Literature in ELT: Navigating a Sea of Choices

2014_Sybil_MarcusSybil Marcus

This content first appeared on the TESOL Blog. © TESOL International Association. Reprinted with permission.

When I first started using literature in my ESL/EFL classes, I thought all I had to do was teach the stories I enjoyed reading.   But I soon found that even my favorite stories wouldn’t always work in class.  Sometimes, they lacked sufficient depth for a 2-hour lesson, they failed to engage my students, or I couldn’t find a good way to organize the discussion.

So, how do you compile a successful syllabus for a literature-based course? If you focus on short stories (as I usually do), you can find thousands of them in anthologies, in textbooks, and online.  The sheer number of options can be a challenge, which I hope to help you with in this post.

1. Group stories into themes

Connecting stories thematically is an effective way to organize your course.  As an added benefit,  it allows for class discussions and writing assignments centered on comparison and contrast.  Some umbrella topics might be:

  • Relationships: Stories dealing with relationships between parents and children, spouses, siblings, and lovers hold universal appeal.
  • Social Issues: Some of the most animated discussions in my classes have been inspired by contemporary topics including war, discrimination, gender, euthanasia, and women’s rights.  Although many of these are hot-button issues, I encourage students and teachers not to shy away from them.  Because I particularly appreciate the role of social issues in increasing cultural awareness, I’ll be devoting an entire future blog to this.
  • Stages of Life: Shakespeare wrote about the Seven Ages of Man. I’ve found that students respond well when dealing with the various stages of life: childhood, the teenage years, young adulthood, maturity, and old age.  Your students will relate directly to some of these; others will require more imagination and empathy.

2. Look for layered stories.

While many stories are fun to read, they may not have sufficient texture for a complete lesson.  I always ask myself how much I can get out of a story.  You need complexity to go beyond a discussion of plot to an analysis of theme and style.  Too frequently we underestimate our students, who are generally hungry for sophisticated material. I like to challenge them with stories that engage them intellectually and emotionally, while stretching their language level.

To view the full article, you can go to the TESOL blog.

3. Choose stories of different lengths and styles.

I start my students off with some really short stories and slowly introduce longer ones.  We might begin with the one-page story “Butterflies” by the Maori writer Patricia Grace.  It’s a deceptively simple story that probes cross-cultural as well as urban/rural misunderstandings.  By the end of the semester, we could be reading William Faulkner’s demanding “Dry September.”

It’s also fun to expose your students to different writing styles.  For example, you might move from the minimalism of Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver to the plot-driven stories of William Saroyan and Anne Tyler, to the rich descriptions of Nadine Gordimer and D.H. Lawrence.

4. Offer a mix of serious and light stories, male and female authors, classic and modern.

It’s not too difficult to find stories that are serious.  Themes like disappointment, betrayal, and death are everywhere in literature. When students complain about these heavy subjects, I usually reply: That’s life.  But I don’t want students to be overwhelmed by dark subjects, so I try to mix in at least one or two humorous stories that are complex enough for a good discussion. Some of my favorite comic writers include Woody AllenDorothy Parker, and James Thurber.

It’s good to have a blend of male and female authors, not to mention a mix of classic and contemporary works. Students are excited when they realize they can understand a story by James JoyceVirginia Woolf, or Kate Chopin, but they also want exposure to modern authors like Tim O’BrienGrace PaleyJohn UpdikeKurt Vonnegut, or Alice Walker.

5. Use stories originally written in English.

This might be controversial, but I never use translated stories.  I know this restricts a lot of terrific authors, but I believe that a significant benefit of  literature is the window it offers into the culture of the target language.

What’s so wonderful about English is that it encompasses an astonishing diversity of cultures. In addition to Caucasian-American writers, we can draw from the rich ethnic traditions within the United States.  These include:

If you don’t want to restrict yourself to North American cultures, Great Britain and its far-flung Commonwealth boast a wealth of exciting authors.

A Good Story for Teaching

The Unicorn in the Garden” by James Thurber is an excellent teaching story.  It’s written in fable form, is short, humorous, and textured.  There’s a lot to discuss, including Thurber’s trademarks such as the archetypal battle between the sexes, the use of satire, and the role of fantasy in life.

What’s next?

Sybil Marcus has lived and worked on four continents.  She taught ESL at the University of California at Berkeley Extension and at the Summer English Language Studies on the Berkeley campus.  She has presented at conferences in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. For 15 years, she ran a PCI workshop for TESOL on integrating literature into language studies. She has also run workshops internationally for the U.S. State Department on Using Literature for Critical Thinking and Using Literature for Conflict Resolution. She is a coauthor with Daniel Berman of the A World of Fiction series, which uses literature to teach integrated language and critical thinking skills to ESL/EFL students at the high-intermediate to advanced levels.