How I Teach - Decipher the Bard

How to unravel Shakespeare's language for dyslexic students

Georgia Neale

The language of Shakespeare, beautiful to those fluent in its intricacies, is among the most difficult things an English teacher can put in front of a dyslexic student.

Even modern texts, using language more akin to the student's own, can cause problems for dyslexics in relation to reading, sequencing of words and remembering what has been read, so presenting a text that to untrained eyes looks like a foreign language can seem like madness - to both student and teacher.

It does not have to be this way. It is possible to make Shakespeare accessible to dyslexic students and enable them to see why so much time is spent studying the works of a man who died nearly 400 years ago.

For me, watching a film, television or cartoon adaptation of the play being studied is the first step.

Some may consider this controversial, but Shakespeare wrote his plays to be seen, not read in chunks during class. I believe that watching the play performed, in any format, engenders a proper understanding of the whole story from the start. This helps all the students reading the play, not just the dyslexic children. For the latter, however, this approach is certainly more important.

Next, when starting to work through the texts of the plays, it is helpful to divide the students into smaller groups. This gives them time to reflect and ask questions, time that may be lost in whole-class teaching. With regard to the composition of the groups, you can split the class by ability, so that the higher-level students can be given questions to move their learning forward while your time can be spent supporting the dyslexic students. That said, I have found that coupling higher-level students with dyslexic ones can provide a positive learning experience for everyone.

In terms of assessment, you should use a variety of methods to monitor learning in order to keep dyslexic students engaged. Asking them to produce only written work can cause them to fall behind: their fear may prompt them to switch off and disengage, sometimes weeks before the projects are due.

Instead, use alternatives such as storyboards, drama, and speaking and listening activities. They produce the same level of understanding and are a more effective and engaging process for dyslexic students.

Most of these strategies are whole-class approaches. This is because dyslexic students want to be treated like everyone else. Adopting inclusive strategies that build in a facility for dyslexic students to be supported in their understanding is much more effective than separating them from the group.

And of course, even though dyslexic students may be struggling with the text to a greater degree than their peers, the latter could derive just as much help from these ideas.

Georgia Neale teaches English at a secondary school in the South of England


1. Shakes or fakes?

"It's hatred I spew" is a line you can imagine frothing out of the mouth of Iago in Othello. However, it is actually a lyric by rapper Eminem. This is one quote in a game that interchanges Shakespeare's words with the lyrics of pop royalty such as Justin Bieber to show students the relevance of Shakespeare's language to today's vernacular.


2. Face off

This activity asks students to design and make a mask that showcases a Shakespearean character's personality traits. With a host of duplicitous persons to pick from, some inspiration will no doubt be taken from Batman's enemy Two-Face.


3. Seeing signs

You would have thought that Macbeth contains enough problematic prophecy without getting the students to add to it, but this resource asks them to write horoscopes for the characters in the play.


4. Bard book

Shakespeare targeted the masses - his plays were the soap operas of the day. He would no doubt approve of this resource, then, which uses Facebook as a template for exploring his work.


5. Stage managed

Shakespeare's home turf was the Globe Theatre and this resource gets students to build a paper model of the famous building to explore how it influenced the plays it staged there.


6. Elizabethan escapade

Send your students back in time to grasp the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote. Be sure to pack some frilly collars and a pair of tights.


7. Bard v Batman

On the face of it, Gotham City and Elizabethan England have little in common, and yet - as this resource shows - Batman and the Bard have a strikingly similar way with words.


8. MC Shakespeare

It appears that the connections between Shakespeare and hip hop extend beyond the similarities in name between of Los Angeles and our own William of Stratford. This activity sheet explores these connections, bringing the English playwright into a modern cultural context.


9. Canonic text messages

Explore the works of England's greatest playwright by converting the sacred texts to social media formats. The academics will be crying into their first folios.


10. Past made present

When your students ask why they have to study the Bard, respond with this video from a UK Slam Poetry champion who eloquently explains why Shakespeare's plays are as relevant today as they ever were.


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Georgia Neale

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