Daggers, Drums, and Differentiation: Making Shakespeare Accessible to Emerging Bilinguals

In Mexico: Teaching English through Song and Dance

When I went to Mexico for my Master’s program in Linguistic and Culturally Diverse Education, we planned and taught English as a Second Language through TPR (Total Physical Response). Every day in the classroom, we had the students singing, dancing, acting, and playing games in order to learn and apply new English vernacular and language structures. All I kept thinking while there, as well as the follow-up reflecting on my time there, was “how does this transfer to a high school classroom?” That question was answered when I participated in “Teaching Shakespeare through Performance” program at the Globe Theatre in London, England.

Performing Macbeth at the Globe

Performing Macbeth at the Globe

Throughout my time at the Globe Theatre, our group of participating teachers learned the importance of “putting the words on their feet” and learning through “lively action.” This translates to kinesthetic learning. To encourage comprehension of Shakespeare’s chaos during The Tempest, we spun around the room, yelling assigned phrases from the text; instead of reading about the story, we lived the story. To encourage comprehension of the power dynamics in Macbeth, we were given various dialogue cues during a partner script performance to make it come alive; instead of reading about the story, we lived the story. To encourage comprehension of the banquet scene in Macbeth, we become a frozen machine depicting the elements which occur and create tension at a dinner party; instead of reading about the story, we lived the story.

Though it may seem like a lot of play, I came to understand Shakespeare—which let’s face it, is a second language for many English natives, much less English Language Learners—through these “games.” With this anchor in mind, I planned and implemented my Shakespeare unit in AP Lit. After all, I have many students below reading level, several students still placing in the low to medium range of ACCESS, and nearly all students who—if they know of him in the first place—are intimidated by Shakespeare’s archaic language. In addition, through UCD’s focus on strategies to help emerging bilinguals and our district focus on differentiation, my Macbeth unit aligned with the following LEAP indicator:

Provides differentiation that addresses students’ instructional needs and supports mastery of content-language objective(s) by

  • Utilizing visuals, realia, gestures and facial expressions to explain content and/or vocabulary

  • Adjusting product by providing students multiple ways to demonstrate learning (e.g., acting out knowledge, using physical objects, using visuals, providing other performance-based opportunities) to accommodate academic/linguistic need and/or interests.

Academic Objectives... Even While Playing

Academic Objectives… Even While Playing

Though my anecdotal experience both in London and in our school wide PD confirmed for me the value of this kind of kinesthetic approach, I also stand on the footing of much research into best practice for second language acquisition. First of all, research by Reid (1995) and Oxford/Anderson (1995) (among others) states “ESL students from a variety of cultures were tactile and kinesthetic in their sensory preferences.”[i] Hill and Miller address how to capitalize on this style in the classroom:

Students in the process of acquiring English may not understand the teacher’s message when only words are used because the student is still in the process of learning English. Rather, culturally and linguistically diverse students have a better chance of comprehending teacher talk or what they’ve read when they can also see it represented with graphic organizers or as three-dimensional models, movies in mind, pictures in a sequence of movements, or a dramatic presentation (emphasis mine).[ii]

Shakespeare unit 4.23 040To put this kind of differentiation on its feet, the first thing I had to do was establish norms. I learned this after the first day when I wasn’t explicit enough, thus the instructional tasks became just fun activities. After explicitly norming for “lively action,” the students were able to academically engage in the tasks. With that established, each day looked the same despite the variety of activities. After clarifying the last night’s assigned reading, we would complete a lively action task. The engagement with such a task ensures “close reading,” because instead of students reading and moving on, students had to struggle and question and interact with the text in an active way. Once the task was complete, there would be discussion, writing, or both in which students could address the targeted analytical prompt for that day.

For example, when teaching and analyzing a round character with complex mind shifts, we did the 4-corners. Students read a portion of the scene, then moved to whatever corner best displayed his state of mind. At any given moment, students were asked to defend their interpretation. After engaging with the task in this way, students were be able to articulate why Macbeth is a round character, as well as how this characterization affects the play as a whole—all through experiencing a game!


Shakespeare unit 4.23 488 Shakespeare unit 4.23 489 Shakespeare unit 4.23 487 Shakespeare unit 4.23 486 Shakespeare unit 4.23 491 Shakespeare unit 4.23 490Shakespeare unit 4.23 493 Shakespeare unit 4.23 495 Shakespeare unit 4.23 496


Another example of an activity I did in London and replicated it with my students was creating a cardiogram of Macbeth’s dagger monologue. In this speech, Shakespeare varies the iambic pentameter to reveal his unstable mindset and nervous emotional state. To learn this activity, students graphed his erratic “heartbeat.” On the X axis was the line number and on the Y axis was the number of syllables. By graphing the inconsistencies of the meter, students experienced first-hand, rather than just read, Shakespeare’s characterization of Macbeth. (Not to mention the additional differentiation through the appeal to different kinds of learners who like math and visual or physical activities.) It was through this active “close reading” that statements like this arose from my students’ mouths: “You mean Shakespeare did that on purpose?” Yes!–this is what every English teacher wants their students to realize.

Shakespeare unit 4.23 085 Shakespeare unit 4.23 083 Shakespeare unit 4.23 084

Shakespeare unit 4.23 087 Shakespeare unit 4.23 088 Shakespeare unit 4.23 089


Shakespeare unit 4.23 090 Shakespeare unit 4.23 105 Shakespeare unit 4.23 106

Shakespeare unit 4.23 107

Additionally, to teach Marxist Criticism, we played the status game. Through this, students must treat each other according to their “status,” as determined by a randomly assigned card. This activity brought up rich discussion of how classism still exists in our society, and how it creates tension in various capacities–not only in literature, but in life.

Shakespeare unit 4.23 390 Shakespeare unit 4.23 391

Shakespeare unit 4.23 392 Shakespeare unit 4.23 393

The cululating project for Macbeth was a student monologue performance. In this, they had to to memorize, analyze, and perform a self-selected section of the play. Though I did this last year in class too, my learning in London fostered an even richer learning experience for my students. Here is what they had to say about the monologue experience:

  • “I love this experience because we got to put apart of us in the play.”
  • “I learned…to emphasize the most important words and…to notice the author’s choice of writing.”
  • “I liked to see all my classmates show their abilities to act and portray their monologues.”
  • “It was a new thing for me, but I loved it; it opened my eyes.”
  • “The acting out helped me understand the text better.”
  • “I learned to risk and let my voice be heard more.”
  • “I loved this exercise!”
  • “The benefit was to overcome my fear.”
  • “It was nerve-racking to perform…but it’s an experience that I will never forget.”
  • “The experience of this was super amazing; I loved every single moment of it. My experience helped me grow as a person!”
  • “This helped us understand Shakespeare’s writing better by seeing how others interpreted his words.”
  • “I enjoyed doing this because it also taught us a life lesson.”

Shakespeare 2 unit 151 Shakespeare 2 unit 167

Shakespeare 2 unit 146 Shakespeare 2 unit 113Shakespeare 2 unit 091Shakespeare 2 unit 070Shakespeare 2 unit 044Shakespeare 2 unit 003


Beyond the monologues, students had this to say about learning through lively action:

  • “They [these activities] helped me a lot. With Shakespeare being an author that’s hard to understand, doing these activities helped me better understand the play, but also Shakespeare as a whole.”
  • “[They] helped me understand why Shakespeare used those specific words or characters.”
  • “Getting to stand up and do all kinds of activities really did help me in memorizing my lines and interpreting the play.”
  • “…we got to see the change in tone by acting it out.”
  • “It made me visualize what was actually going on…”
  • “…as I was acting I was in the mind of the character and knew why things were happening.”
  • “It made me more motivated.”

As I reflect on the efficacy of this unit, my mind lingers on the aforementioned voices of my students to affirm how successful this unit was–both in engaging students and unlocking Shakespeare for students. But also, I see empirical evidence as well:

  • Based on a student survey, at the beginning of the unit, 34% of students were “totally lost” when reading Shakespeare,  47% of students “struggled but got some things,” 18% “got most of it,” and 0% “understood it all.” At the end of the unit, 0% of students were “totally lost” when reading Shakespeare, 16% of students “struggled but got some things,” 68% “got most of it,” and .05% “understood it all.”
  • Based on a student survey, at the beginning of the unit, 10% of students “hated Shakespeare,” 68% of students thought Shakespeare was “alright,” 21% of students “might be enjoying him,” and .05% “loved him.” At the end of the unit, 0% of students “hated Shakespeare,” 13% of students thought Shakespeare was “alright,” 68% of students “might be enjoying him,” and 15% “loved him.”
  • Based on a student survey, after the unit, 97% of students saw the value in reading, discussing, and knowing the works of Shakespeare. 97% of students enjoyed the unit.  83% of students feel prepared for Shakespeare in college.
  • Average scores for analysis essays jumped 10% in one class and 6% in the other from the beginning of the year to the Macbeth essay (end of the year).
  • Several students scored 7-8 (out of 9 on the national AP Lit rubric) on their Macbeth monologue analysis essay.

As I reflect on how I can take what I’ve experienced, learned, and implemented and improve it for next year, I realize that these tactics are too valuable to leave only for Shakespeare’s challenging language. Being up on our feet and using lively action to closely read a text is beneficial analysis strategies for all texts, especially for emerging bilinguals; but that takes time. Much of the preparation and thinking through had been done for me because I experienced Macbeth-specific strategies at the Globe. So for next year I need to think through how I can apply this kinesthetic learning for other texts we read and analyze, as well as other vocabulary terms we learn.

And also as I reflect about this year’s Shakespeare unit, I am proud that my emerging bilingual students did not read the Cliffnotes version because it was “too tough” or their language skills were inadequate. They deserve the challenge of Shakespeare. But they also deserve the scaffolding to access Shakespeare and make the most meaning possible. I am grateful for my experiences in Mexico and London, training through UCD, CU, and Bruce, as well as LEAP’s framework; through these resources, I have been able to do just that for my students.

[i] As cited in “Language Learning Styles and Strategies: An Overview”  by Oxford (2003) Rebecca L. Oxford, Ph.D

[ii] Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners by Hill and Miller (2013)


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. edpeters06
    May 09, 2014 @ 15:39:27

    AWESOME! Loved all the pictures and ancedotes. I hope you continue to do this year after year. xo



  2. Trackback: the puzzle of a positive learning environment: 10 pieces (glue included) | lifeinthedport
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