6 Fire Ways to Engage Teens With Shakespeare (Without Hitting CTRL+ALT+DELETE on Your Entire Practice)

You’re certain you can get the kids to not only appreciate Shakespeare, but fall madly in love with his writing wizardry, if only they can look past the language barrier.  But how though?

Opened book of Shakespearean prose with a single red rose
Teaching Shakespeare is challenging but it can also be incredibly rewarding with the right strategies in place.

You love Shakespeare – you’re mad about the Bard.  Frankly this has more to do with watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet (for the heart-throbbery of young Leo) than anything else, BUT you see the timeless value of Shakespeare and want your students to love the majesty of tragedy as much as you do. 

You love the impulsivity of Romeo, the indecision of Hamlet, the villainy of Iago and the persuasive powers of the witches. 

But when a kid asks, “If Lady Macbeth wears the pants, does that mean Macbeth is…pantless on stage?”, you’re ready to start waving the white flag.  

Robin Williams sparks a love of language in Dead Poets’ Society.

Pushing Shakespeare is hard work.  Some might say it’s more difficult than pushing a dead horse uphill, actually. 

In some classrooms, the mere mention of Shakespeare induces groans and protestations. 

Bush Wallaby One starts using words like “doth” and “wench” and “thou” out of context. 

Bush Wallaby Two keeps yelling, “Come hither!” and saluting the whiteboard. 

Meanwhile, Bush Wallaby Three is on the edge of throwing an absolute shit-fit because, “I just don’t CARE about some dead old white dude who spoke such good English that no one could even understand him!”

You’re certain you can get the kids to not only appreciate Shakespeare, but fall madly in love with his writing wizardry, if only they can look past the language barrier.  But how though?

Good news, compadre.  There is a way!  And it doesn’t involve forcing kids to read the dagger soliloquy in stilted monotone mumbles.  I promise!

So what if I told you there was a secret way to examine Shakespeare without reading an entire tragedy out loud over the period of 4 weeks?  What if I told you that you are guaranteed to improve learning and literacy at the same time?  (For real, though!) 

“Thou art a liar!”, you say. 

Nope.  Just been around the block a few times, is all.   😉

It’s as simple as identifying and addressing the factors that influence reading comprehension.

Sounds too simple, right?  I know you wouldn’t have expected that, but getting kids to engage with and understand Shakespeare doesn’t have to be as difficult as reciting a soliloquy from memory – you can engage your students in deep literacy learning just by making a few minor tweaks to your practice.

Yeah but how, though? 

Here are the six top influences on reading comprehension in teens:

1. Fluency of Text Reading

No teen reads Shakespeare fluently – it doesn’t matter how proficient they are with accessible text. 

So don’t make them read the whole play! 

Instead, focus on providing multiple exposures to 4 or 5 pivotal scenes, unpack these in depth, provide opportunities to practice fluent reading (without risk of public failure) and THEN get them to read the key scene/s as a class.

2. Breadth and Depth of Vocabulary Knowledge

If your kids are engaging with Macbeth, for instance, they are going to come across terms or phrases like, “aroint thee, witch!”, “harbinger”, “missives”, “marshall’st” and “rump-fed runyon”.  And that’s just in Act One! 

Examining the meaning, pronunciation and synonyms of such terminology before engaging with pivotal scenes will give such unfamiliar phrasing a context, and provide greater access to meaning.

3. Background and Prior Knowledge Activation

The amount of relevant background and/or prior knowledge kids can draw from and apply to the text they are reading will depth their learning opportunities. 

Initiate collaborative conversations about what students already know and what connections they can make to other texts they enjoy.  This will give you the chance to illuminate critical links with contemporary texts, as well as identify and correct any misconceptions along the way.

4. Access to Higher-Order Thinking Skills

Asking students to evaluate the actions of a prominent character, or to compare and contrast motivations or behaviours of those in a scene, will encourage higher order thinking. 

Get kids to share their interpretations with one another – as a whole class or in smaller groups – so that they have the chance to hear alternative perspectives and to validate their viewpoints with direct evidence from the text.

5. Ability to Actively and Flexibly Use Reading Strategies

If you have explicitly taught students a variety of reading strategies, you can scaffold how to make inferences, or ask questions of the text, or make connections within and beyond the text. 

Use multiple exposures to a single scene within the text to show students how they might draw from a range of strategies to develop interpretations and depth their interactions.

6. Level of Motivation & Desire to Engage with the Text to Learn Deeply

Okay, so if you can’t even get the name “Shakespeare” out without inciting a riot, it is a tough ask to play motivational guru and ask the kids to enthusiastically engage with content. 

BUT if you can make the case for Shakespeare’s timeless relevance, if you can show kids what they can learn about human behaviour from their analysis of Shakespearean characters, and if you can explore how Shakespeare has influenced modern classics (such as Harry Potter, The Lion King, Breaking Bad, Ten Things I Hate About You, Sons of Anarchy and sooooo many more), you may just have a chance to influence their levels of motivation and engagement with the works of William Shakespeare.

As the Bard once said:

“Go wisely and slowly. Those who rush stumble and fall.” 

Go get your kicks from these top six influences on reading comprehension, and see what happens. 

Oh, and remember this: “We know what we are, but not what we may be”. 

Have a crack. 

You will be astounded at the incredible difference such tweaks to your practice will make to the learning outcomes of your kids. 

Go!  Be the teacher of all things Shakespearean that you were put on this earth to be, or not to be…

Like this? I’m Kate and I write about what lights me up:

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