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Making words sing

Michael Coveney sets the stage for children to get to grips with Shakespeare

How do you teach Shakespeare to primary school children? The best introduction is surely a visit to the theatre, and the most suitable play may well be A Midsummer Night's Dream or perhaps The Comedy of Errors.

I doubt if children younger than 11 can engage fully with certain plays of Shakespeare in performance - certainly not with King Lear or Julius Caesar - but there are many other ways in which they can have a useful encounter with the national bard.

Some of these methods were illustrated at the first conference on teaching Shakespeare in primary schools, which took place in Stratford-upon-Avon last term, with teachers and National Strategy advisers participating in workshops organised by the Royal Shakespeare Company's learning department and Warwickshire Education Services.

Shakespeare's stories and characters can be used as starting points in creative writing - for instance by outlining the King Lear situation, where a despotic father decides to divide his legacy among his daughters on the basis of who says the nicest things about him. This could be simplified further by suggesting that children discuss in written work how and on what basis they would part with their favourite toys or videos.

Another good idea in the classroom is to take the ghosts, villains and clowns of Shakespearian drama, outline their characteristics and use them as templates for creative improvisation. Thus Hamlet's father could be an angry old man, demanding revenge on his own killer. Or Feste in Twelfth Night could be stripped down as a street busker with a smart line in everyday advice.

With Shakespeare's speeches, it is clear that a workshop approach can pay dividends in boosting classroom morale as well as individual confidence within the group. Most Royal Shakespeare Company actors learn their lines before they fully understand them, and the same applies with good teaching in primary schools. By reciting the words and obeying the rhythms, meaning emerges; there is much pleasure and enlightenment to be had from chanting the lines in unison, and then by rote.

But the best way into Shakespeare for young children is surely through a study of his narratives and characters in a drama workshop, with a teacher outlining a situation or a conflict, and then encouraging children to recreate it in their own way.

Thus, even in a difficult play such as Coriolanus, you could propose a scenario in which a national hero, back from the wars, turns on his own people because they don't honour him sufficiently. Or you could ask children to consider the dilemma of Macbeth as one in which a soldier kills his own commander to take his place and please his demanding wife.

Young children are perfectly capable of understanding the moral complexities in Shakespeare in their own way, and they can relish the greatest writing in the English language by speaking it out loud. The Royal Shakespeare Company learning department sees its collaborations with schools as a way of introducing Shakespeare and, more importantly, as an enjoyable method of taking rehearsal techniques and adapting them for the whole of a school's work across the disciplines.

At the Stratford conference, Rex Pogson, director of the Warwickshire LEA arts zone, said that Shakespeare was a part of daily life in all their schools, and he asked one of the pupils who had performed in the afternoon showcase what he took from the experience. "I now understand that poetry isn't just a bundle of words," was the boy's reply.

Making words jump about and sing is what primary schoolchildren can love about Shakespeare. It is the right approach. It is no mere coincidence that Cicely Berry, the legendary Royal Shakespeare Company voice coach, uses the phrase "walking the speech" whenever she addresses a group of actors or students, whatever age they are. Words do not always speak louder than deeds, but in drama they inevitably spark off the action.

Lesson ideas

* Take the magic forest idea from AMidsummer Night's Dream and focus on sounds that might be heard there.

* Turn these ideas into pure sound in a big circle.

* Divide into two groups: one half creates the soundscape of a forest by day; the other by night.

* One group performs their "forest" around the other, who are seated on the ground, eyes shut; reverse the procedure.

* Add lines of text to animate the forest Summary of objectives

* Take words off the page into living speech.

* Share speeches and lines in the same group.

* Activate Shakespeare in bare-bones tableaux.

* Discuss simple choices, both moral and political.

* Have fun. Make it real - but not too real.

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