The Central Role of Literature in the ESL/EFL Classroom

page43_SybilMarcus Sybil Marcus

Earlier this year, my colleague Jamie Reinstein and I were corresponding about the value and joy of using literature in ESL education. We found that our experiences were closely aligned, and he invited me to run a workshop on literature and ESL at the Community College of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, U.S. Since he was using my anthology A World of Fiction 2 as the text for his advanced class, he also suggested that I take over for the morning and teach a story from the book.

I decided that I would ask Jamie’s students to read Peter Meinke’s short story “The Cranes,” which is about an elderly couple on an outing to the Gulf of Mexico. Although the story seems innocuous at first, the events lead to an enigmatic ending that prompts reconsideration of what’s been happening all along.

Like many ESL classes, Jamie’s class was made up of a mix of nationalities with students from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. They quickly made me feel very welcome and we settled down to business. I had requested that students read the story for homework and then come to class with a written explanation of what the ending meant to them and why.

I have used “The Cranes” before, not only with students but also with teachers at workshops in the United States, Russia, and Latin America. In Jamie’s class, as always, there were many different interpretations of the ending; some jibed with the clues planted in the story and others didn’t. It was fascinating to hear the students’ animated discussion as they debated what had actually happened and whether the ending was positive or negative.

To make sense of the characters’ actions in “The Cranes,” it is necessary to grapple with subtle inferential details. The story’s implications aren’t immediately obvious even to native speakers; needless to say, for nonnative speakers, this kind of story can be particularly daunting. However, when students realize that they need to shift gears and treat the story like a puzzle, seeking out clues, their experience becomes an exciting intellectual challenge.

It is always very rewarding to witness students’ concentration as they wrestle with a text. In Philadelphia, the students’ investment in this somewhat abstract story was palpable, as was their sense of achievement as they decoded the clues and debated the ethical implications of the story. The opinions presented were diverse, but there was unanimity about the satisfaction of putting the pieces together.

If there is an art to leading this kind of literary discussion in an ESL class, much of it lies in guiding students in the right direction while resisting the urge to give away too much. My observation through four decades of teaching is that too often we fail to tap into the level of sophisticated thought of which students are capable.

It’s not uncommon for students to begin a semester feeling skeptical about literature, wondering whether analyzing stories will be a good use of their limited time. By the end, these students have frequently expressed appreciation for being introduced to the study of fiction in English. They’ve recognized not only the notable improvement in their full complement of language skills—grammar and vocabulary, reading, writing, and speaking—but also the value of the opportunity to stretch their critical thinking abilities and to debate complex and sensitive topics. For these reasons and more, I encourage teachers to view literature not as an auxiliary part of ESL education, but rather as providing a comprehensive and integrated vehicle for both language study and the enrichment of life.

Sybil Marcus is the author of A World of Fiction Books 1 and 2. These books offer a carefully-chosen selection of authentic, unabridged short stories, along with extensive practice in critical thinking, vocabulary, grammar, and writing for students from high-intermediate to advanced level. Sybil can be reached at