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For Sophisticated Students, Why Not William Shakespeare?
Eugene Spoconi Says ESL Students Are Up to the Challenge

Eugene Spoconi, Director of the Odessa Language Study Center, in the Ukraine, recently joined the fray in a TESL-L listserv debate over the relevance of Shakespeare for ESL/EFL teaching. He kindly contributed his remarks for ESL MiniConference readers in this enjoyable article.

Eugene SpoconiAs Will Shakespeare singlehandedly introduced over 2000 words and expressions into written English, there's undoubtedly SOME value in teaching him to our students. It's probably not a good idea to do so with beginners, but it works very well with upper-intermediate and advanced learners. Even the famous Headway series incorporates some Shakespeare (notably "the Seven Ages of Man" in the upper-intermediate book).

My students tend to be cultured, intelligent people who have seen films and staged productions of Shakespeare's plays and read some of his sonnets in their own language, and they usually enjoy the challenge associated with analyzing, comprehending and reading outloud some passages of the Immortal Bard. Of course, it has to be done in moderation as their main objective is English for communication.

No one likes to be inundated with classics at the expense of learning the modern language. Finally, when our students borrow books from our school, they sign in on a list entitled "Neither a borrower, nor a lender be", which invariably produces some smiles.

It can be very instructive indeed (for more advanced students) to go through a passage of Shakespeare and try to pick out 'archaic' language and replace it with modern words and sentence structures. Once again, the Headway Upper Intermediate does a great job of this. (So far no better course has been published, IMHO)

No one in any tongue has ever been more playful with his language than Will. He invented new grammar, bent all the rules and came up with new constructions that that could not grammatically have existed previously. He was also unmatched as a phrasemaker. Among the expressions we happily (and sometimes ungratefully) use today are: in my mind's eye, one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, to be in a pickle, remembrance of things past, flesh and blood, tower of strength, to beggar all description, to take arms against the sea of troubles, and countless others.

For a more extended analysis of Will's innovations and contributions, I'd like to recommend a wonderful book, "The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way", by Bill Bryson.

My students enjoy bits of "Shakespearian trivia" every now and then. Being bilingual, I read widely in Russian, including some translations of Shakespeare's works. The Russians are lucky - Will has been translated by some of the finest poets in this language, including Pushkin and Pasternak. So he's more accessible in Russian because the language is much less archaic, though no less beautiful. That's why it's fascinating and challenging for our students to confront the original.

Usually advanced students are more interested in reading bits of "real literature", and Shakespeare is not the only bard available for use in teaching English. Once I spent two months studying Poe's "The Raven" with my advanced group. True, they had enormous difficulties, but thoroughly enjoyed the process.

Comment by Eugene Spoconi
Director, Odessa Language Study Center

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