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How to Teach Shakespeare: Scaffolding Approaches for All Learners

Ever wondered how to teach Shakespeare so that all students are engaged and learning? Are you searching for scaffolding approaches that work? Keep reading.

“I cannot WAIT to be challenged by the rigor of Shakespeare’s complex texts this year!” said no student ever. Well, at least not in my class. Perhaps your students feel the same general sense of ennui that many mine have exhibited over the years at the mention of the Bard’s plays.

Teaching in a school with a tracking system that contains multiple levels as well as co-taught situations, I’m constantly reflecting and tweaking. It can be difficult to scaffold Shakespeare’s plays to make them accessible to various levels of learners, but it’s not impossible.


Struggling readers aren’t the only ones who get frustrated while reading Shakespeare. I have a few tricks in my bag that I use with all of my students to scaffold their experience – regardless of their reading level.

Take it slow.

One of the staples of my Shakespeare unit every year is that I take my time teaching the play. While I could easily hurry through more quickly, I find value in this approach. Having learned the hard way, I never ask students to read the play outside of class because 1) they don’t, 2) it makes them hate it, and 3) that’s not the right context for a play that is meant to be experienced.

If the point of reading Shakespeare is to help students comprehend and analyze complex texts, I want to give them time to do that enjoyably, incorporating discussions, activities, and readers’ theater along the way. Plus, the allusions to his work alone warrant spending a longer time grasping the context and meaning behind the references.

Teach literary devices thoroughly.

When students struggle to understand Shakespeare’s language, it’s partially due to iambic pentameter and nuances of Early Modern English. They get used to that soon enough with support from the teacher, but when it comes to figurative language, that’s another story. Students need to be thoroughly prepared to identify an analyze their purpose and effect.

I teach a mini-unit on literary terms before reading any part of the play. During this unit, students review previously taught terms and explore devices that are brand new to them. We conduct a variety of practice exercises, and then we watch The Lion King. This movie is the perfect vehicle for discussing and analyzing all of the devices in Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a modern, approachable text that students can draw upon while reading the play.

Prepare students to encounter new vocabulary.

I use brain-based learning approaches to introduce students to new words. We predict word meanings, make associations, and interact in meaningful repetition through activities and games. By the time we start reading each act, I really want them to have almost mastered the words.

The icing on the cake is when we encounter their words in context while reading. We pause to discuss connotation and meaning at these points. The vocabulary I choose depends on the text version we are reading, but the key to success is in not selecting too many. Five words per act is plenty!

Provide engaging framing opportunities.

My students enjoy mini research projects, picture predicting, and video clips that provide the historical context they need to understand what it was like to live during the time period. We examine gender roles, religious turmoil, the reputations of actors, health and hygiene, the Globe theater, and more. By the time we have finished our background information, students are genuinely interested.

Use engaging reading activities.

Even my advanced readers often need support when reading Shakespeare’s original work. I scaffold all students’ understanding with reading activities that help them to reflect after each act. We use the questions for class discussion, comprehension checks, small group activities, and review sessions.

Allow students to become the experts.

To build confidence and increase interest, give students topics and have them share what they’ve learned with the class. For instance, someone might research the Elizabethan beliefs about the Chain of Being. Another might look into the diseases of the time period. Make the research meaningful by asking students to connect their research to the play. How are those beliefs represented through characters’ fears and actions? through the playwright’s tone and underlying messages? 

Do you teach Shakespeare? It's difficult to scaffold the text for various learners, but not impossible. Read about different options to support all learners in this post from Reading and Writing Haven.


Struggling readers have a unique set of obstacles when reading one of Shakespeare’s plays.  

Use adapted texts.

While I accent my instruction with a few sections from the original poetry, the vast majority of the texts I use with my struggling readers are adapted versions of the play. I’ve used graphic novels, No Fear Shakespeare, plainspoken texts, and an old READ magazine play version.

In order to prevent frustration, it’s important to meet students at their readiness level by choosing a a text that they can handle. Even companion versions can be made rigorous by adding splashes of the original play.

Don’t read the whole play.

It took me years, but I finally gave in. It’s true. Students don’t have to read every word of the text for it to be a valuable learning experience. Focus on the most important scenes in each act, and supplement students’ understanding of the whole play with a visual representation.

Frame each act with a visual.

During my master’s coursework, professors began recommending to me that I scaffold Shakespeare’s plays by framing each act with a visual – the movie. At first, I was skeptical. After I tried it, I realized it worked. It is a powerful approach that brings the text to life.

Now, I show students one version before we read the act and a different version afterward. We discuss how and why various films depict the same text differently. Students can explore how and why each interpretation affects the viewer’s experience differently. My struggling readers love the visuals.

Use audio.

Shakespeare is meant to be performed, but when students struggle through reading a text, it can be frustrating. Plus, comprehension decreases when fluency issues arise. Have students listen to an audio version, or allow them to listen to a fluent reader before trying to read a part themselves.

When my co-taught classes act out Romeo and Juliet, my co-teacher and I take large speaking roles if necessary. We assign other volunteers parts that complement their reading abilities. You can even gather willing staff members to record your own audio clip of the text version you are reading.

Make it relevant.

Many advanced students have intrinsic motivation to do well. For struggling readers, that’s not always the case. With all students, but especially with my lower-level students, I focus on making connections between the text and their lives. We talk about movies and modern stories with similar themes:  rebellion, feuding, and forbidden love.

You can also ask students to research specific allusions in our modern society that stem from the play you are studying in class. A rose by any other name…Et tu, Brute?…Double double toil and trouble…Teachers don’t have to be pop culture experts to make reading Shakespeare relevant. We can allow students to contribute connections that are meaningful to them.

Ultimately, each teacher has to assess the readiness levels, motivation, and needs of her own students. Understanding students’ reading readiness helps teachers to design a unit that supports their needs. If you’d like more inspiration for ways to teach Shakespeare, Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom has some helpful hints.

One Comment

  1. Thanks for this!

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