Close Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets



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Shakespeare's sonnets illustration
Item Title: 
Sonnets…Illuminated by Ross Turner
Item Call Number: 
PR2848 1901a Sh.Col.
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 

Authors: Louisa Newlin taught high school English for more than 40 years. She wrote "Nice Guys Finish Dead: Teaching Henry IV, Part I in High School" for the Shakespeare Set Free series. Gigi Bradford directed the NEA Literature Program and Folger Poetry Series

Editor: Greta Brasgalla, Folger National Teacher Corps and Curriculum Specialist at El Dorado High School, El Paso, TX

Common Core Anchor Standards: R.1, R.4, R.5, R.10, L.4

Text: Sonnet 18, Sonnet 29 and Sonnet 65

Lesson Overview

Students will analyze the sonnets for diction, syntax, literary devices, and rhetorical strategies. Students will complete a close reading of the sonnet as a class and then in a small group.

Time: Two 45 minute class periods


What To Do

Day One

  1. Whole Class Reading: Project the first line of the sonnet on a screen that all students can see. Ask students a series of guided questions as you reveal each line of the sonnet. If there are unfamiliar words, define them and ask for secondary meanings which might enrich the texture of the poem.
  2. Reveal the second line and ask how this second line enlarges the meaning of the first one. Go slowly, discussing each important word. Is the second line add to the first line? Does it expand, clarify, or change the meaning of the first line?
  3. Continue the process, pausing at each period or semicolon to ask for a paraphrase of what the speaker of the poem has said, literally. Have students define how the sentences are connected. Do they give examples? Do they change topic? Do they have a metaphor/simile?
  4. In all three of the suggested sonnets, there is a clear volta (shift) between lines 8 and 9. At the end of the octave, ask students to write for 2-3 minutes on what conclusion the poet will reach.
  5. Uncover the last six lines, one by one, calling for connotations and associations with individual words, not just denotations.
  6. When the whole sonnet is visible, have students read it chorally.
  7. You should have a class copy of the close reading of the sonnet. Allow this to be displayed for the students as they complete their small group close read of another sonnet.

Day Two

  1. Small Group Reading: Break students into small groups and give them another of the listed sonnets to close read. There will be groups with the same sonnet. They should begin with the first line and annotate like they did as a whole class. This can be done on chart paper. Have students rotate writing when they go to the next line. You may want to have students color code their annotations, using different colors for definitions, tone, rhetorical devices, literary devices, connections, etc.
  2. Allow a break during annotations for one student from each group to go and “spy” on another group annotating the same sonnet. They can have one minute to take notes on what another group has written.
  3. The “spy” comes back to their group to share what the other group has annotated and this can now be added to their close reading.
  4. Students should now complete their close reading with annotations similar to the example done as a whole group. Display the finished result.


  • Use a rubric with the following categories to grade the finished close read: Identification of literary terms, identification of rhetorical terms, connotations/denotations of words, and connections between sentences.
  • This technique can be used for a cold reading of a sonnet or as a planning strategy for an essay.