Tips and ideas for teaching high school ELA

After years of teaching it, I basically have my Romeo and Juliet lessons on lock. While it’s not one of my favorite Shakespeare plays (I’m more of a comedies gal), its universal themes make it a good introduction to Shakespeare. And because many of my students have at least some knowledge of the basics, they don’t get lost in the plot – meaning we have more time to dig into the good stuff. Plus, they love to call out Romeo on his fickleness and stupidity. I mean, could you not take .2 seconds to process WHY Juliet’s still warm?

We all know, however, that students aren’t interested in just sitting through a reading – especially of something as potentially heavy as Shakespeare. And let’s be honest. With the wide variety of learners in most of our classrooms, that method wouldn’t work anyway.

Much of my experience has been in the special education resource classroom. Many of them struggle with reading comprehension to begin with, so tackling every scene of every act in the original English would be torturous for us all. So what do we do? Keep reading for Romeo and Juliet lessons to use with low-level readers.


Romeo and Juliet Lessons #1 - Modern Adaptations


Perhaps the easiest way to hook and engage your students is through modern adaptations – whether written or visual.

Enter No Fear Shakespeare by Sparknotes.  

If you’re not familiar with this series, it has the original on one side and the modern on the other. I do still hit some of the highlights in the original (the balcony scene just loses something in “translation”) but use the No Fear version for much of the play. I have several hard copies. Teaching Romeo and Juliet online? Just share the link. (Side note: They also have No Fear Versions of pretty much every Shakespeare play). 

Also, let’s be honest. Shakespeare could be a bit…dirty. Pointing out the side notes in the No Fear version and watching the light bulb go off as students realize just WHAT was being said between Sampson and Gregory in the first scene is always interesting.


We also know that many students are visual learners. Besides, Shakespeare was meant to be seen, not just read. There are countless adaptations of this timeless love story (although, should it really be held as the paragon of romance? Food for thought.)

A quick Google search will reveal a plethora of options. My personal favorite is the 1996 version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes as the titular characters. I still remember watching it in my 9th grade English class, and the outrage we felt when our teacher turned it off right as Juliet realized Romeo was dead. The nerve. (She also fast-forwarded through the wedding night scene, which, looking back, I can’t entirely fault her for).

The modern setting mixed with the original language makes for an entertaining mashup. Plus, a young Paul Rudd (Ant Man to any Marvel fanatics) as Paris and Harold Perrineau as a carefree, cross-dressing Mercutio? Sign me up. My students always laugh at the graphics and somewhat over-the-top theatrics and pretend they’re too cool for it. But by the end, they’re all yelling at the screen as Juliet wakes up just as Romeo drinks the poison. Every. time.

I also love West Side Story.  Time permitting, watch both and compare and contrast the way both directors tackle the play. The 2022 remake of West Side Story is also great; while I’ve not taught R&J since the film was released, I think it may garner a little more buy-in than the 1961 version.  Throw in a song or two; some early Taylor Swift is always a good option, even if she does get the ending wrong (could lead to some good discussions on artistic license?)

Bam! “Analyzing various mediums” – check.

Romeo and juliet Lessons #2 - Close Readings

Unfortunately (fortunately?) today’s busy schedules don’t often allow time to teach the entire play. In such cases, it’s easiest to focus on and analyze key scenes and acts while summarizing the rest. One way of doing this is with close reading. Provide a summary of each act along with a focus on one key scene.

This allows students to dig deeper into key parts of the play without losing any of the plot. Not only are students focusing on the crucial scenes in the play, but they are also practicing close reading skills through annotating. This method would be especially helpful for teaching Romeo and Juliet to special education students – or really any students who get overwhelmed by large chunks of text. Close readings are also a great option if showing the film isn’t viable. 

Romeo and Juliet lessons #3 - Task Cards/STations

Along those same lines, we have the use of task cards.  I know. Task cards usually have an elementary school connotation to them. But hear me out. Like close readings, using task cards will help students focus their energy on specific aspects of each act and scene and block out some of the “fluff”.

Task cards can be used in a variety of ways.

  1. Pre-reading for an act. This provides students with a preview of the important information and allows them to concentrate on that rather than wading through everything else.
  2. Group work. Assign each group an act and have them become the “experts”. Students can complete the task cards and then teach their act to the rest of the class. Hit some of those speaking and listening standards (and save your voice).
  3. Independent work. I know we’re all about collaboration these days, but sometimes, you just need the students to work by themselves.
  4. Print or digitally. In-person? Type these suckers up four to a page or put them on index cards and go (I’d suggest laminating them first for repeated use). Virtual? Slap them on Google Slides or a PowerPoint. Students can respond type their responses directly into the document.


There you have it. My top 3 ways to differentiate your Romeo and Juliet lessons.

What are your favorite Romeo and Juliet lessons? Leave a comment below.

Looking for ideas on Romeo and Juliet background?  Head over to Introducing Shakespeare to Secondary Students for some Romeo and Juliet pre-reading activities.

Interested in low-prep resources for teaching Romeo and Juliet? Check out my Romeo and Juliet Close Readings and Summaries and Romeo and Juliet Stations, Task Cards.

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