Preparing Year 9 for GCSE: Teaching Shakespeare

27 Jan 2017


“Tis a villain, sir, I do not love to look upon”.

Shakespeare ‘The Tempest’

Miranda’s scathing rebuttal of Caliban is a slightly more eloquent version of the reaction of my Year 9 classes to the discovery that they would be spending seven weeks in the company of Shakespeare at the start of this term. As this post on teaching narrative last term highlights, I teach two Year 9 groups, a low band and a middle band. Neither was particularly effusive about an adventure with ‘The Tempest’.

So given their eager delight to begin this tempestuous excitement, what do I want to be secure by the time Year 9 finish the half term? As this post on teaching Year 11 ‘Macbeth’ highlights, when we fast forward two years these students will be asked to analyse a Shakespearean extract and write an essay question on the whole play without the text. The key skills that they will need to demonstrate:

  1. Being able to appreciate dramatic method.
  2. Being able to support points with well-chosen textual evidence.
  3. Being able to understand and explore the nuances of Shakespearean language.
  4. Being able to recall key quotations from the play.
  5. Understanding of the structure of the play.

One of my key aims in teaching them this half term has to be to enable an easeful start of Shakespeare study at GCSE. The above five key skills need to be something they are confident with moving forward. Given this I have spent some time this week reading about retention and long term retrieval of skills. In this excellent blog, Daisy Christodoulou defends practice and memorisation. Importantly she draws the distinction between content that is worth memorising and content that is not. She also refers to Dan Willingham, who argues for “regular, on going review of the use of the target material.”This excellent post from Dawn Cox has also made me reflect this week on the redundancy of cramming and revision. She advocates the spaced learning model and asks this: “What are you doing NOW for year 9/10 GCSE students that means they can remember long term?” (slightly intimidating use of capital letters!)

Deep gulp, what am I doing for Year 9, NOW? Well, here is how I have tried to develop the above retention/memory/long term skills with these lower band Year 9 students, with a particular focus on developing the students’ ability to write effectively about Shakespeare.

At the start of the term I realised I needed something to help empower them to write well about Shakespeare. First they need regular practice, so I planned out six essay style writing tasks, each lasting thirty minutes. This would range between extract style questions and questions based more on the play as a whole. These responses would be the only thing that students would receive written feedback on. So far they have completed:

  1. How does Shakespeare make the opening of ‘The Tempest’ dramatic and engaging?
  2. How does Shakespeare present Prospero in the opening act?
  3. How does Shakespeare present Caliban in the extract?

Again inspired by Joe Kirby’s excellent post on using mnemonics to support memory  my nifty ‘Tempest’ style acronym to ensure the students focussed on the above skills was initially SEA. I sold it to them as follows: “the sea surrounds the Island, and needs to surround your paragraphs” (inspired if I say so myself) This is the guidance they received:

Shakespeare: mention Shakespeare in each paragraph – remember characters are created by him and he is in charge of everything we witness! Consider the purpose of his choices in the play.

Evidence: support all the points you make about the play with textual evidence. Remember to embed them in your paragraphs. Aim for short and regular quotations in each paragraph.

Audience: remember the play is a performance; support all points with links to how the audience might respond. Try to debate this if you can, remember to also build in dramatic methods: dialogue, stage directions.

Students knew that in each paragraph they needed to include the above. After the 30 minute response they then complete a gallery style peer assessment, moving to another place in the room to read their chum’s response and check if the individual had ‘SEAd’ appropriately. They struggled in the first week so I modelled this to provide some clarity. They then improved their paragraphs using the model to assist them, again self-assessing their use of the SEA structure (excuse the apostrophe catastrophe:)



After two thirty minute responses I realised the SEA acronym had some limitations. Students were not exploring textual evidence in any real detail and their points were rather superficial. So we expanded this to SEAL with the additional L involving language analysis, in particular exploring the impact of word choice. Paragraphs now need to receive the SEAL of approval in any self or peer analysis:


This draft essay paragraph on Caliban is an example of this student self assessing her response against the SEAL structure:


Lots of work to do but their ability to write about extracts is now developing. I also need to help them to retain quotations and learn key points about the structure of the play. Interlinked with this is encouraging them to reflect on the way characters develop throughout the play. So I told both groups at the start of the half term that Caliban would be the focus for our final essay on the play with the question: ‘How does Shakespeare present Caliban and how do you respond to him?’ I explained they would be answering this question without copies of the text (to gasps of horror!) At the end of each Act we look at some key quotations together (Act one Caliban quotations) These are annotated and we discuss them using the SEAL model:


These quotations are also a frequent part of lessons. Often I will pause to ask a student for a “Don’t tell me you Caliban’t do it” (a genius refutation of their doubt about learning quotations). Students have a ‘Tempest Ticket’, the only way they can leave at the end of the lesson is by using one of these quotations. Keeping it engaging and competitive will hopefully help them and arm them with strategies for learning quotations when they enter GCSE. The students know that when it comes to their final response they will need to use these quotations.

Students also have this villain/victim Caliban Vocabulary sheet in their books. They are expected to use these words in whole class discussion and in their writing.  There is space left on this to allow us to add to each section as we go through the play. Repetition will hopefully allow for recall when it comes to writing at the end of the term. We will see how successful this is at the end of the term – but it certainly means that we are following Caliban carefully as we study the play and reflecting on our changing perceptions of him. They are also beginning to appreciate the complexity of character development and Shakespearean ambiguity.

Have I reduced the beauty of Shakespearean language to something trivial? Have I made these students write in a hopelessly formulaic fashion? I would argue no to both. Students are still evaluating and discussing Shakespearean language and we are building up some sense of interest in the mystery of the language. They are now armed with some sense of technique when writing about Shakespeare. This should be the purpose of teaching them at this stage, as they enter GCSE they will have this structure and will be able to expand and provide more detail.

Importantly, I am hopefully now giving these students some sense of confidence in the intimidating prospect of writing about Shakespeare. Cries in unison of: “I just SEALED sir!” were rather joyful with my band three group this week (although playing these Seal noises was a step to far). Hopefully when they return to Shakespeare at GCSE they will be able to recall and repeat these skills. One of my more creative and erudite Year 9’s might even one day paraphrase Caliban; “You taught me Shakespeare; and my profit on’t is I know how to write about him!” Thanks for reading.


Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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