Our world should be a stage

29th September 2006 at 01:00
RSC campaign promotes acting and reading aloud when studying his plays

Teaching Shakespeare should always involve reading aloud, role-play and watching performances, according to almost 100 years of advice on how to best to learn about the Bard's work.

The Royal Shakespeare Company drew on a century' of expert advice at the launch of its campaign to improve the way the playwright's works are taught.

Journalist Libby Purves, who chaired a debate at last week's launch, said that despite the trend to regard his plays as literature rather than drama during the first half of the 20th century, the tide is turning again towards looking at the importance of performance in understanding Shakespeare.

Research commissioned by the RSC showed that as early as 1908 the English Association wrote a pamphlet stating that Shakespeare should be read aloud and acted as much as possible.

This was followed by the Newbolt report for The teaching of English in England in 1921 and AK Hudson's Shakespeare and the classroom for the Society for Teachers of English in 1954, both of which promoted active approaches to the subject.

Yet today many pupils do not get the chance to see Shakespeare performed and KS3 pupils are not required to read an entire play.

Maria Evans, the RSC director of learning, said: "Shakespeare in schools is still influenced by the literary criticism which taught plays as if they were the same as novels and poetry. We don't yet put enough emphasis on performance."

She said: "This history is what galvanised us to do the campaign. Clearly there is a growing consensus that the way to teach is practical, but we haven't ever backed that up with a strategy to make that happen."

Speaking at the launch, Dr Bethan Marshall, a senior lecturer in English education at King's College London, said the way 14-year-olds were tested on their understanding of two scenes rather than a whole play was a "blasted heath" way to explore Shakespeare's plays.

The RSC wants pupils to watch at least one live Shakespeare play during their school career, better training and support for English teachers, and to look at different ways of assessing pupils' understanding part of its campaign "Teaching Shakespeare - Time For Change".

Simon Gibbons, from the National Association for the Teaching of English, said teachers knew performance was important but the need to prepare pupils for exams often meant this was lacking.

"(Exam pressure) means it is inevitable people will teach to jump those hurdles," he said.

Tim Hayden, head of English at Halewood college in Knowsley, said:

"Everyone knows these historical comments are right, but it's about time.

Teachers question whether they have time to spend three hours watching a play."

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