Focusing on literature while teaching language
Savvidou (2004) explicates that Language, both spoken and written, comes in a variety of discourse types and, as teachers of language, we attempt to introduce our learners to as many of these as possible. The variety and types of discourse are perhaps best represented by Kinneavy’s Communication Triangle (1983). This classification of discourse types includes expressive, which focuses on personal expression (letters, diaries, etc.); transactional, which focuses on both the reader and the message (advertising, business letters, editorials, instructions, etc.); and poetic, which focuses on form and language (drama, poetry, novels, short stories, etc.). Indeed, all these discourse types already play a significant role in teaching various aspects of language such as vocabulary and structure, or testing learners’ comprehension.
In the context of Teaching English as a Foreign Language, however, there is often reluctance by teachers, course designers and examiners to introduce unabridged and authentic texts to the EFL syllabus. There is a general perception that literature is particularly complex and inaccessible for the foreign language learner and can even be detrimental to the process of language learning (Or, 1995). It is therefore difficult to imagine teaching the stylistic features of literary discourse to learners who have a less than sophisticated grasp of the basic mechanics of English language.
This perception is also borne out by research (Akyel and Yalçin, 1990) which shows that the desire to broaden learners’ horizons through exposure to classic literature usually has disappointing results. The reasons why teachers often consider literature inappropriate to the language classroom may be found in the common beliefs held about literature and literary language.
Firstly, the creative use of language in poetry and prose often deviates from the conventions and rules which govern standard, non-literary discourse, as in the case of poetry where grammar and lexis may be manipulated to serve orthographic or phonological features of the language. Secondly, the reader requires greater effort to interpret literary texts since meaning is detached from the reader’s immediate social context; one example is that the “I” in literary discourse may not be the same person as the writer.
The result is that the reader’s “interpretative procedures” (Widdowson, 1975) may become confused and overloaded. What this means is that the reader has to infer, anticipate and negotiate meaning from within the text to a degree that is not required in non-literary discourse. Thus, in our efforts to teach our learners’ communicative competence, there is a tendency to make use of texts which focus on the transactional and expressive forms of writing with the exclusion or restriction of poetic forms of language – i.e. literature. There is a perception that the use of literary discourse deflects from the straightforward business of language learning, i.e. knowledge of language structure, functions and general communication.
With this in mind, we need to strike the balance between shifting our focus on language and literature in the class.
Want to learn more on this topic?
There is a study entitled, “Investigating problems of English literature teaching to EFL high school students in Turkey with focus on language proficiency”. It seeks to answer the following questions:
1. What is the most serious problem of English literature teaching to Turkish high school students from the point of view of English teachers?
2. Are Turkish high school students really B1 proficient as required according to the national curriculum?