Teaching Shakespeare at Key Stage 4: Language, Structure, and Form


This essay was originally written in 2014 as part of my professional training for QTS. Asked to write about the helpfully vague area of “a subject specialism”, I chose to explore strategies for teaching Shakespeare at KS4 (that’s ages 14-16 in middle school, for anyone reading this in the US). It’s an area I still find challenging, even after six years working with this age group: the very notion of approaching Shakespeare as a written text (which feels unnatural enough!) can be daunting for many students, regardless of their background or ability. The archaic language, the often obscure dialogue, the absence of helpful stage directions, and the sheer cultural and semantic weight of *SHAKESPEARE* can make reading these plays feel, for many students (young and old!) like a perilous voyage into alien territory. For teachers, the difficulty lies in making these plays accessible – preferably fun! – while adhering to unforgiving assessment criteria and strict examination policies. Yikes.

I feel passionately about the subject – more so now than I did in 2014 – and, although I suspect that my training mentor read very little of this essay (adhering to strict I-don’t-care-I’d-rather-be-watching-the-football policies of his own), I’m proud of the practical work I put in. At the time, I saw this essay as an opportunity to stretch my academic legs a little, as opportunities to write critically had been few and far between during teacher training. (I am ashamed to say that this sense comes across in some of the more smug-sounding sentence formulations here and there throughout). Now, however, I can look back and see how far I have come as a teacher in general, and of Shakespeare in particular. I didn’t know it at the time, but this essay marked a beginning for me: it was the first stage of a process of reflection, trial-and-error, mistakes and successes – a process that continues to this day. It also, in some sense, sowed the seeds for what would one day become “Shake-in-a-Day”. But more on that in another post… 

N.B. QTS training standards and the language of the English National Curriculum have, I believe, changed since the time of writing, and all references to these are therefore out of date. However, the teaching and learning strategies described throughout are still relevant to DfE requirements and examination board assessment criteria for 2018-19.

Teaching Shakespeare at Key Stage 4: Language, Structure, and Form

[T]hose that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads. But, for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1.2.272-4)

While few aspects of English studies are as rewarding as studying the dramatic works of William Shakespeare, it is also the case that few subjects can seem as daunting to both students and teachers in mainstream education. In terms of “living dilemmas of love, mortality, power and citizenship” (Doran 2010, 5), stories such as Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and The Tempest retain a transcendent appeal that makes them every bit as relevant today as they were in Shakespeare’s England. However, in the 400-plus years since Shakespeare wrote, the English language has evolved. Certain words which formed part of Shakespeare’s vocabulary have all but disappeared (“thee”, “wherefore”), while others have taken on entirely new significations (“weird”, “hooker”). The result is that that these plays – which were written for a mass audience – can pose a challenge for modern students, particularly at Key Stage 4, who must overcome a considerable language barrier before they are able to demonstrate in their exams an appreciation for “the depth and power of the English literary heritage” (Department for Education 2014, 1). It is the responsibility of English teachers to plan lessons that enable all students to overcome these barriers and access Shakespearean drama at different levels.

To this end, this essay explores strategies for teaching KS4 pupils Shakespeare by concentrating the following three key concepts: language (the words and linguistic devices that the writer uses), structure (the way in which sections of writing are constructed to produce different effects) and form (the type of text studied, often in relation to wider cultural movements). I focus specifically on KS4, because by the time mainstream students reach years 10 and 11 they should have, by the standards of the current mandated curriculum, already received a grounding on the basic contextual details of Shakespeare and early modern drama by studying two plays at KS3. The focus at KS4 should therefore be on helping young people to develop the sophisticated reading and writing skills required for the GCSE exams, and which involve tackling the aforementioned language barrier to a greater extent that in KS3. Teaching students to analyse language, structure and form in Shakespeare’s plays, I argue, is vital in ensuring that they make the progress through the KS4 Curriculum. Furthermore, helping students to grasp these key concepts can help to remove the mystery of Shakespeare, enabling students to develop effectively as learners and approach with confidence any given Shakespearean text. I begin with a brief overview of the place of Shakespeare in the new 2014 KS4 Curriculum, and the requirement for teachers to help students develop knowledge and understanding of language, structure and textual form within the frameworks of both the Curriculum and the QTS Professional Standards. Following this, I discuss some of the current debates on the matter of teaching Shakespeare effectively, drawing from my own research and firsthand observations of experienced teachers. The final section of this essay relates theory to practice, detailing my own experience of teaching a sequence of KS4 lessons, and the progress shown by my students.


Shakespeare and the KS4 Curriculum

The new 2014 English Curriculum for KS4 emphasises the place of Shakespeare in education. The DfE demands that students are taught at least one new Shakespeare play to build on the two or three that they should have studied at KS3 (DfE 2014, 1). The reason for this is clear when one considers the types of reading, writing and verbal skills which students are expected to develop at KS4. In terms of reading skills alone, young people should be taught to: understand and critically evaluate texts through reading in different ways for different purposes, evaluating their usefulness for particular purposes; to identify and interpret themes; to seek evidence in the text to support a point of view, and to analyse vocabulary, form, grammatical and structural features in terms of their impact on the reader (DfE 2014, 1). Although “reading” Shakespeare as a written text rather than as a dramatic spectacle is a contentious issue (see Spangler 2009, 131), analysis of Shakespeare in any form can be utilised to teach any and all of these different skills. More specifically, the language of the Curriculum makes clear that learners will marked on their understanding of factors which include language, structure and form in literature. These concepts are deeply ingrained throughout the Curriculum, and Shakespeare lessons which foreground them therefore fulfil a valuable role in facilitating students’ progress.  

In terms of professional training, the ability to plan sequences of lessons that teach aspects such as language, structure and form – concepts which students need to learn in order to understand Shakespeare – feeds directly into many QTS Professional Standards. Planning lessons on these vital components of reading necessitates a reflective attitude towards the attainment and progress of students in relation to their emerging needs (2a and 2c). It also demands a secure knowledge of the subject matter (3a) and the ability to develop students’ understanding through effective use of lesson time (4a) and via the provision of an engaging curriculum (4e). Lastly a secure understanding of how to overcome factors which might inhibit learning is needed in order to target the potential linguistic and structural obstacles inherent in studying Shakespeare (5b). Shakespeare in the classroom, then, is as valuable to trainee teachers on a professional level as it is to KS4 students in an academic sense.

Shakespeare as a dramatic text

Most critics agree that the most important first step towards engaging students in Shakespearean plays is to focus on their form as drama. Shakespeare did not write books to be read, he wrote plays to be performed. For this reason, critics such as Susan Spangler have argued for the stage production to be the primary text, with the “script” used further exploration of the play (Spangler 2009, 131). Spangler’s suggestion is important: even though secondary students are, ultimately, expected to be able to answer questions about the written text of a play in their exams, preparing them effectively for those exams undoubtedly benefits from an emphasis on how these plays would have been understood as theatre. As RSC director Michael Boyd attests, “Ask [children] to comment on a great work of literature and they will shrink away. Give a child the part of Bottom, Tybalt or Lady Macbeth and watch them unlock their imagination” (Boyd 2008, 1). As it pertains to older students, learners are often surprised to discover that, as Roberta Barker explains, early modern playtexts were “products of a male-dominated theatre” and would have been performed by entirely male casts (Barker 2008, 2). This fact in and of itself can provoke impassioned debate among students of all ability groups who are forced to consider Romeo and Juliet and Lady Macbeth in a new light! Notions of performance, then, appeal directly to imaginative which can bring texts to life and make the difference between students memorising facts about story and language, and learning. The general critical consensus is that the most successful Shakespeare teaching is learning-centred, and acknowledges, as Rex Gibson writes, “that every student seeks to create his or her own meaning, rather than passively soak up information (Gibson 1998, 9). The Shakespeare teacher’s task at any key stage level, then, is “to enable students … to ask their own questions, to create and justify their own meanings” (Gibson 1998, 9), and in doing so develop a genuine sense of ownership of the play.

In my observations of experienced teachers at my placement schools thus far I have witnessed firsthand how, “in the same way that “you cannot perform a play without relying on each other” (Doran 2010, 8), teachers may help to develop the personal, social and thinking skills of the learners through collaborative interpretation and an emphasis on Shakespeare as drama. In one KS4 lesson at my second placement, the teacher sat students in a circle around the classroom and performed a “silver bullets” activity in which they were given one line each from Prospero’s final speech in The Tempest. They then read these lines in sequence several times, speaking with different emotions each time. students soon discovered that certain key words sounded much better when read happily, and some lines were more effective when read in an angry fashion. Without even requiring knowledge of the story of the play, this simple exercise thus drew students to an understanding of the range of emotions that Prospero felt in his speech. Drama activities can therefore prove a useful way of circumventing the problems presented by watching films, while simultaneously allowing for a greater engagement with the text than a straight read-through might present. When it comes to enabling students to access the entire story of a play, several teachers I have observed showed film clips in order to give students a sense of the context of a scene, which acted as a useful starting-point for deeper textual analysis. While some teachers might argue that these resources only “waste precious class time” as “seeing the action before hearing and knowing the words can become a distraction even for exceptional students,” who “might never know the raw excitement that comes from imagining the characters on their own” (Salwak 2014), the fact remains that “film can be a key resource for the study of early modern drama in performance” (Aebischer 2013, 143). This is particularly true for lower ability groups who may be reluctant to read aloud in class, and also for students who are returning to Shakespeare or early modern drama following a hiatus of several years.


Putting theory into practice: a personal reflection

At my primary placement school, I had the pleasure of teaching Macbeth to a class of lower-ability year 10 students (ages 14-15) for a half-term. With my research on effective Shakespeare teaching in mind, I planned a sequence of lessons around enabling students to become confident with the language, structure and form of Shakespeare’s drama. I was particularly keen to avoid the pitfalls of Shakespeare teaching observed by Fred L. Hamel, who notes that teachers in a recent study had the tendency “to disconnect reading from literary understanding” feeling that students should be able to “read” before entering an English class. I therefore planned these first lessons around preparing students for their GCSE exams by getting students to feel comfortable with reading Shakespeare’s language. In the first lesson, I focused on teaching students that Shakespeare’s plays were designed to be spoken, that language changes over time, that almost every modern reader has trouble at first in comprehending Shakespeare and that, with an open mind, they can understand a lot more than they may believe at first glance. To do this, I used a game called “Shakespeare or Fakespeare” in which I presented a selection of modern song lyrics and Shakespearean extracts, and students had to guess which was which. No single student got every question right, and all were pleasantly surprised to see that the lyrics that they listened to – and, by extension, the words that they use in modern speech – can be equally as complex as Shakespeare’s own. I also asked students to create their own Shakespearean insults by piecing together words from a large selection. Not only did students immediately grasp that the “sense” of some words can be grasped even without knowledge of meaning, but they also had a lot of fun doing this. Lastly I introduced students to Shakespeare’s enthusiasm for puns and wordplay. “The pun,” Gibson notes, may “amuse some and irritate others,” but “Most students find puns appealing” (Gibson 1998, 81), and fortunately mine were among them – particularly when they realised that much  contemporary humour is based on a word’s capacity for communicating different meanings. The lesson concluded with a writing activity that demonstrated that students felt considerably more comfortable with Shakespeare’s language than they did at the start.

The following lesson built on the previous one by introducing students to ideas relating to the structure of early modern dramatic texts – particularly the concept of iambic pentameter. The aim of this lesson was to demonstrate to students that they might eke out a sense of the most important lines in verse passages purely on the ways in which iambic pentameter is sustained and broken. Again, understanding the importance of spoken words was shown to be the key to accessing meaning in Shakespeare. Although some students had come across iambic pentameter at the start of KS3 when studying sonnets, a starter activity showed that none felt too confident with discussing it. The rest of the lesson thus clarified what iambic pentameter was to students, and how the rhythm is designed to roll off the tongue. students were then presented a passage from Richard III which contained several instances of iambic pentamenter being broken for effect. A class drama activity in which the non-pentameter sections were read out loudly for effect demonstrated that the breaks in rhythm highlighted important plot points or moments of character development. students were made aware that iambic pentameter was not an exact science, and that sometimes breaks do not suggest anything of importance at all, but looking for this simple aspect of a speech can nevertheless be a useful way of identifying areas of potential significance without necessarily understanding the entire passage. In the final lesson of this series, students were asked to consolidate their learning. I gave them a passage from Macbeth which we read as a class, using an RSC video clip for reference, and students then had to answer a GCSE-style question with reference to language, structure and form.  

I began this essay as I began my planning for the aforementioned sequence of lessons: by asserting the importance of teaching students to respond to the language, structure and form of Shakespeare above all else. Once students feel comfortable with these key concepts, they can begin to confidently approach all manner of reading tasks. The success of my approach is borne out by the progress of my KS4 class, and particularly that of two students, one boy (H) and one girl (E), who were both struggling in English for different reasons. H was one of the weaker members of the group in terms of reading comprehension, but he was self-confident and keen to express his opinions. E was academically one of the strongest in the group, but was demotivated and had recently been moved down from a higher set. In the second lesson, I found that both students were excited by the opportunity to explore meaning through language and structure, and they got into a heated discussion about the best way to deliver just one line in a scene from Macbeth. Both students offered interesting and reasoned arguments for their interpretation. For H, the achievement was in articulating a complex response and for E the achievement was in her complete engagement and need to put her views across. Their impressive written work in the third lesson demonstrates how an understanding of language, structure and form can equip students to appreciate and respond to Shakespeare. The process of being able to experiment with ways of reading provided them with a sense of ownership. Although students may always find Shakespeare tricky, my research and teaching practice demonstrates that Shakespeare need not be “all Greek” to anyone.


Aebischer, Pascale (2013). “Early Modern Drama on Screen”. Performing Early Modern Drama Today, ed. Aebischer and Prince, Kathryn. Cambridge: CUP. 142-161.

Barker, Roberta (2007). Early Modern Tragedy, Gender and Performance, 1984-2000: The Destined Livery. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Boyd, Michael (2008). Introduction. Stand up for Shakespeare: A Manifesto for Shakespeare in Schools [online]. [Last accessed 1 June 2014]. Available on World Wide Web: <http://www.rsc.org.uk/downloads/stand-up-for-shakespeare-manifesto.pdf>

Department for Education. 2014 Curriculum English Key Stage 4 (Draft) [online]. Published 14 April 2014. [Last accessed 1 June 2014]. Available on World Wide Web: <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/262167/English_KS4_PoS_Draft.pdf&gt;

Doran, Gregory (2010). Introduction. The RSC Shakespeare Toolkit for Teachers, London: Methuen Drama. 1.

Gibson, Rex (1998). Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: CUP.

Hamel, Fred L. (2003). “Teaching Understanding of Student Understanding: Revising the Gap between Teacher Conceptions and Students’ Ways with Literature.” Research in the Teaching of English 38.1 (Spring 2003): 49-84. 64.

Salwak, Dale (2014). “The Bard for the unversed” [online]. TES. 9 Jan. 2014. [Last accessed 1 June 2014]. Available on World Wide Web: <http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6389591&gt;

Shakespeare, William (1599). The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Bate, Jonathan and Rasmussen, Eric eds. (2007) William Shakespeare: Complete Works. Basingstoke: Macmillan. 1801-1858.

Spangler, Susan (2009). “Speaking My Mind: Stop Reading Shakespeare!” The English Journal, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Sep., 2009), 130-132.

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