Introducing Your Children to Shakespeare (Part II)

by Rebecca Ripperton
April 22, 2019

This post is the second of a two part series on introducing young readers to Shakespeare. You can read our first post here. In it we addressed which plays to begin with and the benefits of knowing the story before reading the play. We also covered the importance of seeing live performances, and the value of returning to the same plays again and again.

Taking a multi-sensory approach

For many of us — especially middle and high school-aged readers — sometimes it’s best to take a multi-sensory approach. Hence, reading a Shakespeare play and listening to a recording of it at the same time can be incredibly helpful. This is a particularly beneficial practice for anyone struggling to understand the language, or grappling with its syntax.

This is a literacy technique that I first tried for myself when reading The Canterbury Tales in Middle English. There, I often found that I could identify words from their pronunciation but not their spelling. Other words were utterly incomprehensible from their pronunciation, but spelled almost identically to their modern counterparts. Between both reading and listening I was able to begin piecing sentences together.  Listening to a more experienced reader give proper inflection to the language was also a boon. A tremendous meaning can be conveyed just through pitch, intonation, emphasis, and other forms of vocal modulation!

This same technique can be just as useful in reading Shakespeare’s works as in Chaucer’s. With Shakespeare, however, complex syntax is typically problematic for readers, as opposed to the medieval spelling/pronunciation of Middle English.

And here I do prefer the combination of reading and listening over simply listening to a recording. Firstly, it’s much easier to remain focused when you’re listening and reading than when you’re only listening to a recording. More importantly, however, reading along with the recording does help readers cultivate the ability to read Shakespeare for themselves. And this is the ultimate goal.

Readers may not want to always read and listen to a play simultaneously. It may be something you only want to do for one act, or for the first play a student reads. But in any event, it can of great help to those just getting started.

The value of reading annotated editions

I cannot overemphasize how much I love annotated editions of Shakespeare plays. Some of them even have the text of the play on the right hand page, and detailed notes about the text on the other. The Folger Shakespeare Library publishes beautiful copies of the plays in this style. Other editions such as Signet Classics or Penguin simply include a few footnotes at the bottom of each page. The Folger copies (which you can often scout at thrift or used book stores) include definitions for individual words and also for longer phrases that are no longer in our common vernacular. Since an entire page is dedicated to notes, there is space both for more definitions and greater depth of explanation.

We’ve also enjoyed using Dover’s Shakespeare Lexicon set for more refined searches. It’s also been wonderful for learning more about language usage across all of the plays. This 2-volume set is a great investment if you’re serious about reading Shakespeare’s works over and over throughout your life. However, I would definitely recommend at least beginning with the annotated Folger plays.

Why you should also annotate your own books

Book-lovers often cringe at the thought of writing in their beloved books, and I totally understand this sentiment. However… I do find annotating to be an extremely helpful practice. It is particularly useful when it comes to Shakespeare plays or other similarly complex works. For one, annotation slows the reader down and encourages them to read more closely. For another, it helps readers create their own map of the text that they can return to again and again. When you annotate, you're constantly asking yourself whether you understand each part of an argument or speech. You’re also noting the places where you do have questions, instead of just skipping blithely forward.

There are numerous ways to annotate a text. Readers may circle words they want to look up later and write comments or questions in the margins. Some like to underline key arguments or phrases, or highlight portions they want to return to later on. While annotations are ultimately a huge asset in preparing for a conversation or for a writing assignment, their more immediate and practical purpose is in turning a spotlight on portions of text that you’d like to be able to easily locate in the future.

A few more notes about annotating

Readers should be given a lot of latitude with the style and format of their annotations. We don’t all have the same intellectual approach to texts, and we certainly don’t need to have identical annotations. You might make suggestions as to what to include, but ultimately I would leave it up to the individual.

It’s also worth noting that annotating serves a completely different function than keeping a reading journal. Annotations should be compact and relatively terse, and making them shouldn't significantly slow down the reading process.

Lastly, if you're someone who dislikes writing in their books, you may want to find separate editions specifically for annotation. You can easily find second-hand copies of the plays or even print them yourself from websites like this. I personally have an older edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare that I use for reference and wouldn’t dream of writing in. So whenever I want to study a play more carefully, I pick up an inexpensive and/or used copy for notes.

Incorporate Shakespeare into all of your lessons

Incorporating excerpts from Shakespeare’s works into all of your lessons can help to acquaint your students with Shakespeare in a non-assuming but effective way.

For example, when I taught English grammar and had to find examples of different grammatical concepts, I often looked to Shakespeare. I always did my best to find examples from a play we had already read together, but I also chose other famous lines that the students would probably have heard before, or would be likely to encounter later in their lives. I loved using Shakespeare for this purpose because his language use is often striking and because his sentences are rich with meaning. In addition to highlighting the grammatical concept in question, the lines also contained interesting and important ideas for students to consider.

You could also use Shakespeare sentences for copy work with younger children (if you aren’t already, that is!) And if your students work with sentence diagramming at all, Shakespeare sentences are the best to diagram. They are particularly good to give students who love an extra challenge.

Teaching history with Shakespeare

While the Language Arts provide the readiest opportunity for studying Shakespeare, you can certainly incorporate short passages from Shakespeare’s historical plays into history lessons, as well, perhaps by finding monologues or scenes that describe characters. (For instance, Enobarbus’ speech about Cleopatra in II.ii of Antony and Cleopatra.)

Furthermore, if you are reading Plutarch’s Lives (or any of the wonderful retellings such as Our Young Folks' Plutarch or Plutarch's Lives for Boys and Girls), you might want to consider including portions of the Roman plays in your study, as Shakespeare himself used a translation of Plutarch’s Lives as his primary source material for those works (Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Titus Andronicus.) There are many particulars – both large and small – included in his plays that come directly from Plutarch, and it can be exciting for readers to see just how significant Plutarch’s influence was on Shakespeare. (Shakespeare also turned to Chaucer for several of his plays, so you could do the same thing in that case, either with the original text or with a retelling for younger children.)

Taking an active part in Shakespeare plays

If your children or students ever have the opportunity, I also encourage them to act in plays themselves. This can be a great experience even if they aren’t otherwise passionate about theatre. Reading Shakespeare aloud is much more fun than reading it silently, and acting it out is even better. Most community theatre and children’s theatre groups will put on abbreviated plays periodically, as do many schools.

If you live in a more rural area with fewer cultural resources, you can also put on your own productions of plays with resources like Shakespeare in a Box. Each Shakespeare in a Box kit contains scripts for each character, as well as a handful of props. Actors can use their own closets for the rest of the costumes!

I did two of these “productions” with a group of girl friends when I was in 8th and 9th grade, respectively. The plays we performed were King Lear and Macbeth. Each year we had a sleepover/rehearsal on a Friday night then put on the production the following afternoon for all of the parents and other siblings. It was by no means award-winning theatre, but we had a blast. We were also engaging with the text and spent our Friday night in deep discussion about Shakespeare!

A quick note on meter

Reading and/or teaching Shakespeare is daunting enough without discussion of meter. And as with Organic Chemistry or English Grammar, a lot of people would probably prefer to go their entire lives without ever encountering it. However, being familiar with meter actually makes reading Shakespeare much easier and more enjoyable. When read in pentameter, the text seems to open itself up and becomes far more accessible to most audiences. But, we found there was so much to say on this subject that we’ve decided to save this discussion for another day when we can dedicate an entire post to the topic.

Check back again soon to learn more about the importance of reading in meter!

One last resource!

Lastly, we are about to publish a new Yesterday's Classics book on Shakespeare: Historical Tales from Shakespeare by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

​This book retells the stories of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, John, Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III in chronological order. In this text, Quiller-Couch does a wonderful job of drawing connections between each of the stories, thereby creating a sense of continuity throughout the entire book.

We expect Historical Tales from Shakespeare to be available for purchase through within in a week or two, and available at Amazon shortly after that!


Stories That Appeal to the Senses

by Lisa Ripperton
​April 18, 2019

The criteria we use in selecting books for children varies depending on the age of the child. However, since we've recently been focusing on criteria for choosing books for children in the early years, we wanted to share a passage on this topic that we found to be ​enlightening. The passage comes from the second chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller" (1913) in which she describes a second criterion for selecting stories to tell to children of kindergarten age. (You can find our earlier post on her first criterion here.)

Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to "stories" here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.

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"The senses are the only avenues to the brain by means of which the outside world makes its way into a little child's inner consciousness. A baby's brain is an almost unexplored, untracked place, empty save for a few instinct paths—certain motor tracts tenanted by inherited memories which lead him to cry, to nurse, and to perform some other reflex movements.

​The first sense impressions

This condition of the mind does not last long, however. The baby opens his eyes and sees the sunlight dancing in a yellow patch of gold upon the wall above his bed. Instantly, like a telegraphic message, there is delivered at the baby's brain an idea, unnamed at first but ineffaceable—color.​ When he sees a red ball suspended by a string in front of his eager eyes, a second message is delivered at his mind-house, differentiating and localizing the first impression—color  versus color.  The formal names, red  and yellow, do not enter into the process at all and are indeed quite unnecessary. The baby differentiates red​ and yellow​ months before he knows the color names.

The baby hears his mother's voice and he receives by means of another telegraphic message the percept, sound. He touches a piece of ice, or his warm bottle, and learns by means of this direct contact, cold and warm. His nostrils admit the pleasurable odors of his scented bath, the dainty powder used for making his body comfortable or the bunch of roses that stands on his mother's table, and he receives a new set of brain stimuli as he differentiates odors.

​Story can build on sense impressions

These are all such simple mental operations that we have rather taken them for granted, forgetting that Nature's method of forcing, letting in impressions to the child's mind, is the only way for us to give him knowledge. The surest way of educating a child is through an appeal to his senses. . . . We have made little effort to appeal to a child's mind through the story that has sense images of sight, touch, sound, or taste to strengthen the mind impression which it makes.

​Even in stories meant for adults

If we analyze the story that has interested us most in a current magazine, we shall discover that, somehow, it made a direct appeal to our senses. It may have had the setting of some old garden, the description of which made us, in imagination, smell the clove pinks, roses, French lilacs and mignonette that grew in some garden of our childhood. Perhaps it was a sound  story, giving us such speaking word pictures of bird songs, violin tones or even the human notes of voices that we almost heard​ the story instead of seeing it. On the other hand, the sense appeal of the story may have been that of color,  of food— any sense stimulus that routed from their brain corners our old sense impressions and set them to working again. And it is almost impossible to gauge the effect upon cerebration of these stored-up sensory images.

A mere scent can bring a whole scene to mind

That whiff of odor from a city flower cart brings suddenly to my mind an incident that I had not been cognizant of for years—the memory of a certain long-ago day when I purloined my Grandmother's scissors and cut off two of my curls to make a wig for a hairless rag doll. What is the connection between this day of badness of my childhood and a dingy city flower wagon? Ah, I have it! There was a pot of Martha Washington geraniums in the room where I sat when I cut my hair. My small, serge sleeve brushed the leaves as I held the curls triumphantly to the light and the pungent odor found a permanent place in my mind, side by side with the other memory, ineffaceable, always ready to produce a recall.

Another selection criterion: strong sense appeal

Dr. Van Dyke once said that if he were able to paint a picture of Memory, he would picture her asleep in a bed of mint. He illustrated the value of sensory stimuli in fiction. One gauge of a perfectly constructed piece of fiction is its sense content. Does it include such writing as will make the reader see, taste, smell,​ and hear? So, in stories for children we must apply the same test.

A child's story, to interest, should have a strong sense appeal.

Sense appeal ​a strong component of Mother Goose rhymes

Many of the old, handed-down jingles and folk tales are full of eating  and drinking, smelling​ delectable odors, hearing​ the sounds of child life and seeing  over again child scenes. Therein lies their world appeal and the reason for their ancient and obvious popularity.

"The Queen of Hearts,

 She made some tarts."

"Little Tommy Tucker

​Sings for his supper;

 What shall he eat?

White bread and butter."

"Ding, dong bell, Pussy's in the well."

"Hark, hark, the dogs do bark,

 The beggars are coming to town."

"Rock-a-by baby, your cradle is green."

"The rose is red,

 The violet blue,

 Sugar is sweet

 And so are you."

​One might go on indefinitely quoting lines of Mother Goose that tickle a child's fancy and are undying in their appeal for the sole reason that they are sensual in the broader understanding of the term. They include simple, direct references to the mental concepts that the child has gained through his senses. Much of what the normal, natural child has accomplished, mentally, up to the age of three or four years, has been to note bright colors, to handle everything he has come in contact with,—not, as so many persons suppose, for purposes of mischievous destruction, but rather to touch each object and make its feeling an integral part of his ego,—to eat and drink and to use his nostrils as a dog does. What more natural than that his beginnings in English should have for their basis a sense content that will help the child to name,​ put into words his previously acquired but unnamed sense impressions?

Finger plays build on early sense impressions

Miss Emilie Poulsson's finger plays for little children have for their basic appeal the stimulating of a child's ability to recall previously acquired sense impressions. In addition, the finger movements with which the child illustrates these rhymes give the added association of the sense of touch to strengthen and vivify the child's interest in and memory of the rhyme stories. To illustrate:

"Here's a ball for baby,

Big​ and soft and round.

Here's the baby's hammer,

Oh, how he can pound.

Here's the baby's music,

Clapping, clapping so.

Here are baby's soldiers

Standing in a row—"

​Sensory appeal and apperception go hand in hand

As the child grows beyond the age when Mother Goose and Finger Plays appeal to him, he still finds his greatest interest in those stories which stimulate his acquired sensory images. The mental operation of apperception described in the last chapter is so inclusive a process, covering, as it must of necessity, memory and perception, that it explains the appeal of the sense story to the mind of a child. 

​Vivid descriptions capture a child's imagination

It is to be questioned whether or not the story of The Little Red Hen would have been awarded such immortality if its heroine had been a plain hen  and not red.  Having been dyed with the crimson pigment of the imagination, however, by some old-world story teller, she has taken her cheerful, cackling way through the streets of childhood, an undying, classic fowl of fiction because she is colored.

So it is with Elizabeth Harrison's wonderful allegory of The Little Gray Grandmother. She might have been described in the story as a spirit, a fairy, a mythical character who influenced for good the lives of Wilhelm, Beata and the others. But instead of describing​ her invisibility—Miss Harrison paints​ it, colors her story heroine with the shades of intangible things. She is a little gray​ grandmother and her clothes are sea fog and her veil is of smoke. She is an animated part of the seashore home and is made of gray mist. What could be more artistic than the sense appeal of this story?

What is the appeal of the Gingerbread Boy?

Why do children—all children—listen, gaping and ecstatic, to the account of the many and hazardous adventures of the Gingerbread Boy? Why do they beg to have the story told over again, even after they have heard it so many times that they know it by heart. Its universal popularity is not due to its folklore quality. Neither is it due to its plot and treatment, although these undoubtedly strengthen it. Its big appeal, however, is to the child's sense of taste. The story arouses tasting images in the child's mind, that are pleasurable and strong.

. . . "A chocolate jacket and cinnamon seeds for buttons! His eyes were made of fine, fat currants; his mouth was made of rose-colored sugar and he had a gay little cap of orange-sugar candy"—Sara Cone Bryant says in describing her Gingerbread Man. So, from this delectable, luscious paragraph about his make-up, to the climax of the story when the Gingerbread Man is devoured by the fox, the child hearers eat​ in imagination all the way.

​Why the Chimes Rang makes a different and more ethical sense appeal to the child's mind. The story stimulates in the listeners a deep interest in the old chime of bells that has hung silent for so long a time in the tower. One longs to hear them and waits anxiously for the miracle that will start their pealing. At the story climax, when an unselfish offering laid upon the altar works the wonder, it is possible to listen, in imagination, to the bells' sweet music.

Sense stories may be used to awaken mental life

But why make this sense appeal to the child mind through the medium of a story, the story teller asks? There are two very real and definite uses to which the sense story may be put.

Such sense stories as "The Little Red Hen," "The Gingerbread Boy" and many others of similar character may be told not only to give pleasure to the child of kindergarten age who finds delight in their sensual content, but they have a very real value in awakening the mental life of a special needs child. ​We are discovering that it is possible to rouse to action a child's sleeping brain by means of intensive sense training. We are teaching him to smell, taste, see color, discriminate forms and textiles, to open the telegraphic circuit of his senses. We are putting the world of realities into the arms of the child with special needs to touch, feel, taste, smell, see. So we educate him, but we must carry out the same system of sense training in his stories, selecting for his hearing those stories that make verbal and recall his previously acquired sense impressions.

And to strengthen the imagination

There is one other use to which we may put the sense story. It is a means of strengthening any child's imagination. The same mental operation by means of which a baby associates the idea cold​  with a block of ice, helps the child to feel the cold of Andersen's Little Match Girl. In the first instance the association of cold​ and ice means self-preservation for the baby. He wishes to avoid an unpleasant sensation, so he does not touch the ice, but his former experience of touching it has left an ineffaceable image in his mind. In the second instance, the image cold​ is recalled in the mind of the child by the story and the result is a very different mental process. The child is able through the sensory stimulus of the story to feel with the little match girl, to put himself in her place, to understand her condition, because it is brought to him in a familiar term—cold.

A​ll in service of a higher aim

The story teller who makes the wisest use of the sense story sees to it that the color, sound, taste or odor described in the story is used as a means to an end.  One does not wish to stimulate sense images in a child's mind for the simple operation of "making his thinking machine work" in old paths. What we must do is to utilize his sense impressions to strengthen new brain paths. Fortunately nearly all of the stories for children that have a sensory content utilize this mode of writing to strengthen the climax of the story. It only remains for the story teller to select her color, sound, taste, odor, or touch story to meet the needs of her children."

*     *     *

This concludes this excerpt from the ​second chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's For the Story Teller.

The takeaway

​With so many stunning picture books in our day and age, it is easy to see how the illustrations are a feast for the eyes and appeal to all ages. But if, like me, you hadn't considered before how sense impressions can be evoked by the text of the story, that may be something you want to keep an eye out for in the reading you do with your children. While sense appeal is only one of a number of criteria to use when selecting books for children, it does seem to play an important role in securing children's interest, and may be a critical factor when children decide which are their favorites, that they want to hear over and over again. ​

To give you more practice in thinking about ​elements in a story that appeal to the senses, here are ​nine stories (all fine choices to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of the chapter as having exceptional ​sense appeal:

Share your experience

Have you encountered any modern day picture books whose text has exceptional sensory appeal? Please share their titles in the comments below!

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