Literacy, oracy and language with Shakespeare

Written by: Naomi Leaver | Published:
Children as Storytellers: Pupils from Robinsfield Primary school taking part in the Globe Education workshops (Image: Cesare De Giglio/Globe Education)

Robinsfield Primary School has been delivering Shakespeare to its five and six-year-old pupils with a specific focus on literacy, oracy and language. Headteacher Naomi Leaver explains how they approach this work

While some adults don’t understand the relevance of Shakespeare to their lives today, five and six-year-olds at our school have cracked it.

They relate to his stories and characters without the need for explanation. When discovered through play, the stories work magic, unlocking language and the joy of sharing narratives. In turn, they act as a model for children to write their own stories.

Robinsfield Primary is situated in north London and has a rich cultural diversity. More than 80 per cent of children come from minority ethnic backgrounds and more than 70 per cent have English as an additional language. There are around 60 languages spoken and many join us with no English, yet I was confident in using Shakespeare to support our ethos of developing creative and independent learners.

In a schools bulletin from the Westminster Education Service, I heard about Children as Storytellers, a project created by Globe Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, and funded by the John Lyon’s Charity, specifically to develop children’s language, literacy and oracy skills.

Running over 10 weeks, the project offered story-telling sessions in-school, CPD for teachers, as well as the opportunity to visit the Globe Theatre for a tour and workshop. We were fortunate in being selected to participate in the autumn of 2014 and the results exceeded expectation. Although full funding was not available for the following year, I committed to match funding the project for the next three years through to spring 2018.

This autumn we began our third year of Children as Storytellers using Henry V, beginning with a whole day of CPD for the teachers. Many of the teachers at Robinsfield have an arts background and are already comfortable with using drama-based learning approaches, but the session challenged and supported them to extend their practice. A great strength of the project is that teachers learn alongside the children, supported by the Globe Education team.

Five one-hour practical drama sessions led by Globe Education practitioners develop spoken language skills and five teacher-led sessions develop pupils’ skills in reading and writing. Each session is well scaffolded within a space that provides a structure for pupils to become familiar with the sequence and learn what is expected of them.

Children use Shakespeare’s text in opening and closing rituals to prepare for the activities ahead and at the end to reflect and prepare to re-enter the formal classroom environment. Music is a great means of setting the scene and capturing imagination and is often used at these points. The extent of the text used can vary but might be:

O for a muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention:
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.

One of the notable markers of the project has been the children’s capacity for understanding and use of vocabulary. Key words are displayed throughout the drama workshops. In the teacher-led sessions they are taught at the beginning and pupils’ comprehension reviewed again at the end. Words might be handed out on cards for children to integrate into their own writing.

Movement exercises explore physical and psychological characteristics such as king, warrior, carer, trickster, making connections to the different roles children play in their lives such as being a warrior when competing in sports, or a carer to family and friends.

In “Conscience alley”, a section of text sets out a dilemma. The children made a corridor through which the Globe Education practitioner or the teacher walked as Henry and received advice from the pupils.

Now are we well resolved,
France being ours we’ll bend it to our awe,
Or break it all to pieces.

The next teacher-led session reflected on the ideas offered to Henry using photos and recordings from the workshop. Pupils were reminded that Henry’s father had recently died and as a new king he needs help from his subjects to prevent him from doing something he might regret. This offered a platform for teaching formal letter writing in which the children shared their advice in a polite and persuasive tone.

Children as Storytellers: Pupils from Robinsfield Primary school taking part in the Globe Education workshops (Image: Cesare De Giglio/Globe Education)

Other exercises such as “hot-seating”, where the Globe Education practitioners or teacher take on a role and pupils ask them pre-planned questions to find out more about the character or a specific problem, help to develop imagination as well as speaking and listening skills.

Sessions developed understanding around “cause and consequence”, considering the French perspective, exploring French culture which included not only writing a list of ingredients for ratatouille but making it and tasting it, while reflecting on beautiful French countryside and how this might be changed by war.

The project supports the English programme of study for key stage 1. In addition, as the school curriculum narrows, it offers a springboard for exploration and self-development – not just for the children, I would argue for the children and also their families, teachers and the school community.

The excitement of Shakespeare’s stories, experienced in play, has enabled our children to put into context the world around them. They act and speak text with emotion and understanding, reflecting on character and issues. It has ignited a desire and fostered an ability to share that understanding.

There is a real danger that the current focus on grammar and punctuation will result in a creative writing void. It has never been a more important to encourage creativity.

This can’t happen without self-confidence. Exploring Henry V and the other plays we have worked on, the children grew bold in vocabulary and took that to home environments where there was sometimes no English or it was a second language. The confidence to share verbally not only developed their oracy skills but was a rehearsal for writing and this was evident across all learning abilities.

The sharing of Shakespeare’s language creates a common language. One six-year old Japanese-speaking pupil returned after a school holiday having written, in English, her own version of the Shakespeare play her class had explored, presented in a little book with illustrations.

Capable children, for whom English is not their first language, are provided with a platform to excel; boys who might not be motivated learners are enthusiastic; those who are more challenged grow in self-esteem. In all cases, writing outcomes improve markedly.

By introducing five and six-year-olds to Shakespeare, they will not only meet him with confidence when they study for GCSE, they will develop a relationship with him – hopefully one that will be life-long and life-changing. They will be not only consumers of culture but also generators of the creative industries, one of the fastest growing economic sectors.

As a school we have had much experience of working with arts organisations such as the BBC Singers and the LSO. They bring a fresh dynamic into the school. How much impact the project has depends on the commitment to the partnership at all levels, from governors, the senior management team, and participating teachers. We need to devote time, prepare, be open to new approaches and step outside our comfort zone. But it is worth the effort.

  • Naomi Leaver is headteacher at Robinsfield Primary School in St John’s Wood, London.

Further information

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