When working towards my Certificate in Teaching Shakespeare, I undertook an action research project looking at how the use of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Rehearsal Room approach has a positive impact on the attitudes of lower attaining learners towards Shakespeare, specifically the language, accessibility, and their motivation to study it.
I wanted to discover how lower attainers perceived themselves as learners when approaching Shakespeare. I believed that using the rehearsal room approach would see a positive shift in their self-confidence and attitudes towards the text. The students involved were seven lower-attaining Year 6 children. I created a unit on Hamlet based on the RSC rehearsal room pedagogy then conducted focus group sessions with the students, recording responses to a range of questions surrounding reading, writing and more specifically, Shakespeare. I also made informal observations on their understanding and attitude during the lessons.
Reviewing and reflection
In the original focus group, I asked the students about their feelings regarding Shakespeare in general. The students all expressed a reluctance towards studying Shakespeare, referencing the difficulty in understanding the “old language” and the way in which the plays are “very slow”. When given an extract from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the students struggled with the text: “I feel like I’m reading a completely different language”. They were not motivated to read on, and their confidence visibly drooped in front of me. I spent time explaining the scene and they began to enjoy it more but felt that it was “more confusing than it should be”. They also offered ideas on how it might be more accessible to them: “I think that there could be someone acting it out so it makes it more fun.”
When asked about reading and writing in general, they all agreed that reading texts repeatedly helps them understand more, and that writing about familiar subjects helps them find success. Catney McMaster’s (1998) study echoes this, finding that “successful participation in drama after learning one or two lines of dialogue by reading and repeating them over and over can change a child’s entire view toward reading.” This is a key practice within the RSC approach and was therefore a common theme within our lessons. My in-class observations found that all seven showed increased confidence the more they read a text. There was also the benefit of having Shakespearean vocabulary acted out, thus providing students with a strong mental image that went beyond a surface understanding. As one student explained, “When you do drama first, I feel like it’s more easy to understand than when you’re reading it, because you can picture someone acting it out.”
According to the article 21 Simple Ideas to Improve Student Motivation (2017), learning in a novel environment often renews motivation. During this study, the students enjoyed learning in more engaging spaces, as opposed to sitting behind a desk, and entered the lessons eager to learn. Allowing students to work together, and providing opportunities for success, also meant that every child was able to succeed repeatedly in different contexts, strengthening their motivation. Lower attaining students often enter a classroom assuming they will be faced with difficulties. Two things stood out here which I believe helped to change that perception: the drama lessons allowed them to succeed repeatedly, and every child was new to the language therefore they were all beginning from the same place, allowing them to visibly succeed along with their peers.
A large part of the RSC approach involves bringing language to life through drama which then aids and enriches future discussions. In Flennoy’s (1992) study with low attaining first graders, drama activities led to the students reading with more expression and fluency. I observed this repeatedly with the children I was studying; an important factor in their understanding came from the way in which the activities motivated them through enjoyment and variety, as one student stated: “It’s like showing what’s going to happen next…we acted through the scenes…it’s more easy to understand the story.” They not only acted it out themselves, they also saw others act it out and were able to build up their understanding with each level of exposure.
When Lindsay et al. (2016) analysed the impact of the rehearsal room approach, they also found that “children were constantly learning to infer meaning and predict during the drama activities. As a result, they showed less fear of the language, and discussions around the text were more enhanced.” I also found this with the children I was studying: their discussions were enhanced with their deeper understanding; they included multiple references to previous lessons and were all able to make predictions independently: “It’s like we were guessing what’s going to happen and it’s more creative.” They showed a good overall understanding of the plot, sequence of events and characters. Furthermore, they were able to link events and emotions together with some support. It is worth noting here that my two students with additional educational needs did require extra support to ensure their understanding (particularly of the language) and focus, but they were then able to give firm opinions and predictions when prompted. The students were very motivated and would even beg me for plot spoilers at the end of each lesson.
When asked in the first focus group if they would like to do some writing based on Shakespeare, the majority said no, explaining that they would “just get bored” or that “I think you could make it more fun by acting it.” They were not motivated and felt the language would be out of their reach. Their confidence in reading and writing pieces associated with Shakespeare was low and they did not envision success.
During the unit of work, the students completed two pieces of writing: a description of the moment the soldier sees the ghost, and a soliloquy as Hamlet when he is challenged to a duel by Ophelia’s brother. Phrases in their soliloquies such as “Oh Lord, I ask thy forgiveness, I am in desperate need!” or “The suffering pain of being betrayed, I can’t trust anyone!” and even “I am scared of myself,” showed a deep level of understanding of the character and his emotions. As the students had acted as Hamlet in so many contexts by the time they wrote in role, it was much easier for them to be empathetic. They had their own interpretation of what he might do next, an insight which they would not have had without the rehearsal room approach. Using the RSC technique of creating a class soliloquy also enhanced their understanding and led to more confident planning and writing. This was significant as lower attainers can often struggle when faced with a blank page.
Subsequently, when discussing their writing, the children all agreed that the drama activities had aided their understanding and creativity:
“I think that the acting as Hamlet really helped because…it makes you think about what he’s feeling so it helps you with the emotions in the soliloquy.”
“I think when we were doing the acting with Hamlet to Ophelia…I think that helped me write down some stuff because it was showing how angry Hamlet was being, like he couldn’t trust someone.”
They were all proud of their writing and their confidence had improved significantly. They were also inspired by the fact that they were able to create their own ideas, something they all agreed is a strong motivating factor in writing:
“I liked how you can kind of make it up as you go along but you’re still following the storyline.”
“I feel like…in the lessons we had, I felt more free, that I could add whatever I wanted and how I would feel if I was Hamlet.”
During the second focus group, the children started debating their feelings towards Hamlet, with K announcing, “Like…Hamlet, he was actually kind of a bad guy. Because he was trying to kill everyone. Same like the joker”, to which O responded with, “I feel like he’s different because he only wanted to kill Laertes because he didn’t want Laertes to kill him, so he wasn’t being bad, he just didn’t want himself to die.” They were able to not only understand the events of the story, but also to debate Hamlet’s intentions and ethics.
I then asked the students how they felt now, and their responses drew on how their opinions had changed:
‘I was thinking before we started that it would be very hard to learn Shakespeare because of his way of writing, but once we knew the modern English meaning, it was easier.”
“He is very descriptive. He describes a lot of stuff like when Hamlet is mad, he describes it. We understand that he is mad. “
“There’s a lot of suspense in his writing so you’re always guessing what’s going to happen.”
They all voiced their enjoyment of the text and were keen to study more Shakespeare in the future. To see this change in both motivation and self-confidence was encouraging. The children were all proud of what they had achieved and knew they had tackled something difficult and won. There were certainly times when they needed a little more support within a lesson to fully process their understanding, but this was aided by their increasing confidence and their strong levels of motivation.
The other teachers also found the approach to be a success. One initially reluctant teacher stated that the unit was “incredibly engaging for the students and resulted in some outstanding descriptive writing. The activities made Hamlet accessible to the students, increasing motivation.” Another teacher saw how the use of drama “brought the text alive” and described how “the students were able to make inferences and discuss the meaning of the passage independently. Each group's dramatic interpretation of their section supported their peers in understanding the meaning.” This highlights an important point, that the observations the students made of their peers’ interpretations not only allowed them another chance to experience the language, but also furthered their understanding, something which greatly benefitted the lower attainers. This again brings us back to the idea of repetition being key in aiding understanding for those who might find the language more of a challenge.
I would like others to consider adapting the way they teach a text-based unit from a more formal approach to a more fulfilling and accessible way for students of all abilities and attitudes. The rehearsal room approach supports and celebrates every child in the room, allowing them to succeed in ways they may not have before. The lower attaining students were able to access difficult texts and explain them clearly and passionately. They experienced success in reading, writing and drama activities alongside their peers. This alone would be worth pursuing as a way forward when supporting our lower attaining students.
‘21 Simple Ideas to Improve Student Motivation 2017’, TeachThought, viewed 23 January 2020,
Catney McMaster, J 1998, ‘"Doing" Literature: Using Drama to Build Literacy’, The Reading Teacher, vol. 51, no. 7, April 1998, pp. 574-584, viewed 24 January 2020, JSTOR, International Literacy Association and Wiley.
Flennoy, A 1992, ‘Improving Communication Skills of First Grade Low Achievers through Whole Language, Creative Drama and Different Styles of Writing’, ERIC, viewed 9 February 2020,
Lindsay, G., Winston, J., Franks, A., Lees, D. 2016, ‘The work of Royal Shakespeare Company Education in the first year of the Associate Schools Programme’, CEDAR, viewed 23 January 2020,
Welstek, G 2005, ‘Using Process Drama to Deconstruct "A Midsummer Night's Dream"’, The English Journal, vol. 95, no. 1, September 2005, pp. 75-81, viewed 24 January 2020, JSTOR, National Council of Teachers of English.