Lord Vincent Van Mendoza
Digital Marketing Specialist in Davao

The Teaching of Literature

Much has been said about the technical definition of literature. We will try not to look at it in a very technical way. Instead, we shall take a look at it in the context of English Language Teaching (ELT).

Literature has been regarded as the springboard for teaching a language because, without it, language learning would not be complete. ESL/EFL teachers can not do away with the idea that teaching a language entails teaching literature. It also speaks for the reality that literature can even be used to teach other disciplines. This is because literature is enriched with information, insights, and life lessons. We shall take a look at how literature can be utilized as a pedagogic tool for a language teacher like you.

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What is Literature?

Defining literature is difficult. In fact, it can be defined in a number of ways. For the purpose of narrowing it to the context of teaching English, we will focus on the two definitions:

  1. McRae (1994) distinguishes between literature with a capital L – the classical texts e.g. Shakespeare, Dickens – and literature with a small l, which refers to popular fiction, fables, and song lyrics.
  2. Macmillan Publishers Ltd. (2003) defines literature as stories, poems, and plays, especially those that are considered to have value as art and not just entertainment

British Council (n.d.) asserts that the use of literature in the English Language Teaching (ELT) classroom is enjoying a revival for a number of reasons. Having formed part of traditional language teaching approaches, literature became less popular when language teaching and learning started to focus on the functional use of language. However, the role of literature in the ELT classroom has been re-assessed and many now view literary texts as providing rich linguistic input, effective stimuli for students to express themselves in other languages, and a potential source of learner motivation.

Literature in language teaching has a long pedigree. It was a fundamental part of foreign language teaching in the ‘classical humanist’ paradigm, where an understanding of the high culture and thought expressed through literature took precedence over mere competence in using the language. Indeed, in the teaching of European classical languages, such as Greek and Latin, the literature was virtually all that remained of the language (Maley, 2001).

He adds that this central role of literature was carried over into Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language (TESL/TEFL) in the early part of the twentieth century. In many parts of the world, it remains integral to the teaching of the language to this day. However, as the TESL/TEFL profession developed a more sophisticated understanding of how languages are learned, and as the demand for English shifted its focus from the small-scale production of scholarly elites to the mass production of large numbers of functionally competent users of the language, literature came to be regarded as, at best, an irrelevance and, at worst, positively harmful.

He further explains that among other things, this led to an unproductive debate between the ‘ancients’, staunch supporters of Literatures (with a capital L), and the ‘moderns’, devotees of linguistic structures, functions, and the like, who would have no truck with literature. To some extent, this divide continues, especially at the college/university level. In more recent times, however, there has been a gradual rehabilitation of literature and its value for language teaching. Nonetheless, the role of literature in language teaching remains contentious, owing to widespread differences in interpretation of the precise nature of that role.

Focusing on literature?

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) as cited by Hunter (2020). 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) as cited by Khatib (2011). 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 in 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.

Studying Language through Literature

Attention has always been paid to the relationship between language and literature in educational contexts, although most of the works in English were written more than ten years ago, and textbooks devoted to the teaching of English as a foreign language through a literature-based approach are even older, with publications dating back to the 1980s. 

On the basis of the type of instruction received, students are led to reason in terms of disciplinary areas. It should be a teacher’s priority to illustrate the ever-present connections between contents and approaches throughout the knowledge-building process. In trying to redefine the relationship, it is generally recognized that in a language learning context, a literary text has to be considered and treated much the same way as any other text-type, while not denying its added value of foregrounding those text features learners have to be aware of because they are common to any text.

Why should we use literature in an ESL/EFL classroom?

Many scholars have discussed the use of literature, in general, and in particular, in ELT classrooms for developing language skills and recommended the use of short-stories in teaching and learning of English as a foreign language. Such debates and discussions, on the role and use of short-stories in ELT classrooms, have often concluded on recommending storytelling as a holistic approach to language teaching and learning.

2.1.1 Literature is authentic material.

Clandfield (2011) believes it is good to expose learners to this source of unmodified language in the classroom because the skills they acquire in dealing with difficult or unknown language can be used outside the class.

Regie Routman of Reading Essentials (2002) states, “Authentic literature refers to narrative and expository texts that are written in the original, natural language of the authors. These texts are not written with a controlled vocabulary or rewritten to achieve a particular score according to a readability formula.” Authentic literature is often referred to as “real books” or “trade books,” meaning these books can be found in a library and aren’t written in a particular readability formula.

Authentic literature includes a variety of genres such as narrative texts, nonfiction or expository texts, historical fiction, and so much more. Authentic libraries should be colorful and diverse and include exciting options for our students.

Literature encourages interaction.

Literary texts are often rich in multiple layers of meaning, and can be effectively mined for discussions and sharing feelings or opinions (Clandfield, 2011).

Since literature deals with the “slices” of life, our language learners can easily relate to them. It can not be denied that literature offers a wide array of life experiences from which we can not help but share such a wonder to others.

Literature expands language awareness.

Asking learners to examine sophisticated or non-standard examples of language (which can occur in literary texts) makes them more aware of the norms of language use (Widdowson, 1975).

Literature educates the whole person.

By examining values in literary texts, teachers encourage learners to develop attitudes towards them. These values and attitudes relate to the world outside the classroom.

Literary texts provide opportunities for multi-sensorial classroom experiences and can appeal to learners with different learning styles. 

Texts can be supplemented by audio-texts, music CDs, film clips, podcasts, all of which enhance even further the richness of the sensory input that students receive.

Literary texts offer a rich source of linguistic input and can help learners to practice the four skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing – in addition to exemplifying grammatical structures and presenting new vocabulary.

Literature can help learners to develop their understanding of other cultures, awareness of ‘difference’ and to develop tolerance and understanding. 

At the same time, literary texts can deal with universal themes such as love, war and loss that are not always covered in the sanitized world of course books.

Literary texts are representational rather than referential (McRae, 1994). 

Referential language communicates at only one level and tends to be informational. The representational language of literary texts involves the learners and engages their emotions, as well as their cognitive faculties. Literary works help learners to use their imagination, enhance their empathy for others and lead them to develop their own creativity. They also give students the chance to learn about literary devices that occur in other genres e.g. advertising.

Literature lessons can lead to public displays of student output through posters of student creations e.g. poems, stories, or through performances of plays. 

For a variety of linguistic, cultural, and personal growth reasons, literary texts can be more motivating than the referential ones often used in classrooms.

Teaching Literature is Teaching in Theory

The teacher uses theory to focus the students’ minds, getting them to attend to specific aspects of the text, whether to the structure of the genre or the development of the characters. In this sense, the literature class is the practice of a theory of literature. It is a lesson in the theory of what literature is.

Yaqoob (2011) argues that poststructuralist literary theory through its emphasis on reader can help to achieve the aims of modern pedagogies and can also help to overcome the limitations of the traditional approaches towards the teaching of literature. Literary theory as a pedagogical tool employs the principles of modern approaches to learning and, thus serves to nurture cognitive processing of students, helps them connect the classroom with the world outside the classroom and be active learners. Students are not encouraged to treat a text as sacred object and follow the traditional assumptions and interpretations introduced by teachers or other literary critics.

Reader-based poststructuralist approaches provide an effective cognitive learning framework. According to the theories of cognitive learning, in-depth and meaningful learning occurs when learners are actively engaged in the learning process. This can be worked out by helping learners establish a connection between teaching contents and their personal life outside the classroom. 

Literary theory working on the principle of cognitive learning engages readers independently in the process of meaning making. Students reading literature with literary theory see literature as a part of larger society outside the text and classroom. They are trained to read a text in connection with the social and cultural realities and institutions. This helps them take reading of literature in a meaningful activity.

Literary theory making students active and independent readers destabilizes the unchallenged authority of teacher in the classroom. Discussion and dialogue replace lectures and teacher becomes facilitator to promote inquiry and investigation in the classroom. Students do not see text as a source to find the author’s belief but a world to be reconstructed and interpreted in the light of their beliefs and experiences. They become co-creators of the text.

Literary theory acknowledges the social function of literature. Reader- based approaches outlined above establish a meaningful link between literature and society. Feminist, Marxist, New historical and postcolonial literary theories are all interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary and they promote intertextual readings. Students are trained to cross the boundaries of other disciplines and see how different texts correspond with one another. This leads them to have an understanding of society, its structures and institutions.

One of the important objectives of twenty-first century education is developing critical and creative thinking skills of students. Students engaged in transdisciplinary intertextual reading through literary theory are actually engaged in creative experimentation. They are set on a quest to explore new avenues and investigate how effectively meaning of a text can be drawn through exploring the world of other disciplines.

This experimentation opens up ways to creating new categories of knowledge. Thus, students become creators of knowledge not the storehouse of information. For example, postcolonial theory enables students to reexamine and reevaluate literary masterpieces such as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Forster’s A Passage to India which were previously perceived as critiques of imperialism. Feminist literary theory and New-historicism have also generated new readings of Shakespeare showing how his theatrical masterpieces such as Hamlet and Othello were reinforcing misogynist and racist attitudes.

Reader-based approaches to interpreting literature are actually an exercise in creative thinking. Students as they are encouraged to restructure plot, characters and events, and give innovative interpretations to the texts. This gives them practice in making attempts to exploit available resources for creating new structures and patterns. This practice fosters creativity in them and motivates them to work for change. This provides them training to become effective and creative work force as well as active agents to challenge established social hierarchies in order to bring change.

Literary theory as a pedagogical tool also takes into consideration the principles of social learning and community learning. Students are engaged in dialogues and encouraged to interact and negotiate the meaning of text in the light of their varied experience of the world. Students read the text as part of some interpretative community which shares some common values and interests. Thus, female students form a feminist interpretative community which focuses on the gender issues of the text. Likewise, students of similar ethnicity or race also form an interpretative community which is united in their focus on racial and cultural discrimination. They tell personal narratives and share their interpretations based on their experiences with other students in the class. They, in turn, create a collaborative and cooperative learning environment where all are given intellectual freedom to speak and contribute.

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