‘Lysander, gonnae decide who yer lassie is?’: Utilising Learners’ Own Language for the Teaching of Shakespeare

Amy Douglas, a teacher of English at Tynecastle High School, writes about a project she undertook while a student at All Saint’s Secondary for Teaching English, NATE’s classroom practice magazine.  You can read Teaching English by joining NATE, which gives full access to the magazine and its companion research journal, English in Education, as well as a huge array of other resources.  Find out more at https://www.nate.org.uk/ .


During my third placement as a student English teacher, I took over teaching a top-set first year class who were halfway through studying Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The class (and their fantastic class teacher from whom I learnt a great deal) impressed me with how well they coped with studying the play at a relatively fast pace. However, my impression was that the play’s unfamiliar Shakespearean language had the pupils focussing all their efforts on following the plot. With a great deal of support from their class teacher, I agreed that I would spend the short time I had with the class on a ‘fun’ activity adapting the Act 3, Scene 2 fight between the four lovers, hoping that this would foster some appreciation for the play’s drama and comedy.  I encouraged the class to create dramatic adaptations of the dialogue in language more natural to them, placing particular emphasis on the Scots language that many of the learners brought to the classroom.

It was my hope that they would take from this series of lessons: enjoyment of the comedy of the fight scene; greater confidence when approaching and discussing Shakespearean language; and a deeper understanding of the heritage and value of Scots language.

Why Scots?

The Scottish Government has directed teachers delivering Broad General Education to ‘build upon the diversity of language represented within the communities of Scotland’ (Scottish Government).

However, placing value on the language that learners bring to school is not merely a curricular necessity, but a pre-requisite when learners are to be encouraged to react to literature critically. Paulo Freire has criticised the ‘banking’ model of education as one in which ‘knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing’. It is right that the Scots language that pupils bring to the classroom be recognised not as something to be corrected, but as a specific and valuable resource. The requirement for the protection of Scots language is currently safeguarded by the European Parliament, which recognises Scots as one of the minority languages of the UK alongside Manx Gaelic, Gaelic and Cornish. Amid current political uncertainty over Scotland’s continuing EU status, I would argue that there is an increased need for Scotland’s teachers to utilise their unique position to ensure that Scots language remains respected and defended

Unfortunately this has not been the historical experience in Scotland’s classrooms: as ‘English was legitimated as the language of education’ (Shoba), Scots was effectively devalued as a language not worth learning in or about. ‘Scots and English have therefore not developed on any basis of sociolinguistic equality’ (Shoba). The ‘correct’ spoken language that the teacher brought to the classroom was the only valued – or even permitted – form of communication, and any input from a learner given in Scots dialect was dismissed, their classroom voice devalued.

When looking at these damaging attitudes, implications for the socio-economic attainment gap that remains a significant problem for young people in Scotland’s schools (Ellis & Sosu) cannot be ignored.  A 2010 Scottish Government survey confirmed that the proportion of those living in Scotland who identify as using Scots language specifically as part of their spoken language is highest in lower socio-economic groups, with 87% of those in the lowest-earning quarter of the survey’s participants claiming to speak some amount of Scots. Given the academic evidence that pupils who do not primarily speak in standard English tend to perform more poorly that their peers (Strachan), it is fair to assume that dismissal of Scots-language voices in the classroom may be particularly damaging to learners from lower income backgrounds.

The Lessons

I initiated discussion of the Scots language by projecting a selection of Scots words onto the board. These words ranged from those I knew would be familiar to all the learners in the class (such as wee or aye) to slightly more obscure examples (such as oxter, glaikit or dreich). I asked the learners to work cooperatively in pairs to find how many of the words they knew the meaning of, and how many more they could add to the selection. This initial task elicited an enthusiastic response, and highlighted the Scots language knowledge the pupils already possessed.

The class then moved on to view Education Scotland’s video on the history of Scots language from the Middle Ages to the present. I feel this video demonstrates convincingly that Scots developed not as a corrupted form of English, but a language with its own unique history, grammar rules and literature. I asked learners to, following our discussion of their opinions towards Scots words, take note of any information in the video that surprised them. Discussion centred around surprise at the age of the Scots language (with some learners previously holding the misconception that it was modern phenomenon growing out of Standard English) and shock that modern Scots had developed from a language respected enough to be used by kings, queens and courts – a telling sign of the sense of inferiority that pervades attitudes towards Scots (Stobo; McPake & Arthur).

For the translation task itself, I divided the lovers’ fight into six different extracts of around fifty lines each, and added word-banks with translations of the more obscure vocabulary and phrases. Groups then worked cooperatively (over the course of four 37.5 minute lessons), first to establish and discuss Shakespeare’s original meaning, then to write and perform their own adaptation in language more familiar to them.

Outcome on Pupil Learning

Perhaps the least successfully realised learning intention was the existence of Scots as an independent language. This was to some extent attributable to the fact that I did not insist on strict Scots translations. I made this decision partially to avoid spending too much class time on defining what words can and cannot be counted as Scots, and also for fear of excluding ESOL pupils in the class for whom much of Scots may be somewhat alien. The intention was to move Shakespeare into a more familiar space for each learner. Whilst most groups wrote scripts making significant use of Scots, a few translated their extracts into general colloquial dialect. Were I to teach this series of lessons again, I would allow online access to Scots language resources, such as the ‘Dictionar o the Scots Leid’, to add legitimacy to words pupils were sometimes uncertain to use in their adaptations, and indeed to the existence of Scots as a language in its own right.

I was more satisfied that my intention that the class gain greater appreciation for the comedy of the play was met. I believe this came from allowing learners to utilise the language they would naturally use to write jokes, as well as the task itself heightening awareness of the role performance plays in comedy. Both these factors were apparent in one group’s decision to add their own stage direction for Lysander to make a ‘boaking action’ (Scots for vomiting) at the sight of poor Hermia.

Overall I felt the most positive outcome of the lessons was significant improvement in the learners’ confidence and ability to understand and adapt Shakespeare’s language. The group tackling Helena’s speech, for example, were faced with a significant length of challenging Shakespearean dialogue:

‘Our friendship in our schooldays, our childhood innocence? We used to sit together and sew one flower with our two needles, sewing it on one piece of cloth, sitting on the same cushion, singing one song in the same key, as if our hands, our sides, our voices and our minds were stuck together. We grew together like twin cherries—which seemed to be separate but were also together—two lovely cherries on one stem.’

The group, with very limited teacher input, worked cooperatively to create an impressive adaptation:

‘We were such good friends in Primary we even went on that double date to Burger King. Then one thing led to another and we were leaving High School. We’ve been so close like two peas in a pod and now we’ve fallen out over stupid boys. Or like two Irn Bru cans in a pack. But now the packs been opened.’

I was struck by the sophisticated level of understanding here: demonstrating comprehension of the playwright’s choice of activities as a portrayal of two young girls growing up together and relating it in a comical way to contemporary experiences of young female friendship; furthermore it recognises and shows command of literary techniques, with their funny and astute re-imagining of the ‘twin cherries’ simile. The effects of this agency the students had gained over the play were notable in subsequent lessons – class discussion improved in quality, with a particularly interesting conversation on whether or not the pupils felt sympathy for the lovers clearly influenced by their impressive understanding of Act 3, Scene 2. I believe by engaging with and ascribing value to the learners’ own linguistic and emotional experiences, they were empowered to enjoy and find humour in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

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