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Lesson

Entering the World of the Play

Students begin reading the play, having applied what they have learnt about Priestley and the relevant sociohistorical context to make predictions about its content.

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This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — UK

Grade

6–12

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About this Lesson

In previous lessons, students prepared to read An Inspector Calls by reflecting on the tension between the individual and the society in which our identities are formed, and by looking at the historical context relevant to the play. This pre-reading exploration not only allowed them to consider the role that societal institutions, social categories and social values play in shaping who we are and our opportunities, but also gave them a solid foundation from which to understand the two contexts of the play: when it was written and when it was set.

As students read through the play in the following lessons, they will connect their examination of the individual and society, and the historical context, to the characters and setting of An Inspector Calls. Literary critic Wayne C. Booth writes that the plots of great stories ‘are built out of the characters’ efforts to face moral choices. In tracing those efforts, we readers stretch our own capacities for thinking about how life should be lived.’ 1 In order to understand the moral choices depicted in An Inspector Calls, we must first look at both the identities of those making moral choices and the context in which they are made. In other words, we must start by examining character and setting, and thinking about how the characters fit into and navigate the world in which they exist. Such exploration not only enables us to better understand the choices that they make in the play, it also paves the way for self-reflection: we are given the tools to reflect on ourselves as individuals and the impact our choices have on others in society. 

Before students begin reading the play, they will reflect on what they have learnt in previous lessons about Priestley and the time period, and then examine the book cover and text features to make predictions about what they think the play will be about. This two-part lesson will also introduce students to inferencing and annotation, and students will have the opportunity to work in groups and do some drama work using the script. Drama activities, in which students adopt the voice and perspective of a character, are useful in encouraging students to push themselves beyond their own experiences and to empathise with others. Finally, students will consider the symbolic significance of props, and by so doing, will think about how certain characteristics manifest themselves and what they suggest about our experiences and values.

The activities in this lesson refer to pages 1–5 of the Heinemann edition of An Inspector Calls.

  • 1Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 187.
  • Critical Reading (Lit-AO1/AO3, Lang-AO4)
  • Critical Thinking (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Evidence-Based Reasoning (Lit-AO1–3/Lang-AO1–4)
  • Reading Comprehension (Lit-AO1, Lang-AO1)
  • Spoken Language Skills (Lang-AO8, Lang-AO9)
  • Summarising and Synthesising Skills (Lang-AO1)

Students use evidence-based reasoning to predict the plot of the play, basing their ideas both on the playbook itself (literally, judging a book by its cover) and on the contextual work done in previous lessons. On reading the stage directions for comprehension, students are introduced to the key skills of annotating and paraphrasing, which help them to access, process and understand the content. Later in the lesson, students participate in a drama activity and complete a creative exercise regarding the symbolism of objects. Both boost student engagement, adding a personal avenue through which to access the content of the play, whilst the drama activity also develops students’ spoken language skills. The use of discussion and journalling throughout gives students the opportunity to develop and verbalise their thoughts and practise turning them into coherent sentences, which will help them across their English GCSEs.

What can J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls teach us about the impact of our individual and collective decisions and actions on others?

  • How does analysing setting and language help us understand the values of the society in the play?
  • What messages does Priestley transmit through the setting, characterisation and language choices?
  • Students will make predictions about the content of the play using what they know about Priestley, the society at the time, and the play’s promotional materials. 
  • Students will consider the symbolism of objects and how props can be used to explore a character’s identity, values and behaviour.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes:

  • 7 activities
  • 5 teaching strategies
  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 2 extension activities
  • 1 homework suggestion

An Inspector Calls was first performed in 1945 in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), in both Moscow and St Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad). Priestley sent his play to the Soviet Union because, on account of the Second World War, the London theatre scene was not very active and there were not many theatres available. Those theatres that were producing shows already had their schedules fully programmed as Priestley wrote the play incredibly quickly.  The themes of social responsibility and the championing of socialist values over capitalism meant that the play, and Priestley, were well received in the USSR, which was a socialist country. The play, when it was performed in London in 1946, was also well received as the theme of social responsibility resonated with those who had experienced the trauma of the Second World War and who remembered the carnage of the First World War. 

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

Annotation and paraphrasing are vital skills that can assist students in a range of subjects and in the world beyond school. When students engage with a text by selecting, underlining and summarising what they read, they are encouraged to read carefully and reflect on what it is they have read. This process subsequently helps them to craft stronger arguments and develops their evidence-based reasoning. Have a read of our Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources strategy to find out more about teaching these important skills.

Given that An Inspector Calls is a play, it can be both a useful and fun experience for students to act out scenes in groups. This experience can help them better understand and connect with the characters, whilst also boosting their ability to remember elements of the play, which will be incredibly useful when they come to write about it. Before introducing drama into the classroom, it is worth reminding students of their classroom contract and the fact that it still applies during drama activities, particularly if they have not done much in the classroom before. In some instances, it is also worth seeking out a larger space if possible, or moving the classroom tables and chairs to one side to give your students the opportunity both for active movement and for playing some warm-up games as a class.

You may also want to incorporate some voice warm-up tongue-twisters into your lessons as you read through the play:

  • She sells sea shells on the sea shore and the sea shells she sells are sea shells for sure.
  • Unique, New York, unique, New York, unique, New York, unique, New York, etc.
  • Red lorry, yellow lolly, red lorry, yellow lolly, red lorry, yellow lolly, red lorry, yellow lolly, etc.

Finally, it can be effective to do some movement-based exercises. ACT ESOL: Language, Resistance, Theatre have compiled a range of great drama activities.

Curating a classroom prop box for the study of a play serves two purposes. Firstly, in their literal sense, the props are items that a student who is reading or playing a specific character during an activity can wear or hold. The use of a prop in this way keeps the lessons fun and engaging, and also gives the students acting confidence. Students may feel safer and more confident behind a prop, as if it is a disguise and is giving them permission to throw themselves fully into the acting. Secondly, the props function as symbolic items that link to a character’s identity and behaviour. If the character changes during the course of the play, the prop can change too. For example, in An Inspector Calls, Sheila might start the play with sunglasses because she doesn't understand the impact of her choices, but then change to clear glasses when she sees the truth of what Inspector Goole is saying. It can be down to students to decide when this change should occur. The use of props in this way encourages students to reflect on the character and what they represent; it also gives them a chance to engage with objects on a symbolic level.

The curation of a prop box will require advance preparation as you will need to acquire specific props for each character. Here are some suggestions for your prop box:

  • Mr Birling – a mirror to reflect the fact that he seems to be the centre of his universe and he is obsessed with how others view him.
  • Mrs Birling – a measuring tape or ruler to reflect her judgement of others and the fact that she sizes people up.
  • Sheila – a pair of sunglasses to highlight her lack of understanding, and a pair of clear glasses for later in the play when she takes responsibility for and understands the consequences of her choices. 
  • Gerald – a silver spoon to reflect his privileged upbringing.
  • Eric – a toy to reflect his childish behaviour and a magnifying glass for later in the play to highlight his new-found understanding of the truth about his behaviour and family.
  • Edna – a chain and padlock (or a bicycle lock) to reflect the fact that she is trapped in a subservient position.
  • Inspector Goole – a small scale to represent the scales of justice, or a graduation robe, which is symbolic of his role as a judge. For later in the play, he could hold a heart of sorts (your science department might have a model one you could borrow) as it becomes ever clearer that he stands for a caring and compassionate society.

Entering the World of the Play

Use these slides to help students make predictions about the play before they begin reading, and then annotate the opening stage directions.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching the lesson.

The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class. In this two-part lesson, students will read the first five pages of the play.

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Lesson Plans

Activities

Part I

  • Explain to students that today they will be reading the opening of the play, after having made predictions about its content. 
  • Hand out the playbooks and guide the students through the first step, ‘Students Study the Cover’, of the Introducing a New Book teaching strategy. Ask students to examine the cover of their books and then in their journals, record associations that come to mind either from the words in the title or the cover illustration. 
  • Then, based on the information on the cover, have pairs or small groups of students discuss the following questions:
    • What do you see on the play’s cover? Make a list.
    • What do these details suggest about the play? 
    • Based on what you see so far, what questions do you have about the play?
  • Next, allow students five minutes to flip through the interior of the book, recording notes on what they find. You might want to highlight specific features, such as the table of contents, character list, glossary or index, or you might wait to see what students first discover on their own. Prompts for this step include: 
    • What do you notice inside the book? How is it organised? 
    • What words or ideas stand out to you? 
    • What does your investigation tell you about the book? 
    • Based on what you see so far, what questions do you have about the book?
  • Next, ask each student to make two predictions about the play. Encourage them to use their ideas from the Introducing a New Book activity and from what they learnt in the previous lessons about the context of Edwardian England, and about Priestley himself. You can provide them with the following prompts to focus their predictions if desired:
    • Describe one of the characters (their personality/interests/role) you think will feature in the play
    • Write down one thing that you think will happen in the play
    • Write your predicted plot of the play in one sentence
  • If there is time, you might ask several students to share their predictions with the class.
  • Explain to students that they will now read and annotate the stage directions on pages 1–2 so that they can better understand the setting of the play. It can be useful for students to read the text without the definitions of any challenging vocabulary as it enables them to practise unlocking the meaning of words from the context in which they are found.
  • If students do not write in their copies of the play, ensure that each student has their own copy of the stage directions on a piece of paper which has enough space for them to annotate and write on. 
  • First, read the stage directions out loud to the class.
  • Next, read the stage directions a second time using a ‘think aloud’ strategy to model your thinking. Here, the teacher reads aloud and selects places to pause and make their thinking ‘visible’ to the class. You could, for example, pause at a challenging word and talk through how you try to uncover the meaning using context clues in the sentence, or model rereading a difficult sentence to show how rereading boosts comprehension. Finally, you can also pause to ask a question of the text or make a prediction about what might happen later in the play. These are all important reading strategies and it benefits students when the teacher names them and models how they are used to boost comprehension.
  • Project an example annotation on the board or model doing your own, explaining your thinking. You may wish to refer to ideas contained in the Annotating and Paraphrasing Sources teaching strategy. 
  • Next, direct the students to independently annotate the first paragraph of the stage directions, projecting the following prompts on the board:
    • Circle or underline keywords.
    • Put a question mark by ideas you don’t understand or find puzzling.
    • Summarise key ideas: Does this make sense? What does this say? What does this mean?
    • Write phrases or sentences that express your reactions and interpretations.
    • Consider the author’s intentions.
    • Next, ask students to share their annotations with a partner, explaining what they circled, questioned, and commented on. Then have students annotate the second paragraph in pairs.

Finally, have pairs of  students combine into groups of four to discuss the following questions in groups. Circulate during their discussions to check their comprehension and help clear up any misconceptions by posing questions that direct them back into their texts. 

  • What clues does the setting give us about the Birlings’ lifestyle and social position? 
  • What clues does the setting give us about the Birlings’ values?
  • How does the world in which we live impact our values?

Activities

Part II

  • Explain to students that they will be using props when reading the play as a class. All of the characters have props that symbolically represent their identity, and when a student plays a character, they will be given that specific prop. You may choose to show the students the different props that represent the different characters, but do not explain their significance.
  • To help students understand and engage with objects on a symbolic level, project the following prompts and ask students to explore them in a journal reflection:

    Someone who is hard for others to understand might be symbolically represented by a padlocked book, whilst someone who is caring and compassionate might be symbolically represented by a blanket.

    • What object do you think reflects who you are? What makes you say that?
    • What object might a member of your family or a friend view you as? Explain your answers.
  • Before having students apply the Think, Pair, Share strategy with a partner, acknowledge that it can be hard to share our ideas with others, and then model risk-taking by sharing something from your journal reflection about names with the class.
  • To assist students in grappling with the vocabulary they encounter, you can introduce it to them beforehand in the form of a word scramble and prediction-based exercise.
  • Project or write the following words on the board and ask students to select five words and use them to predict what might happen in the next section of the play:
    • Port (n.) – a strong, sweet and dark red wine from Portugal, often drunk after a meal
    • Drawing-room (n.) – a large room in a house where people sit and entertain (a modern-day living room)
    • Gaily (adv.) – in a cheerful or light-hearted way
    • Mock (adj.) – not real or authentic (pretending)
    • Aggressiveness (n.) – angry or violent behaviour
    • Reproachfully (adv.) – in a way that expresses criticism
    • Guffaws (v.) – to laugh heartily and loudly
    • Squiffy (adj.) – to be tipsy or drunk (informal)
    • Frankly (adv.) – in a manner that is open, honest and direct 
    • Rivals (n.) – people who are competing for the same thing or in the same area
  • Give students five minutes to write before inviting a few of them to share their predictions with the class. The class can then vote on whose prediction they think might be the closest.
  • Explain to students that they will be reading the start of the play in two ways: first, as a class, and then in groups to give each student the opportunity to voice a character.
  • Assign five students different reading parts and their relevant props, and ask those reading to assemble at the front of the classroom where they can sit in a semicircle. You will need students for the following roles: Birling, Gerald, Sheila, Mrs Birling, and Eric.
  • Read the section from Mr Birling ‘Giving us the port, Edna?’ (top of p. 2) to the middle of Mrs Birling’s speech, ‘That was clever of you, Gerald’ (bottom of p. 5). Encourage characters to wear or display their props while reading.
  • If time allows, you might include some processing questions here. You could, for example, ask the class to imagine themselves as directors and consider the following questions:
    • What do you understand about their characters from these opening lines? 
    • How should the characters sound? What makes you say that? 
    • What’s their body language? What clues lie in the stage directions?
  • Let the class know they will be rereading this section, and then challenge the groups to apply these tips in their group read-throughs.
  • Next, divide students into groups of five to reread the same section. Encourage your students to embody the characters and take cues from the stage directions. If there is time and it is possible, rearrange the room to give your students acting space.
  • Finally, ask students to select one word to summarise what they think or feel about the play so far, and to share it in a wraparound.

Extension Activities

Find four or five different promotional posters for An Inspector Calls, similar to this An Inspector Calls USSR Poster from 1945. Choose a strategy like a gallery walk or See, Think, Wonder and have students examine and discuss the posters before making predictions about character, setting, and plot. You may wish to ask students to respond to the following questions in their class books:

  • What stands out most to you about the poster? Explain your response.
  • What clues does the poster give us to the content of the play?
  • Summarise the poster in one sentence.

Have students reflect on the symbolism of each character’s prop after they have read the first five pages of the play. Students can work in pairs and write one sentence that explains why they think each character might have been assigned their prop. Then they can write one of their ideas on a sticky note and post it up on the board. You may wish to read out a few of their suggestions to finish the lesson, or reflect on them at the beginning of the next one.

Homework Suggestion

Have students complete the following ‘set the scene’ activity for homework:

  • Explain to students that they will be drawing the scene of the play, using the information provided by Priestley in the stage directions. 
  • Ask them to imagine that they are a set designer who is pitching to design the play, and that they must draw a labelled sketch of the play using excerpts from the stage directions and a brief explanation justifying their choices. 

To help develop their vocabulary, you may also wish to give them the Stage Directions Word Match handout to complete alongside the ‘set the scene’ activity.

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