Enabling all learners to develop a love of Shakespeare

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Authored by Maddie Short, Programmes Lead, Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation

Boring. Stuffy. Irrelevant. 

We all know what Shakespeare looks like when it goes wrong. 

It's become something of a cliché to hear adults of all generations complain about their experience of learning Shakespeare. Shakespeare as a book to be read. Shakespeare as a dense and alien language. Shakespeare as a piece of high art to appreciate, not love. 

But with the right approach – one that highlights the stories’ timeless themes, remains conscious of the needs of the young people in the room, and stretches learners to achieve the very best they can – Shakespeare can be a genuinely thrilling part of the school experience. 

Tip 1: Make It relevant 

Shakespeare’s stories are built on timeless themes. From the love-hate duality at the centre of Romeo and Juliet, to the violent ambition which drives Macbeth, these stories centre big themes that young people instinctively get. 

Over the years, we’ve heard from a school in Birmingham who used a Shakespearean tragedy to explore the violent crime that was all too common in their neighbourhood; we’ve seen stories of students who have used Shakespeare’s plays to explore and overcome their own behavioural challenges in the classroom; and we’ve found students whose  understanding, and love of, Shakespeare has grown exponentially through an opportunity to really connect with his universal themes. 

Of course, the challenge is helping students grasp these core themes through the thicket of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan poetry. This can be tricky. Indeed, we can all find Shakespearean language intimidating. 

The obvious solution is to strip back the original language, and reframe the bulk, or even all, of the text into modern English. While some of our Theatre Festival schools do simplify the language – often for their own entirely understandable reasons – there's much to be said for tackling Shakespeare’s words head-on. 

Firstly, so much of the brilliance of Shakespeare’s plays lies in the force of his language and the emotions it can summon. Consider Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech. It could - in theory - be translated directly into modern English but by giving his words greater meaning to your students, you’ll likely find the text robbed of much of its feeling. 

Secondly, we find that young learners enjoy a challenge, albeit the challenge must be achievable. We feel the best way to support young people in understanding Shakespeare’s language is by speaking his words, working together in an active way to decode passages which at first aren’t clear, and demonstrating the relevance of the stories to their own lives. 

Tip 2: Start Small, Build Big 

It can be tempting to dive straight into a scene or a monologue, especially for teachers who’ve already got the Shakespeare bug. We use a technique called ‘scaffolding’ - one that’ll be familiar to most teachers reading this. 

We combine small steps together to make learning easier. In a workshop, we give our students different roles, allowing them to learn through interactions with each other.

By starting small and focusing on producing energy (and laughter) in the room, young people can connect with each other, and Shakespeare, incredibly quickly – and if you can make the Shakespearean classroom a place for laughter, lightness and energy, a deep and lasting love of the subject becomes a real possibility. 

Tip 3: Support Every Learner to Achieve Their Best 

Central to Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation’s pedagogy is the belief that young learners are curious. In every school we visit, we find children who enjoy playing, learning and experimenting with new thoughts and new ideas. 

Inevitably, what is an achievable challenge depends on the specific young people participating. As a teacher, you’ll know your children best, but take a second to look around the room. What will the young people here enjoy? What will they struggle with? What’s ambitious for them?

Make sure you’re supporting young people to get the most they can out of themselves and the text. Give them the tools and encouragement they need to achieve their very best, whatever that looks like, for example:

  1. Make sure everyone feels a part of the story. Not every student in your cohort will feel comfortable taking on stacks of script, but in Shakespeare’s rich worlds, there is a place for every young person to have a role. Consider how the wider court of King Lear would react to his irrational behaviour, or how other magical creatures in the forest would observe the hijinks of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  2. Find a theme, or a time period that your young people can connect with.. If your young people aren’t quite clicking with the story so far, but you know the class have been enthralled by the study of pop art or Henry VIII, elsewhere in the curriculum; how can you bring this into your study and performance of Shakespeare, and bring these stories to life for everyone in the group? Through our Theatre Festival, we’ve seen performances based on everything from electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk, to hit TV series The Traitors. Find what your young people are interested in, and support them to reimagine the Shakespeare play for this company,  at this point in time.
  3. Experiment with the language. It’s definitely worth exploring Shakespeare’s original language, but that doesn’t mean you can’t compare it to modern English and let your students use their creativity to write their own monologues. Last year, we ran a competition called What You Will and were delighted with the skill and creativity we saw from young people across the country. This can be a really good way of supporting students of all abilities to engage with Shakespeare’s stories on their own terms.
  4. If you’re performing, let your students change the play’s ending. Giving young people ownership over the play can really bring all members of a group together in sharing ideas and creative input. But changing the ending of a Shakespearean play is a particularly bold, exciting step which can really help to give every member of a learning cohort a stake in the play. It also demonstrates to students that the plays are there, ultimately, to be explored and enjoyed. Shakespeare can’t come back and tell us off for ‘doing it wrong!’

Tip 4: Play’s the Thing 

Shakespeare’s stories connect with young people. They are magical and deeply human, laugh-out loud funny and utterly tragic; sometimes all in the same scene. For many, seeing Shakespeare’s stories as a static text, something to be preserved in aspic and studied from afar, turns them away from his wonders early on in their school life. 

His words were written for eager ears,  not weary eyes. We understand from our experience working with young people just how exhilarating Shakespeare can be when efforts are made to make the texts accessible.

Over our 24 years engaging children in schools and theatres, we’ve found that people work best by doing and performing, building a connection to and love of, these stories. Every workshop we run is devised with this in mind: how can we make this story accessible? How can we make it fun? And how can we make this experience enriching for our young learners? 

Working together, whether in a play or performing the text in your English class, all young people – from those who attain above national expectations , to those who struggle to learn with more ‘traditional’ teaching methods – will find their teamwork and resilience skills improve. Learning about the trials and tribulations of Shakespeare’s characters instils empathy and confidence.


So, dive in, take on the Shakespeare challenge. Expose your young people to Shakespeare’s works in every way you can. Show your children that the stories of Shakespeare are the stories of all human life. And give your young people a chance to connect with the many and varied worlds he created. 

If you can help to reimagine Shakespeare for your students, you’ll find every child can learn to relish the opportunity to engage with his works, love the stories, and grow exponentially as young citizens. Because when young people develop a love of Shakespeare, we know what that looks like. Joyous. Exhilarating. Transformative.


Designed to help struggling readers, SEND students, EAL learners and more, Accessible Shakespeare texts have been created to help students connect and engage with this much-loved, iconic author.

Through features like dyslexia-friendly fonts, audio of the full play, glossaries and trackers throughout the copy, and plenty of space for notes in an annotation-friendly layout, these features help open up Shakespeare to all.

To find out more on how Accessible Shakespeare can support you and your students, visit: go.pearson.com/accessibleshakespeare


Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation engages upwards of 10,000 young people each year, giving them opportunities to get Shakespeare’s stories up on their feet. 

For more information on Coram Shakespeare Schools Foundation, visit: https://www.shakespeareschools.org

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