Literature in ELT: Who’s Afraid of Literature?

2014_Sybil_MarcusSybil Marcus

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

I admit it—I’m passionate about using literature, especially short stories, for language learning. As I result, I take every opportunity to talk about this to teachers of intermediate to advanced-level ELLs. In a nutshell, I think literature is a great teaching tool for these reasons:

  • It’s an opportunity to teach language skills in an authentic context.
  • It’s a chance to practice critical thinking skills.
  • It introduces a diverse array of social and cross-cultural topics.
  • It gives rise to energetic class discussions.

The Hemingway excerpt and exercise at the end of this blog are an indication of what you can do with even a few lines of literature. However, I first want to speak to those of you who’ve shared the following concerns with me:

  1. Literature is too hard for my students!

Don’t underestimate your students when it comes to literature. If they’re engaged by the subject matter, they usually relish the challenge of literary analysis.

More important, as the teacher, you can control how much you probe a text. Depending on the needs and level of your class, you can decide to skim the surface for plot details, or you can go deeper and discuss the themes and writing style. Whatever you do, you’ll be giving your students a rich context for honing language and critical thinking skills. And, you’ll offer them a chance to compare cultural responses.

  1. Literature is too hard for me!

Some teachers worry that they need a degree in literature to teach it. That’s really not the case. What’s important is to have a framework for looking at a story. So, I get my students to read the story at least twice before coming to class—first to understand the plot, and then to uncover the themes. I give them a prereading question that usually involves some sort of visceral response to a character’s actions. I teach them how to figure out key words in context. Then, we’re ready to discuss the story in greater depth.

Don’t be deterred by the number of literary terms involved in analysis. At the very least, you need to know plot, theme, and character.  If you want to delve deeper, I would suggest concentrating on ironysymbolinferencemetaphorsimile, and point of view. Luckily, it’s easy to find clear explanations of all these terms online or in a textbook.

  1. I’m skeptical about the relevance of literature to language studies.

My career-long experience suggests that literature offers a solid foundation on which to build all language skills, something I’ll be talking about in a future blog.

  1. My students are skeptical about the value of literature.

Some students wonder how literature will help them with their language studies. However, I’ve found that when it comes time to evaluate the course, my students are pleased and surprised by how much they’ve learned:

I couldn’t imagine how much vocabulary and grammar I would learn. It will help my TOEFL score!  -Tawfiq

Reading, discussing within a small group, dialog with the teacher, idiom work. All kinds of interesting activities, very useful for improving my English.  -Aza

What I’ve liked most about this class is that the stories made us think about them outside the class. They made me think about life and people.  -Christina

Suggested Classroom Exercise

I often draw students into the rich world of literature through only a few lines of writing. Below is the first paragraph of “A Very Short Story” by Ernest Hemingway. This snippet tests students’ ability to draw inferences while sparking their curiosity:

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night. (Hemingway, 1925/1996)

  1. Get your students to read the lines a couple of times. The vocabulary and syntax are mostly straightforward—searchlights can be puzzled out from the context, but chimney swifts needs explanation.
  2. Put students into groups and ask them to figure out as much as they can about these lines. Not a lot is spelled out, so it will require critical thinking. Students should say who the characters are, when and where the story takes place, and what they infer is happening. This activity seamlessly combines reading and discussion skills. Best of all, my students are always intrigued to know how much they got right and what happens next. So, I give them the complete, one-page story, which is readily available online. It never disappoints.

What’s Next?

In future blogs, I’ll be covering specific topics to help you incorporate literature into your curriculum:

  • Navigating the choice of stories
  • Integrating literature into language learning
  • Investigating social issues through literature
  • Using literature to explore conflict resolution

In the meantime, I’d love to know: Have you used literature in your classroom? If so, please share your experiences in the comments section.

Hemingway, E. (1996). A very short story. In In Our Time. New York, NY: Scribner. (Original work published 1925)

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.