I planned to research ways in which reading attainment can be improved in the study of Shakespeare. The group I undertook this research with was a Year 8 middle set embarking on a Macbeth scheme of work.
The process of reading is defined as consisting of two aspects: ‘word recognition and comprehension.’ (Pang et al, 2003: 6) This is both recognition of the words and understanding of both their literal and wider meanings. As Kispal says in her review, ‘poor inferencing skills causes poor comprehension and not vice versa.’ (Kispal, 2008: 6}. Pupils need to learn to consciously make links, to fill in gaps, and to ask questions in order to understand the meaning of texts. It is this skill that leads to a deeper understanding of characters’ motivations and the possibility of multiple meanings which precedes and underpins the discussion and higher level analysis about the effects of language.
Before starting the text, I gave students a questionnaire to help provide an overview of their attitude towards Shakespeare. Although a couple of students admitted to feeling confident, the general consensus was one of fear, “I don’t think I will be able to understand it” being the main concern. The recognition of words is the immediate problem which is encountered with Shakespeare: pupils often do not understand, both in terms of vocabulary, different grammatical structures and the social context of words. It’s interesting to note that while pupils feel like their biggest battle is gaining an understanding of the language, within APP, GCSE and beyond, the emphasis for higher reading attainment is placed much more heavily on the pupils’ ability to navigate between different meanings and language analysis rather than the initial translation of a text itself.
With this in mind, I wanted to develop strategies to improve reading attainment by equipping pupils with the skills of inference and language analysis in particular which is required for a more detailed exploration of the themes within a text. I was really keen that lessons placed an emphasis on teaching students the thinking skills and encouraging personal responses. Inevitably, there had to be modelling and guidance with the language and annotations, as there is no other way for younger pupils to understand vocabulary and thematic inferences without being explicitly told. That said, I wanted to develop a classroom culture that celebrated varied and original responses to the text.
Additional teaching strategies used:
- Pictionary style games. Pausing the action (on key quotations) pupil drew what Macbeth or Lady Macbeth’s thoughts looked like on their whiteboards and held it above their heads. Class discussion on images followed.
- Questioning. Deliberately adding controversial statements into questioning. Students had to answer true or false even though points were clearly open to debate.
- Dramatic approaches. Students worked in small groups performing key scenes and later completed PEEL paragraphs on the scene performed.
In terms of data, pupils did particularly well in the assessment, with 32 pupils out of 35 achieving between one and three sublevels above their previous reading assessment. A final questionnaire revealed a largely positive attitude towards Shakespeare. Students had enjoyed the power-hungry and gory plot that Macbeth had provided with over three quarters of the class saying that they would now like to attend a live performance.
Although positive assessment results showed understanding and development, I still felt there was still a lack of creative and original responses. When marking assessments I noticed a lot of repetition within written analysis which was clearly gained from listening to ideas shared by higher achieving pupils. I would be interested to see if more original and perceptive analysis would be generated had pupils been given greater freedom to interpret the texts. I would be interested to explore this further through wider use of dramatic approaches, group work and independent research.