Assistive Technology Makes Shakespeare Accessible

To read, or not to read — that is the question many of today’s students face when it comes to the works of William Shakespeare.

All students, regardless of reading ability, find Elizabethan English challenging. It can be a struggle to get past the complex idioms and vocabulary Shakespeare uses to communicate universal themes.

Students with learning disabilities, like dyslexia, often find it next to impossible to understand the Bard’s writing without a great deal of guidance and support. Fortunately, these students now have assistive technology that can help them be more independent in their study of Shakespeare. A handful of app and website developers have brought Shakespeare’s work 400 years into the future, making it accessible and beneficial to today’s students.

Shakespeare in Bits

The iPad, with its multisensory nature, is an outstanding platform on which to study Shakespeare. Besides reading the text with their eyes, students can hear the words read aloud by using various text-to-speech and audio options. They can also use integrated tools to translate Elizabethan English to modern English for better comprehension. The app that best exemplifies the iPad’s ability to make Shakespeare accessible is called Shakespeare in Bits.

As of this writing, Shakespeare in Bits has produced interactive versions of five popular plays, including "Romeo and Juliet," "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," and "Hamlet." The plays are presented in a split screen, combining an animation window with professional narration and written text that is synced to the audio. The challenging words and phrases are highlighted and can be tapped to reveal modern English translations. Furthermore, subtitles can be turned on in the animation window to provide captioning.

The plays also have multiple study tools, including plot summaries, theme analyses, and famous quotes, which can all be read aloud with the iPad’s built-in text-to-speech. Students can even take notes for each scene right in the app and use the iPad’s integrated dictation or word prediction to help with spelling.

Explore Shakespeare

Cambridge University Press has also produced a series of content-rich iPad apps that present six of Shakespeare’s plays, including "Macbeth," "Twelfth Night," and "Othello." Unlike Shakespeare in Bits, the Explore Shakespeare apps do not have video or animation to provide running visual reinforcement of the plays. Nevertheless, they contain photographic stills from film and stage productions to help students visualize the stories. They also give students the option to listen to professional narration that is synced to the text, and difficult words and phrases can be tapped for modern English translations.

Cambridge University Press has also included interesting study material in the apps. There are several suggested classroom activities for each scene that students can complete for reinforcement. There are also word clouds to help students identify key concepts and themes. Finally, there are many analytical essays to help students understand the key literary elements of Shakespeare’s work.

The Shakesperience

The Shakesperience has taken advantage of Apple’s textbook authoring tool, iBooks Author, to create a series of interactive, multisensory iBooks that can be explored on an iPad. To date, there are six of Shakespeare’s plays available in the iBookstore. The text can be read aloud with the integrated text-to-speech tools of iOS. The difficult to understand words and phrases are highlighted and collected in each book’s glossary, where modern translations are provided. As in other iBooks, the glossary items are also presented on accessible virtual study cards. In addition, each Shakesperience book also contains embedded audio clips, visuals, and production notes from famous performances.

Rewordify

While not as robust as the iPad apps, a website called Rewordify.com offers a free tool to students who need assistance reading and understanding Shakespeare. The site was created to improve reading comprehension by simplifying difficult to understand words in any text. The developer has included a large collection of classic literature in which much of the outdated English has been highlighted and replaced with modern words. Most of Shakespeare’s plays are available in simpler form, and students can read them aloud with text-to-speech technology. Furthermore, the site provides study tools for each play, such as virtual flash cards and vocabulary quizzes.

For many years, the works of William Shakespeare have served as a foundation for the study of modern literature. With the help of assistive technology, these classic writings have entered the 21st century and are accessible to all students.