Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.13.16Helen Howell Shares Embedded Nonfiction Ideas for Macbeth

Image result for macbethHelen Howell is English AST and Lead Teacher for Literacy at The Radclyffe School in Oldham, Manchester, UK, where the school has recently moved from Ofsted’s ‘requires improvement’ rating to ‘outstanding’ and enjoyed their best ever English results in 2016.  As a result of their recent focus on using academic language, building oracy and grammar skills and generally reading more they are now well above UK National Average.

Helen has taken the idea of embedding nonfiction from Reading Reconsidered and applied it to her year 9 class, mapping out ten times in the course of the text where she could add rich nonfiction articles to help build background knowledge (and therefore comprehension) of Macbeth and also to help students get more out of (and better at) reading nonfiction by making it connect directly to their experience of reading Macbeth.

Embedding nonfiction “just makes sense to me,” Helen says. “It enables students to understand the world in which characters live (which can be quite alien to them) and their character motives much more thoroughly as well as giving them much-needed exposure to this kind of text. In our GCSE, students have to tackle unseen non-fiction with often very challenging language so it is essential we give them as much practice with this as possible.”

Anyway Helen’s list, which is a work in progress, struck me as incredibly rich and diverse.  Some of the ideas on the list below are still just ideas–that is, Helen is looking for the right text to share–but she was gracious enough to share links to a found a few of the texts she’s already located that she’s really happy with.


Macbeth Embedded Nonfiction Ideas

Embedded non-fiction topic

Purpose for embedding


  • The Witch Mania of King James I
  • Understanding Shakespeare’s influence when creating the witches and the links to the Jacobean era.
  • Guy Fawkes and The Gunpowder Plot
  • Exploring themes of treason, loyalty and the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics.
  • Understanding the addictive and corruptive effects of ambition including paranoia.
  • Agree or disagree: ‘Ambition is just another word for greed.’

Helen notes: “I altered this one before I shared with students to remove the spoilers!”

  • Understanding the concept of a tragic hero and how Macbeth fits this description.
  • Explore the influence on power on even the most honest people.
  • Science of psychosis and hallucinations
  • To understand how Lady Macbeth’s guilt begins to physically manifest itself and leads to her eventual suicide.
  • Science of sleepwalking
  • To understand the symptoms and cause that affect Lady Macbeth such as stress and sleep deprivation.
  • Misogyny in the Jacobean Era
  • Explore the links between contemporary perceptions of women and Shakespeare’s characterisation of Lady Macbeth and the witches as well as the association of cruelty with masculinity.
  • Free will vs the influence of fate, the idea of prophecies
  • Explore whether Macbeth is truly in control of his own actions or if the witches are controlling him through their prophecies.
  • Use of weather motifs in literature
  • Understand how Shakespeare uses weather to symbolise chaos, disorder, return to order and menace.

A big thanks to Helen for sharing her amazing work.  And by the way if you’re trying to imagine what embedding a nonfiction text in a novel or other narrative looks like in action, here’s a video of Colleen Driggs in action.

By the way, several of these texts would be useful for embedding with lots of texts beyond just Macbeth. You could use the “power corrupts” or “ego and ambition” articles with about 6,000 novels each.

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One Response to “Helen Howell Shares Embedded Nonfiction Ideas for Macbeth”

  1. Paul Lindsay-Addy
    December 29, 2018 at 12:49 pm

    Thanks Helen

    This is really useful! I was slightly disappointed that you hadn’t included more links. I managed to track down a few more non-fiction articles on common lit. The British Library websites is also an invaluable resource.



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