Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

800px-london_hoefnagels_map_of_1572If we are reading a novel for pleasure, we want the plot to unfold, and we very much resent having the surprise undone by being told in advance what is going to happen. But when teaching complex works of literature, we must use spoilers. We must give the game away right from the start.

Knowledge of a Shakespeare play, like any other knowledge, must build on the foundations of what was previously learned. If we jump in and start reading through the play, our pupils will not be able to see the wood for the trees. Unless one has a good idea what one is reading about beforehand, one will struggle to make sense of what one is reading. This problem is particularly acute with Shakespeare, where there are so many other challenges in terms of language, densely packed imagery and allusion.

Therefore, it is essential to begin with an overview. Before studying a play in depth, I require pupils to memorise a summary of the main events. This provides the framework, the map, so pupils do not become lost and unable to make sense of their surroundings. Having memorised this overview, we can repeatedly return to it. I can pause when dealing with an important passage in the play, and draw pupils’ attention to where we are.

For example, if we are looking in detail at the scene where Macbeth sees the ghost of Banquo, I can say to the class, “We’re in Act Three. What are the main events?” At this point, I will fire questions at pupils, ‘cold calling’ them to give them the opportunity to recall and retain this key information. We’ll go through the murder of Banquo, the ghost at the banquet, and the news that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England. Then I’ll ask what these events have in common – and we’ll remind ourselves that at this middle point in the play, Macbeth is consolidating power, but also that his downfall is beginning, and will continue through Acts Four and Five. Then we can return to the banquet scene with a fresh sense of its significance as a key moment in which Macbeth begins to lose the support of the Scottish nobility, who will desert him in ever greater numbers as the play moves towards its tragic conclusion.

All this discussion depends upon beginning with an overview. It depends upon frontloading explicit knowledge of key facts, before going into detail, and requiring the memorising of those facts to the point of fluency.

With this map in hand, pupils can begin to explore the complex territory of a play by Shakespeare. Without it, they are liable to get lost in the undergrowth very quickly.


7 thoughts on “Teaching Knowledge: Spoilers Are Essential

  1. Howdy Anthony,

    Due to your suggestion that literature should be taught chronologically, I have very much enjoyed the first half of the year while teaching our Y6 class. We’ve studied the Leon Garfield version of Macbeth and then we did The Merchant of Venice. We did exactly as you have now suggested – though with Macbeth we read the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor (Macbeth is also the study of a good man who gets desperate) and with The Merchant of Venice we read a story called ‘A Bargain is a Bargain’ which supposedly influenced Shakespeare. The kids also remembered the story of the Prodigal Son (Bassanio has already been lent money by Antonio and wants to have more so he can spend it on clothes, love and other things) and Shylock reminded them of Scrooge. At the end of the Merchant of Venice we will also re-read the story of Rumpelstiltskin (another terrible bargain made in desperation).

    I tried to root each story in a simpler tale so that they would have something to hang on to but I may actually teach the plot outline first – the next time we do Shakespeare.

    I am realising that studying literature is different to reading a story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with providing a summary as a kind of road map for students before starting a book or play. Like you say it stops them getting lost as well as providing a different perspective on the bigger picture.


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Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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