Teaching Shakespeare!

A Folger Education Blog

What My ELLs—and Their Non-ELL Classmates—Taught Me about Teaching Shakespeare

(Image: Jessica Cakrasenjaya)
(Image: Jessica Cakrasenjaya)

Having a high proportion of ELLs in my high school English classroom, I saw that there was no quick fix targeting both language acquisition and literary reading…but I knew that our big textbook was not my answer. I was absolutely frightened to think about the struggles ahead of me when I confronted the Shakespeare unit we were required to do. How will my ELL students ever comprehend Shakespeare when they are already struggling with modern English texts?


Then I learned about Shakespeare Set Free and language-based performance techniques. I was excited and I wanted to teach this way badly, but I was nervous about getting started. I feared that the students would refuse or even hate doing performances. Regardless of my own trepidation, I went out of my comfort zone and embraced the struggles and adapted the methods in the Folger’s book. I forgot about my students’ shortcomings and raised my expectations.


I started with some ELL-focused activities inspired by what we (the educational community) know about teaching ELLs and what the Folger knows about teaching Shakespeare. It’s no secret ELL students respond well to visuals, but the responses from my students were inspiring when I presented opportunities for them to create images—whether it was a living image, created by their performances of the language, or a drawn image on the page. For an example, groups created a comic panel of what the Prince is threatening in his speech. To focus on characterization, I had students analyze one of Romeo’s speeches (or any other character’s speech) and pick out two to three quotations to represent and support their conclusion on that character’s traits. We worked with small pieces of Shakespeare’s original language and built up to entire speeches and scenes. And once students understood they had the ability to analyze and create meaning out of difficult text, students became excited to show their knowledge through performances.


In performances, I allowed lots of time for students to analyze and rehearse the scenes. I encouraged students to use contextual clues to figure out what some of the words and phrases mean. These students, who have been branded as low-level readers for most of their academic career, were conversing about the possible meanings of the language. What a transformation: vocabulary instruction in our Shakespeare unit was not about the students’ lack of understanding English—now it was about slowing down, exploring the language, and negotiating meaning.


As a final performance, I gave groups certain parameters for scenes to perform and allowed them to cut the scenes as they saw fit. It’s the same lesson described in Shakespeare Set Free, but I was blown away by the response from my students. They were excited, and the same apprehensive students were now bringing in costumes and props. They asked to come in before and after school to rehearse their scenes.


At the end of the year, I had my students do an anonymous teacher evaluation. The first question I asked my students to answer was:


In what ways did the classroom set-up and practices improve your learning?

Unedited student responses are below.


  • “Made me/helped me memorize more parts of the story. Also understand more of what was going on in the story.”
  • “Reenactment helps my understanding”
  • “going over the play and adding real action to them helped me understand the content more.”
  • “… also helped me get rid of stage fright by doing performences.”
  • “The activities we did for performing really made us more closer and was really fun & it made people understand more.”
  • “Get out of my comfort zone”
  • “Actually acting out and reading scripts improved my knowledge of Shakespeare”
  • “We moved around a lot–helped not be so boring”


What lesson or concept did you learn in this course that you feel is most valuable to you?

Unedited student responses are below.


  • “you can use different kind of tone or stress when reading…when doing a play how important it is for the audience to know the feeling of it.”
  • “to put yourself out there!”
  • “My understanding of the English language , old and new”
  • “Be respectful to everyone, work with people you don’t talk to because it improves relationships”


I can see that the performance-based instruction did more than teach the content. If I wouldn’t have taken the risk of doing this, I would have never been able to see all of this other amazing learning and growing happen. This experience broke down all of my apprehension with struggling readers and difficult text. These students not only learned how to confront something difficult and to cope with it, but they also learned how to communicate and work with each other—all things that are worth more to me than percentiles and test scores.