By Dr Abigail Rokison-Woodall, Associate Professor of Shakespeare and Theatre
There are around 52,000 deaf children in the UK, many of whom are disadvantaged in the classroom. Deafness by itself is not a learning disability, but its effects can be compounded by factors such as non-inclusive practice or an inadequate linguistic environment.
Recent figures produced by the National Deaf Children’s Society (NCDS) show that British deaf students achieve, on average, a grade lower than their hearing peers at GCSE level. Attainment gaps in English and Maths are particularly stark with around 37.7% of deaf children achieving a grade 5 in both subjects compared with 51.9% of all children. According to the NCDS ‘deaf young people are being consistently failed by the education system’.
Shakespeare is a compulsory element of the National Curriculum in England, yet many deaf young people struggle to access his work. There are very few resources available to help Teachers of the Deaf in supporting their deaf students. As a result, some deaf students are excluded from the Shakespeare classroom, and hence from the study of GCSE English. Not only does this impact their future educational and employment prospects, GCSE English being a requirement of entry to most UK Universities, but also their social development, a Shakespeare is so heavily embedded in our cultural landscape.
‘Signing Shakespeare’ is a project designed to support deaf young people in their study and enjoyment of Shakespeare. The project aims to:
- Create enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare’s text
- Develop pro-social, collaborative skills
- Support social and emotional development
- Build understanding of literary terms including iambic pentameter, antithesis, soliloquy
- Offer role models for deaf young people
- Increase deaf awareness and appreciation of how sign language can bring new ideas and interpretations to working with Shakespeare for all
Beginning as a research project between the RSC and the University of Birmingham, it has evolved into a programme consisting of active, rehearsal room-based resources for the study of Shakespeare’s Plays, supported by image-rich presentations. So far, we have completed a scheme of work for Macbeth. We began with this play as it is the most widely taught of Shakespeare’s plays.
All the resources are built around a series of films - key scenes from the play - performed by deaf actors, in British Sign Language (BSL), Sign Supported English (used in some classrooms where there are deaf students), and sometimes in a form of iconic, performative sign language, inspired by Bernard Bragg’s Visual Vernacular. The films add clarity to vital moments of the plot and inspire students to perform their own versions. With a generous donation from the Billy Rose Foundation in New York, we made the films for Macbeth in American Sign Language (ASL – making them accessible to the estimated 308,648 deaf or hard-of-hearing children between the ages of 5 and 17 in the US (US Census Bureau, 2018).
We trialled these resources in schools for the deaf and with Teachers of the Deaf in a range of educational settings - the response has been extremely positive. At Braidwood Trust School for the Deaf, the Head of English commented:
Pupils were all highly engaged. I was amazed with how much they remembered of the story. This is unusual for our pupils. I can see how this visual approach really helped pupils to recall details.
Another teacher, working at a deaf unit in a London school described the resources as ‘absolutely vital’, adding that they could make a real difference to his students’ educational experience.
The resources constitute a complete scheme of work for teaching the play. Our initial research suggested that closely following the chronology of the play as events unfold is crucial in building understanding of different perspectives, including the dramatic irony of what the audience know compared to what the characters know. Our activities invite young people to inhabit and explore those different perspectives and express their findings in sign, written and oral forms. Although the project is titled ‘Signing Shakespeare’, we are mindful of the many deaf children who do not use sign language. All our resources have subtitles, and we are also considering making filmed lip-reading versions of the scenes, since many deaf young people rely on lip-reading alongside other aids.
Having worked on Macbeth, we now hope to continue our work to produce resources for the other most frequently studied Shakespeare plays – Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest (TES, 2016). The principles and structure that we have developed can be applied to any number of the plays. They might also be applied to other literature on the curriculum – including prose and poetry.
With the introduction of the BSL Act of 2022, British Sign Language has been recognised by law as a language of the UK and the government has committed to its promotion and facilitation. Our hope is, that as a compulsory element of the UK education syllabus, Shakespeare will become fully accessible to users of BSL and other sign languages.