Whether it’s sonnets or Shakespeare, iambic pentameter is a key skill in high school English classes. I was an eleventh-grader in Dr. Taylor’s AP English class when we spent an afternoon on iambic pentameter. That afternoon changed my life and my writing: words and sentences had stress patterns! I finally understood why some of my punchlines weren’t working even though my syllable counts and end-rhymes matched up.
Poor understanding of pentameter and stress results in bad formal poetry and funky song lyrics. For students grappling with a Shakespeare play such as Romeo and Juliet or Henry V, the underlying rhythms hold the key to deeper comprehension of the texts.
This April, I got to lead a workshop at the Boston Poetry Slam. I was going to teach sonnets, but as I only had an hour, I realized that sonnets can’t be taught in just one class. Iambic pentameter needs its own hour, even with gifted students. But nearly all the teaching resources out there for iambic pentameter rush through the prosody and then get all hung up in sonnet rhyme schemes, voltas, Petrarchan vs. Shakespearean, etc.
We’ve put together some worksheets based on my workshop handouts. These are still works in progress, but they provide a systematic approach to iambic pentameter. They start with single words, then phrases, then lines. Students hum, they clap their hands, they tap their pencils… and slowly they discern the hidden sounds. Nearly 50 (fifty!) short questions allow teachers to assess who is getting it and who needs some help. The student edition is a free PDF download. If you’re a teacher and would like the answer key, please E-mail us and we’ll be happy to help.
Once students complete the worksheets, we have SONNET PUZZLES! Yes, we have made a game out of iambic pentameter. Solving a sonnet puzzle is to writing a sonnet what solving a jigsaw puzzle is to taking a photograph–and that’s the whole point. Sonnet puzzles offer students a fun, hands-on way to bridge the considerable chasm between reading a sonnet or two and then writing one. The sonnet puzzles are also, for now, a free PDF download.
At some point, Bicycle Comics might turn these into a commercial product. For now, however, we’re offering them up at no charge to teachers and students. (Commercial use requires permission; see the copyright notice attached to each PDF file for details.) We would love to hear from teachers and students in the field about how these worksheets worked or didn’t work in your classrooms!