth-pbs-2009.html#.U5XLNXJdXxA

  2. Kathleen Collins says:

    Kudos to such an intelligent and challenging lesson! Liked how you broke it down and the ending activity. In a high-level ESL course, this is what is needed for Ss to be able to assess how they are able to manipulate the language.

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Kathleen. Yes, it was definitely challenging. But the students seemed to love it and put a lot of effrot into it.

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