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Teaching Romeo & Juliet to ESL Students

Instructor: Yolanda Reinoso Barzallo

Yolanda holds a CELTA Cambridge, a Juris Doctorate, and a Master of Public Administration. She is a published author of fiction in Spanish.

When it comes to teaching literature to your ESL students, motivation becomes particularly important because the language used can be challenging. This lesson gives you some ideas about how to get ESL students engaged in reading 'Romeo and Juliet'.

Introduction and Engagement

During our introduction part of a literature lesson, we need to engage our ESL students. You may be surprised if you ask your ESL students who Romeo and Juliet are, and they are able to provide a brief explanation. The reason is, this Shakespearean play is generally covered even in the most basic literature class. Even if your ESL students have a minimum level of education, they may have seen a Romeo and Juliet movie or heard the story from someone. Students can enjoy telling the class what they know and where or when they learned about the two characters.

An alternative for the introduction is to tell students they are going to read about a love story that happens in Verona, Italy. Students could look up the top sites to see in this city. They might be surprised to find out that the city has statues of Romeo and Juliet as well as a 'Juliet's house' tourists can visit.

Now, we can move on to discussing how to teach Romeo and Juliet in three stages: pre-reading, reading, and post-reading.

Pre-Reading: Discussing Love and Shakespeare

Pre-reading is the part of the lesson that allows us to prepare ESL students for reading. In the case of Romeo and Juliet, we emphasize that Romeo and Juliet is a love story. Then, we ask our ESL students a question about the importance of love in our lives. For example, 'Is there anyone you love so much that you cannot imagine your life without that person?', 'Why is love important?', 'How would life be without love?', etc. Students can discuss or write their answers.

Naturally, we would add some biographical information about Shakespeare. This will be more engaging for ESL students if you present biographical facts as if you were telling about a person you know. For instance, instead of just saying that Shakespeare lived in London once he became a famous playwright, while his family stayed in Stratford, you could say something like this: 'It turns out Shakespeare had a very interesting life. On one hand, the guy lived in London where people knew him for his plays. On the other hand, he often had to travel to Stratford to spend time with his wife and children.' In short, tell some facts about Shakespeare's life in a fun way.

After the bio, ESL students can discuss this question: 'Do you think William Shakespeare was in love when he wrote Romeo and Juliet?' or 'Is it necessary for a writer to be in love to write a love story?'

In short, during the pre-reading stage, the basic strategy is to introduce the literature piece by having students answer interesting but uncomplicated questions.

Reading: The Actual Love Story

As we all know, there are many different versions of Romeo and Juliet. Let's remember that the material you choose for the reading stage is very important. As an ESL teacher, you know the level of your students beyond the labels of 'beginner', 'intermediate', etc. You can choose accordingly. It never hurts to choose material that has illustrations, regardless of your ESL students' ages. The reason is that visuals help students remember vocabulary and expressions.

As your students read Romeo and Juliet, there are two important tasks:

  1. Check progress: It is important to check for understanding every few pages. Students benefit enormously from sitting in circles and talking about what is going on in the story. Also, they could answer questions you pose. A great way to check for understanding is to ask about opinions on characters, scenes, etc.

  2. Build vocabulary: Your ESL students will find new words regardless of their level. It is a good idea to have them check for new words in advance and present them to their peers. If the dictionary does not help, spend a few minutes allowing students to ask you about the meaning of new words in the context of the story. It is also a good idea to have a vocabulary project. For example, tell your students that every language has words that sound beautiful to a specific person. You could give an example of yours by saying, 'I love how the word _____ sounds.' Your students can present a list of new words they happen to like because of the way the words sound. No reasons are needed.

Post-Reading: Activities

Once students finish reading Romeo and Juliet, there are two basic activities your ESL students should do:

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