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Literature in the English Language Classroom

Ю.С. Пятибрат

Источник статьи: Вісник ЛНУ імені Тараса Шевченка № 16 (179), 2009. Cc. 171-175.


In recent years there has been as upsurge of interest in the use of literature in the language classroom. The use of literature in the 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 reassessed and many Ukrainian, Russian, European and American educators 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.

The aim of this article is to highlight the role of literature as a rich source of linguistic input and an effective tool for practicing the four skills - speaking, listening, reading and writing - in addition to exemplifying grammatical structures and presenting new vocabulary. Literature not only helps learners to develop their understanding of other cultures, awareness of ‘difference' but also 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.

Many authors stress the benefits of using literary texts as the basis for imaginative interactive and discussion activities, also stressing the value of drama and role-play activities in developing not only students’ oral language skills but also their imaginative sensibilities, so they will be receptive to a literary text and be better able to make a personal response to it. Other authors are prepared to make larger claims for the power of literature. They believe that a study of literature can develop student’s character, help build emotional maturity, and equip students with new critical faculties [6,p.10-12]. Literature also has the potential of fostering emotional intelligence by providing vicarious emotional experiences that shape the brain circuits for empathy and help students gain insight into human behavior. Literature promotes language learning by enriching learners’ vocabulary and modeling new language structure. Moreover, literature can provide a motivating and low-anxiety context for language learning.

A lot of people say it's impossible to talk about literature and pedagogy because the field is so diverse and so conflicted. And they say it's impossible because of the different status of teaching and research. Given the time available, the educator can only hope to touch on some of the most important concepts and topics - and given the limited experience and linguistic ability of many of the students, it would be absurd to attempt to do more. This is where literature comes in, providing a direct, concrete and delightful way of approaching and illustrating abstract concepts: just as a picture might be worth a thousand words, so a poem can teach just as much as several chapters of applied linguistics [2,p.5].

The essence of any literary experience must be an examination of how the text provokes an inter-subjective experience that generates readings and interpretations. Students need to be guided towards an appreciation of the processes whereby a literary text generates meanings and elicits a response from individual reader. Also, teachers experienced in using literature in their classes need to be exposed to ideas that reflect modern literary and semiotic approaches. At present, the debate is too narrowly presented in terms of either currently popular communicative/drama-based approach, or the more specialized stylistic approach, which seems to demand a background in linguistics [6,p.13]. To be more precise, they need to be shown the pedagogic implications of current thinking on the status of literary texts and the interaction between the reader and the writer to which they give rise.

What do we mean by literature? There is a distinction 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. The literature used in ELT classrooms today is no longer restricted to canonical texts from certain countries e.g. UK, USA, but includes the work of writers from a diverse range of countries and cultures using different forms of English [3,p.12].

It is recognized that one finds English at its idiomatic best and most effectively in literature, and massive exposure to literature can compensate for the deficiencies of the linguistic approach in the areas of grammar, idiom, vocabulary, and syntax and can enhance the students’ competence in English. It is only through continued contact with writing aimed at native speaker that nonnative students can acquire the connotations of the words used. However, literature is only one of the sources for promoting language learning, it should definitely serve to develop both literary awareness and language competence [4,p.6].

Here arises a question of a possible framework that can be used by teachers to lead students to an awareness of how the literary text codifies its meaning and challenges the reader to react to its themes and representations of human experience. The actual choice of text is clearly of crucial importance to the success of any attempt to introduce literature into language course. Several considerations must determine the choice of texts: prose texts are more suited to the needs of language students, since they provide an extensive exposure to language in which stories and themes are more easily generated than in poetry, prose writers also vary in the complexity of their use of language [5,p.2]. It’s important, too, to consider students’ reading speed and reading habits, and to select a text that can be digested in the time available for the course. Short stories are ideal for the students’ first exposure to literature. Students must be able to appreciate and respond to the text’s coding of its cultural and emotional experience, it should be a story line and characters that engage students’ interest. There conditions are essential if literature is to fulfill its dual purpose: to provide stimulating course content and develop students’ communicative abilities.

Using literature in the classroom educator might face the following challenges:

· text selection: texts need to be chosen that have relevance and interest to learners;

· linguistic difficulty: texts need to be appropriate to the level of the students' comprehension;

· length: shorter texts may be easier to use within the class time available, but longer texts provide more contextual details, and development of character and plot;

· cultural difficulty: texts should not be so culturally dense that outsiders feel excluded from understanding essential meaning;

· cultural appropriacy: learners should not be offended by textual content [7,p.5].

The relevance of problem of using literature as a food not only for thoughts, but as an effective tool of successful classroom, motivating the interest and involvement of students is of paramount importance now, and teacher should foresee and plan what can happen during his classroom. Creative educator would definitely find the ways how literary texts can be used in the classroom, for example, classroom work with literary works may involve pre-reading tasks, interactive work on the text and follow up activities. In this light we see not only the beauty of language but the underlying mechanisms that are functioning to form an intricate whole. If, as according to Robert Frost, literature is a “performance in words”, then we are indeed the actors and our performance is based on a scrip (structure) that makes up a play (system) [2,p.4]. Successful literature-based strategies help foster personal and emotional intelligence while developing students’ language skills.

In the light of the above said, it is necessary to sum up by the following: literature as language in use is not separable from language, and it involves more than language; meanings go beyond language, and the appreciation and enjoyment of literature require the development of more than linguistic capacities. [9,p.10] .Here are an infinite number of things that can be done with language and writes are, of course, continuously experimenting with it. In the language classroom, manipulating the system by decoding-recoding techniques provides a theoretic launching pad from where learners themselves are free to explore the mysteries and beauties of the puzzling world of the English language.[8,p.17].

So, the educational value of using literature and literary techniques in the English language classroom has a number of good reasons, in particular the potential of literature to nurture emotional intelligence, by providing vicarious emotional experiences and caring communication. Carefully selected literature can also introduce students of different culture to the language of empathy and caring in the new language thus facilitates recognition and expression of empathic feelings. Quality literature can also help students gain insight into human behavior, and it can demonstrate that there is always hope and that one can overcome even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. [1, p.2].


1.Bassnett S. and Grundy P. // Language through literature/ S. Bassnett and P.Grundy. - London: Longman, 1993.

2 Butler Ian //Literature in Language classroom/ Ian Butler. - Issues, 161, 2001.

3. Caduto M., Bruchac B.//Keepers of the Earth/M.Caduto, B. Bruchac.- Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1997.

4. Chapman R. //The language of English literature/ R.Chapman. -London: Arnold, 1982.

5.Collie J., Slater S.//Literature in the language classroom/J.Collie, S.Slater. – Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1997.

6. Gwin T. //Language skills through literature/ T.Gwin. - ETForum, 28, 1990.

7. Hill J. //Using literature in language teaching/ J.Hill. – London: Macmillan, 1986.

8.Kimberlee A.Manzi//Using a literary text in English classroom/ Manzi A. Kimberlee. - Forum 4, 1994.

9. Nursel İςz //Teaching literature:Why, What and How / İz Nursel. - Forum,1, 1992.


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