Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

Teaching Shakespeare and ELL/ESL Students

Teaching Shakespeare to students whose native language is not English can be a real challenge for teachers.  Last year we received a number of requests for resources to help teachers introduce Shakespeare to ELL/ESL students.  In response to those requests, we created new web pages on our Teach and Learn site.   Teachers with experience teaching ELL/ESL students helped us create a page with tips for teaching ELL/ESL students, and they also developed a series of lesson plans devoted to pre-reading activities with students as well as lessons for teaching Hamlet.  The pre-reading lessons are adaptable for teaching any play, whether it’s by Shakesepeare or another playwright.

How do you introduce ELL/ESL students to Shakespeare’s plays?  What have you found to be especially helpful when working with students?  What hasn’t worked as well as you thought it would?


  • Hello!

    I’m very glad to have found your posts on teaching Shakespeare to ESL students! The tips and pre-reading lessons are wonderful. I teach EFL and really appreciate this material.

    I’d also like to recommend one of the Cool Classics plays for ESL students written by Bernal and Hewitt (http://www.coolclassics.org/). I used it for the first time last fall, 2010. It was a perfect way to bring Shakespeare to Sophomore English Majors at the Asian university where I teach.

    Among the 4 pieces of literature they’ve converted into one-act plays for ESL students is “The Cowboy and the Wildcat,” based on The Taming of the Shrew. The authors took pains to capture the major plot points and relationships of the original in a really fun and concise way, while shifting to a modern setting, and using everyday American English.

    So my students were able to relate to it and pick up some current slang, which they love, and modern expressions, while learning a classic and humorous story of love, romance, marriage and character transformation.

    The authors are ESL teachers, so they developed a wonderful variety of pre- and post-reading activities for the plays right in line with those principles you’ve offered on your site here for those teaching ELL/ESL students. They also covered the needed vocabulary for reading drama, such as “script’, ‘playwright’, ‘director’, and the special words describing ‘stage directions,” etc.

    We did a class reading first, then divided the class into concurrent casts, who each took one scene and performed it in sequence with all the others to put on a seamless (if not so tight and impressive) class play on the final day.

    Because it was my first time using this material and doing any kind of play in an EFL classroom, I was learning myself what would work with these students, and so I made it informal and light. We did not use props or costumes, as I just wanted the students to experience the speaking and bodily aspects of acting a famous English story.

    I learned something about the differences between drama and mere oral English. I didn’t anticipate the pronunciation/ intonation problems students would have reading the dialog with the right tone and energy to give the play and its meaning clarity.

    I often had to remind and encourage students to energetically read the stage directions of expression, (“reluctantly” or “hastily” etc.) or convincingly act out the body language in the stage directions. Of course, this meant shy students learning to come out of themselves, while confident ones hammed it up, (I taught them the phrase “ham it up” and “be a ham” to encourage this), a major issue teaching in Asia where students are brought up to listen and not speak much.

    The memorable scene in Act 4, Scene 5: of “the sun /moon” discourse, was the only scene I missed in the “Cowboy” play, so I looked up a modern English version on No Fear Shakespeare at http://nfs.sparknotes.com/ and added the modern English dialog of that scene for the students to use. It worked fine.

    I also hoped to find some modern version of this play on DVD to show the students afterward, but outside of the old Taylor/Burton movie, I found there wasn’t anything of a shorter, modern English version I’d like my students to watch (any suggestions?).

    I would definitely use this again as I only scratched the surface of possibilities for lessons with this great set of one-act plays. Lots of room to creatively choose and build on this material.

    I only wish the authors had gone on to do all the Baird’s popular plays in this manner. Please let your reader’s know about this gem!

    Many thanks!!

  • Good post, thanks.

    One way of introducing students to Shakespeare´s plays, in my experience, is by talking about Shakespeare as a coiner of words. Take in a selection from a list of words he made up, and surprise them by showing them how many words they use every day come from his plays (it’s a LOT).

    I find that that helps people to appreciate how important he was in a very tangible way, so that when you then go onto looking at the plays themselves they’re already interested.


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)