Beginning a unit with a preview text: Using the Amleth legend to introduce Shakespeare’s Hamlet

There’s a certain kind of student who loves to remind you that Shakespeare “stole” most of his stories from other sources, usually citing this as a reason why the bard isn’t so great after all. But this knowledge can also be used to a teacher’s advantage. I like to start off my teaching of Hamlet by reading Amleth, the Danish folktale on which Shakespeare’s play is based.

Like most folktales, the Amleth story was passed around orally for hundreds of years, but it was written down by Saxo Grammaticus (“Saxo the Learned”) in 1185, making his version of the tale as old to Shakespeare as Hamlet is to us. Saxo’s version – handily available in a public domain English translation by Oliver Elton – is fairly similar in plot to the play, but with enough differences to avoid completely spoiling the story.

Why start with Amleth?

I always like to start off any unit on a longer text by reading a “preview text” – something shorter, whether it be an earlier text that inspired the longer one, as in the case of Amleth, or a picture book, a children’s retelling, or a non-fiction article that introduces important themes or context for the work to come.

Reading Amleth helps students put Hamlet into some kind of context, beyond being writing by that old Shakespeare dude. It puts Shakespeare himself within a wider context, which I find helps take him down off the pedestal a bit. Rather than being this great and powerful literary figure all on his own, we can discuss Shakespeare as just one stage in a sequence of different approaches to the same story, from Saxo to Shakespeare to The Lion King. As I said above, Amleth also provides a preview of the story, which helps students keep track of the narrative as they read the play, but Shakespeare made enough changes that you can always remind students that they don’t really know how it’s all going to end.

I also think it’s important to give students practice with the skills they’ll need for reading a longer text on a smaller scale first. As English teachers, we’re sometimes in the position of teaching a play or novel to students who have never read a text of this length before. That can be intimidating enough without also using the skills of analysis and working out how to read a challenging text at the same time. Reading and doing some writing about a shorter version of the story first gives students a preview of the kind of work they’ll be doing as they progress with the longer text.

So how do I use a preview text like Amleth?

Simply reading and talking about a preview text in class will help provide some context and introduce the plot before you begin reading your extended text, and that may be all you have time for. If you can, though, I recommend giving your students some of the following supports and tasks to really leverage your preview text to prepare students for their extended text study:

Vocabulary Support
Ideally, your preview text will be somewhat challenging (short texts are a great opportunity to get students working with complex language in small doses!). If that’s the case, you may want to provide a glossary to help with vocabulary, especially if that vocabulary also crops up in the main text you’ll be studying. For instance, Oliver Elton’s Amleth translation includes a few vocabulary words from Hamlet, like “obsequies” and “aught.”

Check for Understanding
When they dive into challenging texts, students need to monitor their own comprehension so that they can stop, slow down, and work out what’s going on. Although we ultimately want students to do this independently, the start of a unit is a particularly good time to remind them of this by explicitly checking their understanding every few paragraphs.

Scaffold writing skills
You’re going to want students to write about the main text, right? Probably in paragraphs and essays? Again, this is something that some students are going to find challenging, and a preview text is the perfect place to ease students into the demands of writing about literature using sentence-level tasks. If you’ve read basically any other blog post by me, you know I’m a big fan of Natalie Wexler and Judith Hochman’s The Writing Revolution for this. Having students finish a few because/but/so sentences, for example, is a great way to both check for understanding and help students see how to write about a text, while still keeping things manageable.

Introduce literary analysis
Short texts are perfect for getting students to start flexing their literary analysis muscles in short bursts. Elton’s translation of Amleth provides just enough interesting language choices to give students a taste of what to look out for, and a chance to try out writing about it. You can always ask students to have a go at drawing out evidence from multiple parts of the text to explain how it explores key themes that come up both in the preview text and in the main text; when my students read Amleth, I draw their attention to the importance of bloodline and rank, and the role of spying and subterfuge, both of which also turn up in Shakespeare’s version. This also gives us a chance to practice the all-important skill of pulling quotes out from the text to support our ideas.

This sounds like a lot of work to put together before I even start teaching the play!

Yeah, it kind of is. But don’t panic! If you’re teaching Hamlet and want to start off your unit with Amleth, I’ve got you covered. My Amleth: Hamlet Introductory Activity resource in the Scholar’s Atelier Teachers Pay Teachers store does everything I’ve said above. It’s got:

  • A full eleven-page version, and an abridged four-page version, depending on how much time you have available.
  • SIX different versions depending on whether you want the full text or an abridged one; whether you want a digital or a printable version; and whether you prefer to use PDFs or PowerPoint slides (which can also be uploaded to Google Slides).
  • Vocabulary support on every page, with a focus on words that appear in Shakespeare’s text.
  • Questions on every page to check for understanding, scaffold writing skills, and get students analyzing the text.

You can check out this product here and let me know in the comments what other preview texts you use!

Kids like learning *stuff*

Figuring out what kids actually find fun has always been a struggle for me. To start with, it’s not my top priority – if something’s worth doing, I’m perfectly comfortable requiring students to do it, whether they’re excited about it or not. Still, a classroom where students are having fun is is a much happier place to be, and it’s easier to get them to do the work if it’s at least somewhat enjoyable, so I make as much of an effort as I can without sacrificing my larger educational goals.

A trickier obstacle is that my own ideas of fun are drastically different from the average thirteen-year-old’s. I genuinely enjoy searching through style guides for pointless, obscure punctuation rules. I am bewildered by the fact that kids still get uproariously excited when I bring up a Kahoot. I still haven’t managed to fully put myself in the shoes of anyone who reads Hamlet for the first time and has any response other than this is the best series of words that has ever entered my brain, despite ample evidence that my adolescent reaction to the play was not universal. On the rare occasions that I have promised my students something “fun”, I have faced, at best, mocking, and at worst, mutiny. I manage to keep myself entertained, but it’s time to face facts: I am not a “fun” person.

Speaking of things that aren’t fun – learning to write. Specifically, the slow, step-by-step method that I have found actually yields results. The more I teach writing, the more grammar work I introduce on the front end, and the better my results get, but this work certainly doesn’t get kids excited about their time with me. And no, basing their exercises on Fortnite or Riverdale doesn’t help, especially when kids’ interests are so varied and change so fast. And yet, the majority of my students (the ones where what I teach them isn’t dictated by their upcoming exams) are engaged and enjoy my lessons. Why? As with so many issues in education, my answer is: I teach them stuff about the world.

Subordinating conjunctions aren’t fun. But here are some things my students have found fun this year (links are to my related TpT products, where I have them):

  • Discovering how bees’ brains work and how pesticides affect them
  • Learning about the causes and effects of the Great Depression
  • Reading excerpts of The Odyssey and learning about Ancient Greek culture, then asking to stick with this topic for an extra couple of lessons so we can cover more of the story
  • Researching the historical context of Beowulf and enjoying a deliciously gruesome story from a thousand years ago
  • Being shocked by the ending of The Lottery and reading articles about psychology to decide whether they think people would really behave like the characters in the story
  • Hearing for the first time about the huge intellectual upheaval known as the Renaissance, and how it was in part set off by another pandemic
  • Reading advice about how to sell expensive products, and using this information to become more informed consumers
  • Learning about how Homo sapiens have developed over millions of years

I pretty much never set writing tasks that aren’t related to historical, literary, or scientific content. My tutoring sessions and online classes mostly operate as cycles of reading something interesting, and then doing a series of writing tasks that build their understanding and retention while also developing flexible and deliberate writing skills. Crucially, the topics my students read and write about are interesting because they’re about the world beyond their experience – for the most part, it’s all totally new. As I’ve built up my resources for a more cohesive curriculum that allows for students to carry their knowledge from one topic over to another, their enthusiasm has increased even further. Students leave my classes as better readers, better writers, better thinkers, and more informed about their world and how it got that way.

This stuff works. A knowledge-rich curriculum sets teachers up to build skills as well as knowledge. And, it turns out, it’s even “fun.”