Practical approaches to teaching KS3 Shakespeare

By Hannah Appleton

Reframing or reimagining how we tackle Shakespeare in schools begins with our perception of it being boring, irrelevant or too difficult, especially if we teach in schools with high numbers of SEND, EAL or FSM. It is, however, precisely those complexities and layers Shakespearean texts provide, which have the potential to ignite imaginations. Reimagine Key Stage 3 Shakespeare gives practitioners the basis for which demystification of these texts can take place.

My approach to teaching Shakespeare in the English classroom has always taken the ‘get up and do’ approach. It is all very well diligently reading from the page, and there is a place for this, but plays aren’t meant to be read in this way. Layers of meaning reveal themselves in performance. Indeed, each time I guide a new class through the old favourites – Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, The Tempest – I discover something new in the inventive exploration of the text.

I have known experienced practitioners who have been hesitant to remove the safety net of regimented desks and exercise books. Taking risks with learning, challenges our professional thinking and experimentation doesn’t always have the outcome one might expect. This can be daunting, especially with the ‘lively’ last-thing-on-a-Friday-afternoon class. However, some of the best learning experiences have materialised through these challenges, where everyone in class develops their understanding, including the teacher as facilitator.

Putting in the groundwork

  • Start by identifying the scenes which lend themselves to physical or vocal exploration. The Prologue in Romeo & Juliet, the unexpected appearance of Banquo’s Ghost in Macbeth or Trinculo’s comical discovery of Caliban under his cloak in The Tempest are all rich fodder for group investigation.
  • Now consider how the scene would be best communicated and what you would want to get out of it. Using the examples above, I would perhaps use the Romeo & Juliet Prologue as a vehicle for choral speech and/or tableaux. With Macbeth, it might be useful to hot-seat the characters at the feast. What are they thinking and feeling? Trinculo and Caliban are fabulous for exploring text through physical comedy and slapstick – clowning, if you will.

Does it have to be perfect?

In a word – no!

  • Focusing on the overall meaning rather than individual words or phrases can help a reluctant class. Build confidence with synopses, graphic texts, animations and storytelling.
  • Listening to a good quality recording whilst following the text can help with cadence and rhythm.
  • Encourage students to have a go at reading aloud and resist the temptation to always correct mispronunciation – after all, the modern pronunciation of Shakespeare’s Language sounds very different to the Original Pronunciation (OP) heard in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Making it relevant

Connecting to the present is vital to keep Shakespeare fresh for the digital generation. We can approach this in two ways: thematically and dramaturgically. Here are some examples of where to take key themes and practical in the plays. Of course, this is a fraction of what is possible.

PlayThematic linksDramaturgical links
MACBETHAmbition and power – the power & responsibility of influencers / celebrities. What does it take to rise to the top? How should those with power and influence behave? Which reality is true?Create a video post in character: Lady Macbeth on how to be a strong female. Malcolm on how to be a responsible leader.    
ROMEO AND JULIETCore aesthetics, group identity and ‘tribal’ communities. Does who we present ourselves to be matter? Can polarised groups co-exist peacefully? What happens when different communities meet?Organise a rap battle between the Montagues and Capulets, then explore commonalities and use mediation to consider how to heal rifts. Link to work done in your school on community cohesion.
THE TEMPESTModern slavery, protected characteristics & the Equality Act. What does personal freedom look like and how can we promote it? How does the Equality Act 2010 offer protection in the law?Use Spoken Word – performance poetry, stand-up comedy, a ‘TED-Talk’ presentation or a speech for assembly to highlight relevant issues affecting global communities.

A well-structured curriculum

Teaching Shakespeare doesn’t have to be onerous or dry. The rhythms of the language and relatability of the characters really do resonate with young people in the classroom. Find the focus your students can most tap in to, and whatever you decide to do in your classroom, make sure you go for it and have fun!

Hannah Appleton is an English teacher with over 20 years’ experience and a background in English, Drama and SEND. Currently working on literacy outreach at OLHA in Rochdale, Hannah has also worked in a range of settings, including community schools, MATs, the private sector and a PRU. She is the co-author of Reimagine Key Stage 3 Shakespeare, a resource which strives to bring imaginative ways of teaching Shakespeare to the classroom.

Reimagine Key Stage 3 Shakespeare is a customisable teacher pack that helps build a challenging and rewarding English curriculum with imaginative ways of studying Shakespeare’s drama, stories and language for every year of KS3.

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Designing Shakespeare: teaching ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Forging creative connections in King Lear

Mark Roberts – Three things I’ve learnt from teaching Romeo and Juliet

Book cover of Reimagine Key Stage 3 Shakespeare

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