I work at a college preparatory school for students with language based learning differences, and I teach a yearlong course on the works of Shakespeare. My students’ learning profiles are diverse. I like to say that the only thing my students have in common is that they all learn differently! So how do I teach Shakespeare in its original language to students whose major obstacle is… language!? The answer is, well, I do a lot of things. I’ve put a list of the top five strategies I employ—real methods and activities that work—when engaging with struggling readers and writers. The good thing about these strategies is that, while they work for my LD students, they’re effective for all students.
- Listen first.
Before I ever have students open their books, I’ll often play (audio only) a few different versions of a soliloquy, monologue, or scene and ask students to listen. I use graphic organizers to help focus their listening: What tone is the actor using? What adjectives would you use to describe the emotions and actions of the character? What is your emotional reaction to the piece? Asking students to listen for these things across several different examples prompts discussion and previews them for the text they are about to see. Then the books come open, we look at the actual text, students remember words they heard and match them to the words on the page. They make further judgments about what they heard and what they are seeing. And, most importantly, the text seems familiar (not scary, obscure, or inaccessible).
- Start with 15-minute plays.
The Folger is a great resource for 15-minute versions of some of the major plays taught in schools. A 15-minute play offers students an opportunity to practice some of the play’s best lines in a fun, low-risk environment. It also provides an overview for the entire play! That means students learn the names of the characters and all the major plot events. It’s a huge relief to many of my students that they are not going to be called upon to tell me “what happened.” I’m more interested in slowing down and digging into specific moments of great language or emotional nuance. For students who struggle to comprehend the most straightforward texts, this shift in thinking can be comforting.
- Leverage media.
During every play I teach, I ask my students to produce a short video that captures them reading an assigned excerpt. Last year, I wrote a blog about the monologue videos my students created for The Tempest. I also had students work in groups to create a remix for Twelfth Night. You’ll notice, if you watch the link, that students frequently stumbled through reciting their lines but worked together to improve. While the final product is always exactly how the students want it to be, the many takes required to get there means kids can comfortably practice, make mistakes, and read, reread, and reread again as many times as they want.
- Read in class.
Students should be on their feet when they work with the text, not at home in their bedroom. Being there to support the reading experience alleviates anxiety and facilitates confidence with high-level text reading. It’s astonishing how willing my students are to read aloud in other classes after they’ve grown accustomed to constantly reading Shakespeare in mine. I spend roughly five weeks on each play. If that timeline isn’t feasible in your class, I would cut the text to allow for in-class reading only.
- Teach common Shakespearean words and phrases like vocabulary.
When I teach vocabulary, my students and I practice sounding them out, investigate etymology, discuss pragmatic and semantic uses, and create original example sentences. My students eventually produce vocabulary videos and visual vocabulary artwork. I don’t change my approach in my Shakespeare class. Wherefore. Anon. Forsooth. These words come up often in Shakespeare’s plays. So when they come up the first time, spend some time getting to know them! The artwork students will create to remind their classmates what “thou” means versus “thy” will make you giggle. The vocabulary video they create for “wherefore” will too. But the more zany the explanation, the more elaborate the presentation, the more likely students will remember it. And moving through the text will become more and more natural.
- Don’t read Shakespeare-made-easies!!!
I know, I know. I said five things. But this one is important! One of my favorite quotes about Shakespeare is from Harold Bloom, who wrote, “The answer to the question, ‘Why Shakespeare?’ must be ‘Who else is there?’” No one did it better than him, so let him speak for himself.
While I’ve offered some important strategies, there is plenty more to do. Thinking about ways to preview the language in multisensory ways, interact with major ideas in ways that encourage transfer, and engage in theatrical analysis and critique will all help students who struggle with language.