#18 - Learning English Through Literature

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Last month I wrote about the importance of productive skills in language learning as an essential method of communicating. The productive skills (speaking and writing) are functional skills. They serve a purpose. Ask any Portuguese who commutes daily on the CP Lisboa /Sintra train line. Many of them could tell you how learning English based on practical needs has come in handy. A good many have surely tried to explain (in English) to some confused, wide-eyed British or American tourists (or other tourists that are using English as their language to communicate in) what stop to transfer so that the lost lambs won’t end up in Mira Sintra –Meleças rather than beautiful tourist-friendly Sintra. So productive skills are functional and therefore very important. However, developing other skills such as the learner’s interpretative skills is also important in language learning.

Due to such a heavy focus on functionality, English language teaching programs have traditionally not been big proponents of including literature (specifically native English written literature) in the curriculum. The general attitude by many teachers in the field was often either ‘literature is too difficult for second and third language learners’ or worse ‘what’s the point…why even bother? Sadly, as with most teaching methods and strategies, a disproportionate focus on objective outcomes (e.g. giving directions) rather than on more subjective impressions (e.g. the underlying meaning(s) of a text) has put the use of literature in the ESL classroom in a back seat position. In fact, it often doesn’t get a seat at all! It has only been since the eighties that this area has attracted more attention in the ESL/EFL communities.

Happily, using literature as a learning tool in ESL classes is becoming more commonplace. In fact, there are various models in which trainers/teachers can follow when using literature in their lessons.

The cultural model views literary pieces as sources of information about the target culture. This model examines the social, political and historical background to a literary piece as well as the literary movements and genres surrounding the piece. Specific language work based on the text is not usually considered. This approach tends to be quite teacher-centered.

Both the language model and personal growth models tend to be much more learner-centered. The language model focuses the learner’s attention on the way language is used thereby increasing his/her general awareness of English. General grammar and vocabulary can be easily explored as well as the study of linguistic features (aka stylistic analysis). A close look at the linguistic features of what he/she is reading pushes the learner to make meaningful interpretations of a text. This method is a nice change to the rigidness of normal course book text analysis as it exposes learners to a more subtle and creative approach to the language.

The personal growth model encourages learners to make use of their own opinions, feelings and personal experiences. It promotes interaction between the text and the reader in English, helping make the language more meaningful. This model is particularly well-suited for groups of learners that enjoy having discussions.

The old excuse that it’s just too difficult to use literature in the ESL/EFL classrooms ceases to have any validity now that readers (simplified versions of literary works) are so plentiful. Any and every level group can now utilize literature as a creative and beneficial way to enhance language learning. So for all you teachers/trainers out there…develop a language library of novels and readers for you and your students to enjoy.

Courtney How, Managing Director

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