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Using Shakespearean Graphic Novels to Teach Teens the Bard

Always Pre-Teach the Story Line

Those of you who teach Shakespeare know that making the text accessible to students is the greatest challenge. The language of Shakespeare creates a barrier that many students feel incapable of crossing. As teachers, we often feel, "if only they could see what a great story this is!" It is difficult, however, when they shut down before they can appreciate the beauty and mastery of Shakespeare's craft.

As a major in English Education and a teacher for over five years, I found that once students started to "get" the story and started to empathize with the characters, they could plow through the language and reap the benefits. I always recommend some kind of summary, or that the plot line be pre-taught, before getting into the actual script, so that the students don't have to expend all of their energy just trying to make a little sense of the text!

Do your students find Shakespeare intimidating?

Do your students find Shakespeare intimidating?

Shakespearean Graphic Novels

Graphic novels are an excellent tool for helping students "get the story," and they do so in a very fun way that students can really relate to. What may have once been simply termed "a comic book," the term "graphic novel" is now defined as: "a narrative work in which the story is conveyed to the reader using sequential art either in an experimental design or in a traditional comics format." (Wikipedia)

The distinction between comic books and graphic novels is that graphic novels are considered more serious and literary. Graphic novels tend to be stand-alone pieces of literature, as opposed to simply part of a series.

That being said, students still see them as comics, and that is to your great advantage. When I was teaching the play Romeo and Juliet to my grade ten class, a student from grade eleven came in, saw the graphic novel sitting there, and asked to see it. He was smitten and got into it right away. By the way, this student was about as non-academic as they come and showed very little interest in school. He read that book, however. Devoured it, in fact.

A boy and his comics

A boy and his comics

How to Use Graphic Novels

Graphic novels can be used in a few different ways within the classroom. Here is a list of some ways that Shakespearean graphic novels might be used to help teach a Shakespeare work:

  1. To be given as free reading material, for students to pick up on their own. This has the advantage of introducing Shakespeare in a way that does not threaten a student because they do it on their own.
  2. As an introduction to the play. Let students read the graphic novel a couple of weeks before you do the actual play. These books tend to be expensive, though, so you may have to share between students or try to share the book set with another class.
  3. As an alternative for a student who cannot handle reading all of the written text of the actual plays, but can still benefit from what Shakespeare has to offer. This student could perhaps be exempt from reading the entire text, but would still benefit from hearing the discussion and the language. This student may have a learning disability, may simply be too low in reading score, or might be an ESL student. This brings me to the next point...
  4. For the ESL student. ESL students of any age could benefit from a graphic novel. These are an especially good tool because the pictures give a context for the language used. They are also an excellent way to introduce immigrant students to some culture, which they may or may not be familiar with, in their own country.
  5. As a supplement to regular teaching. You also might want to have a few copies of graphic novels on hand that students can pick up as you study the play. You could give them the option of looking at certain parts of the book, which you think might help to aid in your explanation of the scene. It offers a way for visual learners to access the text and is a wonderful adjunct to the lessons you are already offering.

These are five ways to use these wonderful books. You may have another way to use them, that I have not covered.

They Add Another Layer

Graphic novels can add one more layer to your teaching experience. They are something that many students can relate to; they are considered a new media, like Facebook, or computer games. They are especially appealing to boys, who traditionally read less, and they offer a way to "get in" with your students.

I recommend getting at least a couple of the plays you are studying when you are planning for your next Shakespeare unit. They are expensive, as mentioned earlier, so start saving!

  • Sharilee Shares Shakespeare -
    A site that focuses on the interactive method of teaching Shakespeare and gives some ideas for acting it out in class.
  • Shakespeare Resources: Modern English Shakespeare Translations
    No Sweat Shakespeare: Home of modern Shakespeare e-books, translations, sonnets and a range of Shakespeare essays and resources. Our aim is to help students of all ages understand Shakespeare's language. From translating Shakespeare plays and short q

More on Teaching

© 2011 Sharilee Swaity

I Love To Hear Comments!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on August 19, 2012:

Iheartkafka, it really does allow entry into the text for some kids that might not otherwise read Shakespeare. Thanks for the comment and have a great night!

iheartkafka on August 18, 2012:

This is such a unique approach to traditional Shakespeare instruction! Thanks for posting such a useful hub!

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on June 17, 2011:

Yes, Vision, they are great! The graphic novels really translate well to a new generation who are so visual. I agree that the BBC shows look pretty dated now. PBS actually just did a version of Hamlet last year that was thoroughly modern. Thanks for coming by!

visionandfocus from North York, Canada on June 15, 2011:

I had no idea there are graphic Shakespeare novels! But I agree that reading Shakespeare plays (which, after all, are meant to be watched, on stage, and not read, on a page)is a chore for many. I used to enjoy watching the BBC series of Shakespeares' plays, but they haven't updated those in several decades, and they really do look very dated now. However, you can see Helen Mirren in her prime as a very sassy Rosalind, so that's a plus. Luckily, there's Kenneth Branagh. Love his Hamlet. *sigh*

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on May 12, 2011:

Mrs. J.B., thank you so much! Yes, these are fabulous tools for getting into Shakespeare, or any literary work. Take care!

Mrs. J. B. from Southern California on May 11, 2011:

Wow what a fabulous method. I know that I am going to learn a great deal from you! I love it.

Sharilee Swaity (author) from Canada on March 31, 2011:

wheelinallover, thanks for a wonderful comment! That's so cool that you were encouraged to write your own books, with pictures! That reminds me of the Bronte family, who made up little books before they wrote their actual novels. It sounds like you had a very rich childhood. Blessings!

Dennis Thorgesen from Beatrice, Nebraska U.S. on March 31, 2011:

Loved it, anything that helps someone learn is a good thing. As a boy reading was always more fun when there were pictures. We had over a thousand books in the house most of the time when I was growing up. Once I could read and write we (my older brother and I) were encouraged to write our own, always with pictures, for the younger ones to read or have read to them. There is only one college graduate in our family and its not me, it's the youngest child. She had the benefit of seven older siblings teaching her more than each of us (separately) knew.