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Lesson Plan

An Introduction to Beowulf: Language and Poetics

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An Introduction to Beowulf: Language and Poetics

Grades 11 – 12
Lesson Plan Type Standard Lesson
Estimated Time Two 50-minute sessions
Lesson Author

John Paul Walter

John Paul Walter

Washington, Washington DC


National Council of Teachers of English



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From Theory to Practice



This lesson provides an introduction to the language and poetics of the epic poem Beowulf. Although this lesson assumes students will read Beowulf in translation, it introduces students to the poem's original Old English and explains the relationship between Old, Middle, and Modern English. Students are introduced to the five characters in the Old English alphabet that are no longer used in Modern English. As a class, they translate a short, simple phrase from Old English, and then listen to a passage from the poem being read in Old English. Next, students are introduced to some poetic devices important to Beowulf. They learn about alliteration by reading an excerpt from W. H. Auden's modern English poem “The Age of Anxiety,” then listen for alliteration in the Old English version of a passage from Beowulf. Finally, students explore the poetic functions of kennings, compounds, and formulas in Beowulf.

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Beowulf: Language and Poetics Quick Reference Sheet: This reproducible provides information about the difference between Old, Middle, and Modern English, as well as poetic devices found in Beowulf.

Literary Guide: Beowulf: This online tool can serve as an introduction to Beowulf, presenting information about the poem's significance as well as an overview of the story.

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Gillis argues that when we teach literature we often don't do so without teaching its background, its historical, philosophical, and environmental context. When teaching literature in translation, he argues, if we fail to consider the original language and stylistic features of that piece, then we have not taught all the background necessary for our students to have a full understanding of that literary work, even if we are not experts in that language. The purpose behind introducing students to the original language and style will foreground for them that they are reading a translation, which at its best can only give us "an inkling" of the original work.

Further Reading

Gillis, William. "Teaching Literature in Translation." College English 22.3 (December 1960): 186-87.

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