Teaching Shakespeare can be a very challenging task and even more so with particular students who struggle with the language and the context of his works. Here, Zoe Enser offers her tips on how to make lessons on Shakespeare accessible for all students.
Tackling something as challenging as Shakespeare can be a daunting prospect. The alien language, the unfamiliar context, and the sometimes-complex narratives, with subplots and a constantly changing variety of bit players littering the stage, even the most proficient reading can find the prospect of exploring this overwhelming. If you are a student with an SEN, or have literacy needs or English is a second language, this can feel even more confusing, and the temptation to avoid this challenge is understandable. However, I am a great believer that Shakespeare’s plays have enough inherent value to mean they should be available to all, especially if we want to then discuss what it is which does, or does not, make his plays important to us.
Here are some ways that I teach Shakespeare in a way which means all students, regardless of any additional needs they have, can gain from the study of his plays:
1) First, I begin by ensuring I have a good understanding of what the specific need is or what barriers Shakespeare may present to particular students. This is not much different to how I would approach any class, as the more I know their starting points or different requirements the better I can ensure learning can take place.
In many ways studying his work can be a great leveller though. Regardless of starting points, all may well find exploring his work a challenge and will be encountering something brand new, even if they have studied some of his plays before. All will experience something which they find difficult and will need to scratch their head over and just because some may find aspects of reading trickier than their peers, this doesn’t mean they won’t be able to examine plot, theme, character, and language in his work.
The starting points of the students doesn’t just mean knowing reading ages and fluency, although that can be useful, but it means exploring what they may already know, what they may have already experienced, and what misconceptions they may have picked up on their journey to my classroom. Films like Bill or programmes like Upstart Crow are excellent entertainment, and in both cases the writers have done very interesting things with their knowledge of Shakespeare’s history and writing, but they can very easily have taken students off into a range of potentially problematic directions. So, whilst I access where students are through questioning and discussion, I also take time to address these initial misconceptions, focusing my attention on those who may struggle even more if they struggle to move away from that initial thinking.
2) The next part of the process is to think carefully about the steps and stages we need to go through, often beginning with exploring and embedding knowledge of the plot and character. I identify where the hinge points may be, those moments in the plot where if they don’t understand what has happened, the meaning may become tangled. For some EAL or SEN students these misunderstandings can come thick and fast if we were to dive straight into a performance or reading, so I will offer short summaries either at the start of the sequence of learning or after watching or reading a scene to support all. I also plan carefully how the plot will unfold for them, so I can ensure they are not overwhelmed by too much information at once.
Knowing where these points of misunderstanding may arise before I begin to teach also allows me to pre-teach, preparing the ground of what is to follow. For example, by paying close attention to the Prologue of Romeo and Juliet or making use of a modern retelling of the story, students can hit the ground running when they encounter the full text. I used the Frankenstein play script by Phillip Pullman for this with real success for some SEN students, who read the play as part of their supported tutor reading, before arriving at the English lesson. Making use of graphic novel versions of the plays and short animations can also be a useful gateway into the greater complexity to come.
Pre-teaching vocabulary can also be another useful way to support students once they arrive to the text as a whole. Simple translations of things like the ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, an area that a range of students often struggle with, or key vocabulary which allows them to explore a text in more depth, such as villain, or hierarchy, can again mean they are able to approach the lesson with more confidence.
3) As I have considered the steps and stages through the plot and character, it gives me the perfect opportunity to check that all students are really accessing the learning. Low-stakes quizzes on mini-whiteboards help me to see what everyone has understood and what is being retained. If there are key points missed, I can either reteach then and there, or make a note to revisit this later. Reteaching and revisiting could be with the whole class, a small group or an individual. But by checking understanding regularly it means that I can see exactly where students are and whether I need to guide them back on track.
4) Performance is obviously an important element of Shakespeare’s work, although these plays were not just written for performance. Allowing students to see a good quality performance though, scaffolded by pre-teaching and summary as suggested above, will help them to interact with the text as an audience. A good production will also model the reading of complex lines and support students to hear the links between the individual words and overall meaning conveyed in the action.
Giving students the opportunity to explore the text as performance themselves can also be a good way to ensure they have a greater understanding of the plot, themes, and character. This doesn’t necessarily mean them performing whole scenes, but focusing instead on key phrases or moments. A ‘yes/ no’ argument between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as she tries to convince him to kill the king, can be just as interesting as students performing the whole of that dialogue, as they consider what she does with each line: what might the tone be when she says, ‘had I so sworn’? Which way would she face? Where would she stand in relation to him? Does this change when she delivers the next part of her speech? Line by line and moment by moment performance, including using tableaux and collaborative storytelling, can really bring a text alive for some students.
5) To create links between what we are discussing about the play and the performance, I use visual, images taken from the performance I selected, to allow students to associate particular characters, with key moments and the different themes or ideas. Romeo and Juliet for example is a play where students can sometimes get confused as to who belongs with each family, and how they relate, and a visual family tree, which we then discuss, helps to ensure that as they follow the action as it unfolds. Using these images later to reinforce who is speaking can also provide a scaffold to understanding and linking images to lines, themes or characters can also ensure that there is greater access for all.
6) Once we are at the stage of writing about the plays, not something that should be rushed, I model, model and model some more. This means whether we are writing our own summaries or adding details to those we had at the start, or writing in a more analytical way, I will show students how they can do this, taking them through step-by-step. Coupling this with sentence stems, which can gradually become embedded as part of their own oral and written toolbox, means they will be able to write with greater confidence and fluency about these complex ideas and texts. Breaking this down into its component parts is really important and allows a close focus on crafting their work from the first sentence to writing a full essay.
Ultimately, however we may feel about Shakespeare and his influence ourselves, we cannot argue his work hasn’t managed to work its way into our psyches over the centuries. If we want students to be able to engage with the debates that surround this, examining where his ideas, stories and language transcends the boundaries of their English lessons, and be successful in their exams too, we need to consider how we can ensure that as many barriers to engaging with his work as possible are removed.
It’s then up to the students to decide whether it will be ‘once more into the breach’ when they meet with his work again or whether it’s ‘for ever, and for ever, farewell’ to the Bard, confined to the dim and distant memories of their English classrooms. But if we don’t support them to understand what his work could offer, that will never be a choice they are in a position to make.