Teach Like an Elizabethan Champion Part 1

One of my jobs this half term is to produce a scheme of learning focusing on rhetoric for Year 7. The original scheme was going to revolve around the study of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and the contents of Sam Leith’s ‘Are You Talking to Me’ and Mark Forsyth’s ‘Elements of Eloquence.’ I’d read various blogs by other English teachers about schemes they’d developed or were developing using these texts and, like many English departments, we wanted to take our students way further than the reductive AFOREST approach to persuasive writing which has been used in recent years to help students, often to jump through a GCSE hoop.

In carrying out the background reading for the scheme, I wanted to know not only about what Elizabethan schoolboys were taught about rhetoric but also how it was taught. The more I found out, the more I began to question how I’ve gone about teaching reading and writing in the past and whether it has limited students’ outcomes. The approach taken by teachers in Elizabethan England, as far as I understand it now, highlights a number of shortcomings in the way I’ve had students read, annotate, record, memorise and compose writing.

This blog post will come in three parts. The first two parts will outline my developing knowledge of the teaching of rhetoric in the past. I’ll begin by revealing what I’ve discovered about the Elizabethan approach to teaching rhetoric from Peter Mack’s book ‘Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Ideas in Context)’ as well as these two websites



In part two, I’ll move on to rhetorical structures and style, exploring the books by Leith and Forsyth as well as some other teachers’ blog posts.

The third part will focus on how my new learning will feed into the new scheme of learning, but also how it has affected the way I will approach the teaching of reading and writing in the future.

I do not now consider myself to be an expert in this field and would welcome any further guidance or pointers towards further reading.

Part 1: What was school like back then Daddy?

Elizabethan Grammar Schools:

In his book, ‘Elizabethan Rhetoric: Theory and Practice (Ideas in Context)’ Peter Mack tells us that Elizabethan Grammar schools had the shared aim of “making students wise, pious and eloquent.” The study and use of rhetoric formed a part of this process.

Students learnt how to:

  • Record and use moral narratives
  • Identify and analyse the grammatical and rhetorical structures in texts
  • Amplify (intensify the language choices in, add elements to or reshape texts)
  • Compose a range of text types based on their reading


Students learnt moral sentences (such as those from the bible, Cato or other religious texts) by heart as examples of Latin syntax. They had to locate these in classical texts when they read them and include them in composition exercises. Students kept two ‘commonplace notebooks’ to record:

  • Powerful words or examples of rhetoric
  • Quotations linked to specific areas of morality or themes – friendship, justice or mercy, for example.

A number of patterns of teaching are mentioned in different texts but Mack identifies this as being the main one:

  • A general introduction to the text from the teacher – including the author and genre.
  • A reading of the Latin extract with full explanation and subsequent paraphrasing or translation.
  • A discussion about some of the following: difficult or unusual words, contextual issues, questions of style, parallels with other texts.

In other models, students would re-read texts four times: once for general meaning, summary or paraphrase; once for vocabulary and constructions; once for rhetoric, figures, elegant expressions, sententiae, histories, fables and comparisons; and once for moral teaching.


To support in the composition process, students  were given collections of model texts focusing mainly on letters and themes (essays).

Some schools used the Progymnasmata by Aphthonius – a collection of fourteen sets of exercises, including:

  • Fable
  • Narrative
  • Chreia
  • Proverb
  • Refutation
  • Confirmation
  • Commonplace
  • Encomium
  • Vituperation
  • Comparison
  • Impersonation
  • Description
  • Thesis or Theme
  • Defend / Attack a Law

These exercises made use of the elements students had collated and adapted from their reading of classical texts. The idea was that producing these shorter passages would enable students to write longer texts, incorporating parts of their smaller pieces.

Mack informs us that Aphthonius provides a “definition of the form, a division into different sub-types, a recipe for the content of the form and one or more examples. The commentaries explain the terms of the definition and division (sometimes providing alternatives), refer to examples from classical literature and provide additional examples, usually divided into subsections to show how the elements of the recipe build up into the whole composition.

The Progymnasmata offers rigid forms in order to provide students with exercises in different aspects of an overall oration.

Another text which appeared often in Elizabethan syllabi was Erasmus’ De Copia Rerum Et Verborum. This text provided a methodology for enhancing writing through adding to the words used, changing grammatical or rhetorical constructions or adding to the content through rhetorical invention.

Erasmus suggests the following forms of Copia:

  • Varying by metaphor
  • Varying by allegory
  • Varying by amplification (heightening vocabulary or expression)
  • Varying by hyperbole
  • Varying by diminutio (weakening vocabulary to make something less serious)

Students were given sentences to practice with. An oft quoted example is “Your letter has delighted me very much.” Erasmus devises 195 different versions of this sentence. This kind of practice was intended to challenge students to consider their choice of lexis and expression as well as make students more fluent when they were speaking or writing at length.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at what this extended oration and composition entailed in terms of structure and style.

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