Teaching Macbeth to Tom

‘We’re not reading that, are we? It looks so old-fashioned,’ says Tom as he returns to class after break time. ‘Just look at the cover- it’s not my type of book.’ Well, it seems some members of my inner city Year 5 class are not as keen to study the story of Macbeth as I had hoped. This is going to call for a first class PR job, so I begin the lesson with a monologue extolling the virtues of this classic of English literature. I describe the dark and complicated characters. I discuss the beautifully crafted language driving a roller coaster of a plot, racing from the battles and murder to poignant moments of insight into human nature. I describe the themes of ambition and the corrupting nature of power. Tom looks at me, unmoved. ‘But it’s so old-fashioned,’ he says, tapping the front cover and smiling.

Tom, like many ten-year-old boys, knows his own mind. Although Tom doesn’t come from a home where reading is particularly valued, his previous teachers have done a brilliant job of teaching him to read, and now he’s working comfortably at the level expected of him for his age. At the start of KS2, he graduated from his school’s reading scheme to become a ‘free reader’ and as far he’s concerned, that’s it- his reading is sorted. After a few years of choosing his own books, Tom knows exactly what he enjoys reading and it is certainly not the classics of literature. What Tom likes is looking at pictures of Chelsea players in Match magazine. He likes books about war and battles, preferably set in space. He likes his books to be short and action-filled, preferably with a picture of a monster on the front. By Tom’s own admission, these books are not as good as playing Call of Duty on his Xbox, but if he going to be forced to read something, these books are the most bearable. But if Tom can read, surely that’s enough?

Of course, teaching every child to read well is vital, but it is only half of the story. To have real success with reading, it’s got to be about helping children to become lifelong readers. That means teaching everyone to read and encouraging a desire to read that burns so strongly that children put down their computer consoles and actually choose to read.

Developing the will to read can make a huge difference and its effect on achievement extends right across the curriculum. In fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development states that: ‘Developing a love of reading can be more important for a child’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic background.’ Unlocking the world of books can have a profound influence on children’s future lives. Every child deserves the chance to become a reader, and if we’re going to get every child to enjoy reading, it has to be schools that are the driving force. So, why does it matter if Tom doesn’t want to read Macbeth? If he is happy reading his monster books, isn’t that enough?

Well, I think there are two aspects to enjoying reading. There is the one where Tom gets to read as many monster and football books as he can and we make time in the school day for him to do that because we know it probably won’t happen at home. Once Tom can read, we need to give him time and space to do just that, to make his own choices and follow his own interests. If that leads him to collecting and reading books that are instantly exciting, books about robots and monsters and aliens that he wants to pick up and read because of their shiny covers, so be it. The importance of texts that children want to read should never be underestimated. But that’s not the whole story of becoming a reader.

As teachers we have a responsibility to dig beneath the surface and explore a second aspect: the type of engagement that comes from reading something challenging. Every child should have the opportunity to experience the sense of achievement that comes when the seemingly incomprehensible suddenly swims into focus. At the core of this approach is helping children to identify themselves as readers, as the sort of people who take on and understand challenging books. If schools can teach everyone to read to a good standard and give them the opportunity to read rich, engaging books, we have a much better chance of helping children to become lifelong readers with the confidence and stamina to take on complex, multi-layered texts.

If we want children to love reading beyond a superficial level, then we have to give them access to the very best books and language possible. They need to be supported to read Shakespeare and other ‘classics’ before their attitudes harden and their minds close. They should read both the great works of children’s literature and also some of the rich fiction written for children today. Children should encounter books that perhaps they wouldn’t choose to read themselves, books that introduce them to great ideas and take them beyond their current life experience. Over the course of KS2, Tom will read The Odyssey and Lord of the Flies, he’ll discover the brilliance of Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar and argue about who is responsible for King Duncan’s death in Macbeth. He’ll study works of literature by Larkin, Tennyson, Dickens and Wilde. He’ll have time to think and talk and argue about books and the complex ideas they contain, developing the language of literature and also, I hope, a genuine love for these books. But all this is to come.

Back in our classroom, Tom finds himself overruled and we spend the next five weeks studying Macbeth together as a class. We read and perform extracts from Shakespeare’s play. We listen to versions of the story by Leon Garfield and Geraldine McCaughrean. We learn how characters can develop and change over the course of a narrative and we analyse how a skilful author can show this through a character’s actions and dialogue. We study how grammar and punctuation can drive the pace of a scene, creating a sense of tension. We talk, we read, we write. We learn to understand Shakespeare’s language and appreciate what motivates his richly multi-layered characters. Everyone has the chance to enjoy one of the great works of literature, a book they would not have picked up themselves because it isn’t instantly accessible. Once we’ve finished, Tom comes to find me. ‘That was quite a good story, Mr Clements,’ he says. Praise indeed. ‘Have you got a copy I can read?’ I hand over the copy of Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories we’ve been reading as a class. Tom smiles and pops it in his bag.

James Clements is a teacher, English adviser and founder of ShakespeareandMore.com, a website that provides free schemes of work for teaching literature to primary children, including the unit on Macbeth that Tom enjoyed so much.

Follow the links below for timely classroom activities on Macbeth, Julius CaesarThe Tempest and Henry V.