5 Tips for Teaching Shakespeare to Students with Reading Difficulties

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December 11, 2023
5 Tips for Teaching Shakespeare to Students with Reading Difficulties
Jamie Litton

Shakespeare’s language can be difficult to navigate for even the best readers. But once a student gets past their fear of the language itself, they often get swept away by Shakespeare’s characters and plots. So how do we provide the same access to Shakespeare’s rich storytelling to students with reading difficulties? 

Here are five strategies you can use to support students at all reading levels when teaching Shakespeare.

Start with Audio

Introducing students to a play by having them listen to an audio version of the prologue or a climactic scene can familiarize them with the language and ease them into a deeper understanding. myShakespeare offers audio of all our plays performed by voice actors who bring life and emotion to the lines. 

By listening to a scene and then discussing it in class, students can begin to decode the plot and overarching themes of the play. Ask your students,

  • Who is speaking? 
  • What is happening? 
  • What are the characters feeling at this moment, and how can you tell? 
  • How does the dialogue make you feel? 


This strategy provides an entry point to the play, so that when it comes time to read the text itself, students are already familiar with the words, characters, and circumstances.

Treat It as Theater (Because It Is!)

Thinking about the plays as visual and auditory performances can ease some of the anxiety students with reading difficulties experience.  It can also get students comfortable with the sometimes daunting task of reading aloud in class. Ask your students to act out the scenes, adjusting their tone to match the emotion of the moment. This approach can increase comprehension and relieve pressure—plus it’s fun!

Pre-Teach Vocabulary and Historical Context

Not only did Shakespeare write in a way that is foreign to our modern ears, but he wrote at a time that was wildly different from our own. When teaching Shakespeare, finding the universal themes and evidence of the human condition is often the focus, and rightly so. However, we must first acknowledge and sort out the glaring contextual differences that often stand in the way of comprehension. 

You can do this by highlighting difficult vocabulary and historical references that show up in the play before even beginning to read it. In this way, you are giving your students the tools to navigate the text in advance, and most importantly, boosting their confidence in their ability to “do Shakespeare.” 

Once students jump into reading the play on myShakespeare, they can use the glossed words to understand difficult language and watch the videos explaining historical context to deepen their understanding.

Use Media

Shakespeare was meant to be performed, which means that watching a film adaptation of the play is a legitimate way to engage with the material—a comforting thought for students with reading challenges. You can heighten the analysis by asking students to compare the artistic choices of actors and directors in several versions of the same scene. myShakespeare’s integrated performances and interviews offer students the opportunity to see excerpts and scenes as they read.

Don’t Pooh-Pooh Modern Translations

Some teachers shy away from modern translations of Shakespeare, worrying that their students won’t become Shakespeare literate if they only read the modern text. But modern translations, when used while engaging with the original text, can be profoundly helpful tools to improve comprehension, especially for students with reading difficulties. myShakespeare features modern translations of all our plays so that students can more easily track what is happening in each scene. Encourage your students to use modern translations when they are feeling lost during classroom performances, need to catch up after an absence, or when they are at home working through the play for an assignment.

At a time when scaffolding and differentiation in general education classrooms has become a necessity, Shakespeare can be downright scary for students and teachers alike. These tips can alleviate some of the pressure and even make teaching and learning Shakespeare fun.