Tackling Shakespeare in the primary classroom

Sian Evans
28th March 2017
teaching Shakespeare,Shakespeare,primary Shakespeare, Hannah Widdison, Hamlet, teaching Hamlet

Hannah Widdison, Tes author H4nn4hWW, shares her cross-curricular approach to making Shakespeares's plays accessible at primary

Being told that I would be teaching Hamlet to my Year 5 class filled me with dread. My experience of the Bard's longest play was reading the it in silence lesson after lesson. I was left feeling uninspired, bored and confused, vowing never to put myself through that again. 

Setting the scene

I knew I needed to work out how to bring Hamlet alive in a fun and engaging way, so I started by creating this topic map*. Then, to fully immerse the children, I turned the classroom into scenes from the play: we had large red curtains around the doorway, a poison bottle and a skull on each table and relevant quotes on the walls.

Getting to grips with language

At primary, pupils don’t need to know the play word-for-word. I used a child-friendly version, such as this one by another Tes author, as well as study guides and cartoons to help them develop a good understanding of the storyline. Despite this, we did explore the meaning of common words such as ‘thou’ and ‘doth’ and spent time unpicking some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines. 

To deepen understanding, I split the class into five groups with each taking responsibility for an act. The group learnt the lines, created puppets, chose a setting and brought their act together using the PuppetPals app. My class loved that fact that we had created our very own version of the play, which had the added benefit of consolidating their understanding of the plot.

Teaching cross-curricular

It was easy to think of literacy lesson ideas* for Hamlet but I had my doubts as to whether I’d be able to make strong cross-curricular links as well. How wrong could I be?

The variety of themes, symbols and relationships in Shakespeare’s plays meant that I was easily able to weave the play into every area of the curriculum, which can be seen in my resource pack*. From testing what would have happened to Ophelia’s jewellery when she drowned to finding the area and perimeter of different rooms within Elsinore Castle, the list of possible cross-curricular links is as long as Hamlet itself! 

Inspiring future fans

My pupils were hooked from the outset. Children are not usually allowed to read a book in which every character comes to a gruesome demise and so the sheer novelty of that captured their imaginations. I did question whether reading about deaths on a daily basis would have a negative impact on the children's mental health but it soon became clear that they could effortlessly distinguish fact from fiction.

I went from thinking that primary pupils would never understand or enjoy a Shakespeare play to witnessing first hands the amazing benefits. Their enjoyment was contagious and I was astounded by the progress that my EAL learners made in their reading and writing, even using words such as ‘sombre’ and ‘livid’. As we focused heavily on vocabulary, the improvement in word choices used by all pupils in their daily life was obvious.  

Despite my original worries, my class have developed a passion for the Bard’s work. What a fantastic springboard into the world of literature!

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*This resource is being sold by the author

For more ideas on how to teach Shakespeare in the primary classroom, check out our dedicated blog post.​

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