Teaching Shakespeare to Struggling Readers

Teaching Shakespeare to struggling readers.

Shakespeare presents an exceptional challenge for struggling readers. All the plastic swords and bad student acting will help get students interested in the content. But it won’t be enough for those who find everyday reading a significant challenge.

Below I’ve outlines some steps that will help struggling readers get a handle on Shakespeare’s plays. I am working from the basic premise that we want ALL students to experiences Shakespeare in the original language. And furthermore that ALL students can read and understand it. It just might require some a little more time than others!

So here are some teaching ideas to help struggling readers with your Shakespeare lessons.

Do Shakespeare bellringers before reading.

As you finish up the unit that comes before Shakespeare, prep students with bellringers that cover the ins and outs of how to read the Bard. These bell ringers introduce aspects of Shakespeare’s language like contractions, inversions, and metaphors in just a few minutes a day. Then when they start the play, they already have some strategies.

Don’t teach the whole play.

Because who says you have to? Be an ELA rebel!

It’s a perfectly fine idea with struggling readers to give them chunks of the text and not the entire play. I can’t think of a more discouraging situation than having students struggle to read page after page of Shakespeare, wrestling with the vocabulary and sentence structure, and thinking to themselves “I can’t believe I have to sit here and read this for the next four weeks.”

So cut them a break. Pick some of the more famous speeches, or some of the passages that are easier to understand and leave the rest. You can show movie clips, summarize some of the less important scenes, and scaffold the remaining action. We want to give them enough Shakespeare to say that they’ve read it, but not so much that it turns them off for good.

Start in the middle.

Once again, no one is telling you that you have to begin at Act One Scene One. An idea that came from a workshop is to begin with a crucial scene from later in the play.

For instance, don’t start Romeo and Juliet at the beginning with all of the unfunny puns and biting of thumbs. Dive in with a little romance in the easier to understand balcony scene with all of the rich metaphors. Or in Julius Ceasar, start with the letter from Artemidorous and the assassination.

Starting with a scene that doesn’t require as much context and explanation builds confidence so struggling students think “I can handle this.” If they feel like from the start they can’t handle it, it will be very difficult to get them back. Building confidence should be our #1 priority. Once you do that, you can go back to the beginning and start from there.

Use Comics.

Shakespeare comics helps struggling readers understand Shakespeare plays.

Because seriously. Who doesn’t love comics?

Comics of Shakespeare plays can be used in a variety of ways to help students read Shakespeare. Use them as a fun way to introduce each act before reading in a way that allows students to match up images to the text. They can be a handy review as you read. They can make complicated plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream easier to follow. They can be a coloring page for antsy kids that need to do something with their hands in order to pay attention. And did I mention kids like comics? And these Shakespeare comics and activities will get kids interested in Shakespeare from day one.

Give Shakespeare comics a try! All of your students will love them, and your struggling readers will thank you.

Break up the text.

Those long passages of Shakespeare look daunting. No one who encounters the funeral orations of Brutus and Antony is going to think “great! A really long passage. Let’s go!”

So you might break up Brutus’s oration like this:

If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: –Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.

Had you rather Caesar were living and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.

That way what seems like torture becomes a bunch of short sentences that are broken up by idea.

Now the text just looks more manageable. Plus, it’s chunked together by common ideas, which makes it easier to read.

Use Video (Beyond the Movie You Already Show)

Sure, we all use the Zefferelli version of Romeo and Juliet, and one of the versions of Julius Caesar. But there’s a lot of great content available online that allow students to see what Shakespeare looks like on the stage. I’m a big fan of the productions put on at the Globe Theatre. They’ll cost more than you want to pay, but they do feature an authentic portrayal of Shakespeare’s work. Plus, they have a diverse cast.

When you watch these clips, don’t just have students passively watch them. Ask them to keep track of what the actors are doing. After all, you can’t just stand there and recite lines – that would be boring. What are they doing with their bodies and expressions? If you get really adventurous, show them a clip without sound and have them observe it that way. By doing this, students gain an awareness of what is involved in acting.

Also, don’t be afraid to show parts of the play without reading it. I have found both fight scenes in Romeo and Juliet make more sense if you watch them with students instead of reading them out loud.

And don’t forget! You can watch most clips with subtitles, so struggling readers can get an extra dose of the language as they watch.

Shakespeare can work for struggling readers!

Awesome Shakespeare Resources!

A lot of students can use whatever help they can get understanding Shakespeare, so I’ve developed comics and activities for a few frequently taught plays, like Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet and more! 

Many teachers have found them valuable for comprehension, plus they’re fun! Who doesn’t love comics?

If you’d like a free Introduction to Shakespeare activity, click the box below:


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