Teaching ‘Macbeth’: extract questions

08 Sep 2017

Macbeth first meets witches

 ‘So foul and fair a day I have not seen.’ Macbeth’ Act one, scene three

There are elements of Macbeth and Banquo’s first meeting with the witches that eerily mirror the first week back at school. As much as we might relish and love our jobs and as much as we might feel rejuvenated, there is always a moment of shock when presented with a room of young people again: “what are these/so withered and wild in their attire?” It requires an instant transformation, a return to a teacher persona that has been lying dormant, sun bathing, for quite some time.

There is also, as the week continues, the dawning understanding that the perfect visions of teaching that we might have plotted over the summer don’t always instantly come to fruition. Despite writing tens of thousands of words on teaching in this book mission over the summer; I am not entirely sure if I have left a class “rapt” this week and there have been plenty of moments of “imperfect speaking”.

The slightly laboured point is there is a disconnect: the process of reflection is important and no doubt useful, but what happens in the classroom is where it really matters, not about how eloquently or thoughtfully we can describe the process. In this respect I rather enjoyed this post from Mark Roberts last week, in which he outlined a return to school in which:

“I’ll be refining, not charging in gung ho like a child tearing open presents on Christmas day.”

So: to refining. As you may have guessed, September has opened with a return to teaching Shakespeare’s wonderful ‘Macbeth’. I wrote at length on how I approach teaching the play last year. Lots of this will be similar. Yet now, when I “look into the seeds of time” (last one) and consider the waves of grade eight predictions in my able Year 11 group this year, I know there will be areas in which I will need to reflect and adapt to make sure they are as well prepared as they can be.

The first lies in improving their ability to approach an unseen extract. In their exam they will have around twenty minutes to respond to a question like: How does Shakespeare present Macbeth in the extract and how do the audience respond to him? Now my first point of call is obvious: the report on last year’s exam, looking at the various elements that make up a strong response. Then I need to take these key bullet pointed notes from the report and transform them in to something memorable and digestible for students (for an excellent break down of the key messages from the Edquas Literature and Language posts exam, see this post from Susan Strachan)

  • Content/ key moments/significance/track through the text/ reactions of characters/language/reaction on the audience/audience response/ track emotion and detail audience reactions/
  • Clear and sustained focus on the question asked and on the details in the extract
  • Selection of short, apt references to support points made.
  • Critical probing of inferences, implicit meanings and subtext as well as more surface ideas.
  • Wide-ranging coverage of the extract
  • Close examination of how the language/imagery used helps to convey meaning.
  • Ways in which performance could be improved:
  • More detailed coverage of the extract, managing comment on the beginning, middle and end.
  • More selection of supporting references
  • More practice on probing subtext and interpreting what is really going on in the extract.
  • Less reference to context
  • Only answer on question.

I wrote at length about developing more metacognitive and reflection strategies over the summer. My mission is now to put this into practice more in the classroom this year. I think for unseen sections of the English exam this is a particularly useful and important approach.  My students need to have the capacity to direct their thinking when faced with an unseen extract, otherwise there risks the danger of a real lack of clarity and direction to their answers.  Last year’s approach to unseen poetry using learned questions had its strengths, students spoke to me about being able to recall key questions to help in structuring their response in the exam.

So I shared with students two techniques to approach the unseen extract with. The first are five key ‘Extract Reflection’ questions:

1. When does the extract occur in the play? Why is it significant?

2. Have I explored areas from the beginning, middle and end?

3. Have I supported all points with short, relevant quotations?

4. Have I explored the impact of language and imagery?

5. Have I considered inferences and implicit meanings, do I understand what is really happening?

They are very clear and simple, but for this purpose simplicity is best – it gives students lots to grasp hold of. The idea will be we will repeat these questions throughout the year, whenever we look at a ‘Macbeth’ extract. They will be spaced at different points in our study of the play, with the ideal situation being that students are able to repeat and recall them by heart.

The next is to look at adapting the nifty SEAL acronym to ensure a focus on particularly exam criteria as they write. This again worked well with Year 11 last year to ensure they remember that textual evidence has to be central and the play is a performance:





While I don’t want to limit a brighter group by adapting a prescriptive approach, writing this at the top of their exam paper will serve as a reminder to include each of the elements in their paragraphs. Both of these memory techniques need to be combined with some serious practise  of questions, to ensure that they understand what the above criteria look like and can produce effective responses.

We started this process with an extract of Macbeth and Banquo meeting the witches . MACBETH extract Initially I let them grapple with the extract individually for a few minutes, highlighting the quotations they thought might be particularly significant. We then watched the film clip, always reiterating the notion of performance, and they tried to add in annotations. They struggled here and we had to tease out some meanings and ideas.

The difficulty really starts in the final question, demonstrating an understanding of implicit meanings. They struggled to see the spark of ambition that is instantly lit or what the insistence of Macbeth reflects about his character. As we trace through the play this will be a real focus: to evaluate Shakespeare’s character constructions.

At the start of approaching extract questions I am aiming to model extensively for students how to style the writing. I will then pull back on this and try to use strong examples of students’ work as we continue. The lesson after we went through the extract together I presented the following two paragraphs:

  1. The extract is significant as it occurs at the opening of the play, presenting the  audience with the first time Macbeth meets the witches and hears the prophecy.  We see that Macbeth is ambitious and desires the authority of King, he is almost desperate to hear more information. It is clear that Macbeth is intrigued by the information that he is to become king, shown when he is described by Banquo as “rapt”. At the close of the extract he is also shouts: “Stay you imperfect speakers, tell me more”. 
  2. The extract is a pivotal one on the play, arriving early on in Act one and revealing Macbeth’s initial intrigued response to the prophecy. The audience can see clearly that Macbeth is shocked and overwhelmed by the witches predictions, with Banquo describing his as “rapt”. This adjective gives the implication that he is both fascinated and absorbed by the knowledge that he is to be King, arguably awakening an ambition that may well have been previously present. This is further made clear as the audience see him deliver a range of imperatives: “Stay you imperfect speakers” and “Speak, I charge you”. The initial presentation of Macbeth as a powerful soldier is reiterated, he is desperate to discover more about their information and impatient to receive the information quickly. 

Neither is perfect (it is the first week back after all!), both being rather narrative and lacking in specificity, but both draw attention to the key areas from our five reflection questions. I asked the students to annotate them for their strengths and areas for development. The limitations and points of comparison are very obvious, with the second example noticeable stronger in signposting how students can analyse language in more depth and appreciate more of the nuances of the dialogue. By using the comparative model approach the students can pin point this with much more specificity than using a single model answer.

They then stuck these into their books, as a point of reference to return to regarding how to structure extract questions. I then gave them twenty five minutes with only their annotations to complete their own response. We are starting these timed responses straight away in the term, looking to work to develop their ability to write quickly and analytically from the start of the year. This will hopefully mean they can cover more points in the exam and a wider scope of the extract.

The self-assessment I asked them to do afterwards was given more clarity when correlated with the reflection questions, with students able to identify any areas they have missed. They could also annotate their responses according to moments in which they had SEALed effectively. If they had limited ‘E’s in their annotations it is clear then need to build in more evidence next time. All simple strategies that will hopefully mean they take more ownership of their targets, meaning my marking is more about checking and sharing effective responses.

For the next five weeks their homework task will be exactly the same: an unseen extract on the play that they will complete annotations and a response on. This involves the active repetition of the key questions, the SEAL structure and writing in timed conditions.

We shall see how this develops and if this helps them to approach the unseen extracts more confidently. We will also be doing lots of work unpicking Shakespearean language as we work through the play (and of course, enjoying it and revelling in the drama and tension!) Perhaps, with continued effort and clarity of approach there may just be this prediction blowing on the North East moors:

“All Hail, hail to thee, thou shalt have a grade nine hereafter!”

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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