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How I Teach - How doth language evolve?

Saying a little prayer can give you a way in to Shakespeare

Saying a little prayer can give you a way in to Shakespeare

Even with more mature students who have "done" one before, tackling plays from England's Renaissance period often elicits cries of "I can't understand all that Old English". This response always saddens me, not least because it is inaccurate: Renaissance writers did not use Old English.

So to challenge students' conviction that these works are in a language that needs "translating", I use this lesson.

Part 1

After a brief discussion about students' experiences of studying Shakespeare or Marlowe on previous occasions, I display on the whiteboard the Anglo-Saxon - or Old English - version of the Lord's Prayer (bit.lyPrayerOldEnglish).

Even in these multicultural days, I have never yet taught a class in which no one knows the Lord's Prayer. The beauty of it is that we still have access to Anglo-Saxon versions of it, and modern versions continue to be in use today.

I make no introduction; I merely tell them to look at the board and raise their hand as soon as they can tell me what they are looking at. At least one person in the class always recognises it. Once in the know, students eagerly point out the more familiar words like "faeder" and "forgyf". I encourage a brave soul to read it aloud, which leads to much laughter but also the realisation that some words sound very similar to ones we use today.

Part 2

I move the Anglo-Saxon version up the board and display the Middle English version (bit.lyPrayerMiddleEnglish). Students are keen to identify changes, which gives us a chance to talk about the development of the English language and the appearance of French words such as "temptacioun".

Again, I ask someone to read it aloud so that they can hear for themselves how it has become more like the English we speak today.

Part 3

I move the two versions up the board and display the King James version from 1611. There is a palpable sigh of relief: this they recognise; some even volunteer to read it aloud. The students agree that it is much easier to understand than the other two versions, enabling me to say triumphantly, "And this is Shakespeare's English - see, nothing like Old English."

Part 4

Having established that Renaissance authors do not use "Old English", I acknowledge that we may not understand all they write because some words are no longer in use. I show students the glossary in their texts, but encourage them to always have a go at understanding before using it.

I reinforce this by putting the students in groups and giving them selected lines from their set play in which a "problem" word is underlined. I generally give three possible definitions. They must decide which is right and justify their choice. Inevitably, given time, they get the correct answer and cite context as the main reason for their decision.

I cannot pretend that I never hear any moaning again but this is an upbeat and interesting introduction. It also provides a useful reference point in later lessons when students start to flag.

Ruth Ferguson is an English lecturer in a further education college in the South East of England


1. Origins story

This video from the British Council aims to explain the origins of English. With examples of cultural influences, this is a useful introduction to how language changes over time.


2. Define and rule

This extensive etymology resources booklet will have your class sounding like an Oxford dictionary in no time.


3. Latin influence

Explore the relationship between Old and Modern English in a lesson that uses Beowulf and The Wife of Bath's Tale as example texts and takes a look at the influence of Latin.


4. Turning detective

This challenging online research assignment introduces the history of English. Students must look for answers to questions about language, ranging from 5th-century Old English to contemporary textspeak.


5. Picture books

Starting with ancient communications such as hieroglyphs, this lesson on the ways in which writing has developed gets students to design their own pictograms.


6. Cockney collection

Demystify cockney rhyming slang with these presentations explaining what it is and why it was first used. Students can attempt to translate common phrases in the fun follow-up activities.


7. Back to their roots

This lesson discusses Old, Middle and Modern English, with extracts to help students identify similarities and differences between the three versions of the language.


8. Miller time

Test students' understanding of the characters in Chaucer's The Miller's Tale and their language comprehension. This card-sort activity requires students to match up descriptions in Middle and Modern English.


9. Heavenly solution

The Lord's Prayer can be used as a sample text to explore the development of the English language (see above). This handout presents three different versions.


10. Word search

Delve into the history of English with this lesson plan and set of activities. Students practise their etymological skills with a group task that focuses on identifying the linguistic roots of words.


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