Teaching Shakespeare

I never thought I’d be one of “those” parents who taught her elementary school aged children Shakespeare plays. But here I am enjoying Shakespeare with my children eight and under.
I say that I enjoy Shakespeare’s plays even though I’d only read two of them before beginning the education of my children. The two that I had read (Hamlet and Othello) had completely captured my imagination and my delight in a good story.
When I chose Ambleside Online for our homeschool curriculum, I knew that Shakespeare was a subject that was presented to children from first grade. Ambleside Online encourages parents to use Shakespeare retellings with their young children, saving the plays until the children are a bit older.
I naively assumed that one Shakespeare telling was just as good as another. I saw moms online talking about the two main Shakespeare retellings that are recommended. I already had a copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s retellings, and I purchased a copy of Edith Nesbit’s retellings as well. I jumped into the first Shakespeare in first grade with my daughter . . . and it flopped. My daughter stared off into space while I was reading and couldn’t keep track of the story.
I took a break from Shakespeare thinking that perhaps she just wasn’t read for Shakespeare. It disappointed me, but I knew I’d come back to it with her at some point.
But then I realized what my retellings were missing. The retellings I had purchased didn’t have good illustrations.
The Lamb’s and Nesbit’s editions I owned were primarily text based. I stumbled across a Nesbit Shakespeare telling in a bookstore one day with gorgeous illustrations. I bought it not thinking it would make a difference to my daughter, but I was enchanted by the pretty pictures.
However, when I read the illustrated version to my daughter, she stayed engaged with the story, and she was able to retell the story much more easily. The pictures gave her somewhere to focus her attention while I read. I also have a theory that the picture helped her keep the characters straight. Shakespeare has quite a few unusual names, and a story with hard-to-pronounce names can be difficult for young ones to keep straight. Visual representations of those characters help to keep them straight. In addition, pictures help their young minds decipher the big words and concepts in a Shakespeare play.
I also recently heard about Bruce Coville’s retellings. His books are also beautifully illustrated. I have used his Hamlet with my first grade son and third grade daughter this year with great success. They both followed the story.
These beautifully illustrated stories allow my children to become familiar with the characters and with the storylines so that one day when they read the full length plays they will already have some familiarization with what is happening.
Another excellent help for Shakespeare is to use visuals so your children can reenact the story. If you think this would help your kids, check out Rachel Kiwi Designs on Etsy. She makes beautiful Shakespeare popsicle stick puppets that follow the Ambleside Online Shakespeare rotation.
Drop your tips for enjoying Shakespeare with young children in the comments below.

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