Bringing literature into the language class

This post was originally written for Helbling Hooked on Books Blog. Thanks to Nora Nagy and Maria Cleary for giving me the opportunity to share my views with their readers.

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.   Read more…

A ‘feast of languages’ at IATEFL

I’ve decided to call my presentation at IATEFL a ‘feast of languages’ not because I wanted to refer to the diversity of languages spoken by the delegates at the conference; neither because I wanted to allude to the diversity of ‘languages’ and voices in Shakespeare’s works but because I wanted to call my audience’s attention to the ways in which we sometimes approach Shakespeare with language learners.

The phrase ‘a great feast of languages’ comes from Love’s Labour’s Lost and, in isolation, it may sound as if Shakespeare is celebrating diversity and multilingualism. I think this illustrates very well the danger of taking bits and pieces of a text without looking at how they are inserted in the context of the work. In the play, there are two very pedantic and verbose characters called Don Armado and Holofernes, the schoolmaster, who are mocked by Moth, Armado’s page, and the country clown, Costard, for their linguistic ‘perversion’ and their meaningless use of discourse. They say that Armado and Holofernes  ‘have been to a great feast of languages and stol’n the scraps’ and that they ‘have long liv’d on the alms-basket of words’, which means that they pick words indiscriminately, without thinking about their meaning, just to sound learned and show off their supposedly superior linguistic knowledge.

The point I wanted to emphasize with the audience is that we should find ways of teaching Shakespeare to language learners that go beyond just picking words and phrases or teaching students a couple of Shakespearean idioms.  I believe that you need to help learners look at Shakespeare’s language in a more meaningful way. In order to do that, I suggest teachers choose a particular play and them select an extract of that play they want to explore with their students. Once you have chosen the passage, there are a couple of things you can do to analyse it in more depth:

  • Ask your students to read the text before coming to the classroom and ask them to work on the vocabulary at home, preferably using  the Shakespeare’s Glossary to help them with the meaning of less common words. Once you have taken the vocabulary issue out of the way, students will feel more confident to start thinking about the meaning of the lines.
  • In class, give your students the opportunity to watch the same scene being performed. This can come from a YouTube video as there is plenty of material available, from commercial films to clips of live theatre performances uploaded by the theatre companies.
  • Design pre-listening tasks and listening tasks to go with it. No need to be fancy here: these can be the same kinds of tasks that you would design for any listening activity.
  • Design some post-listening activities that make students revisit the passage and close read it. This may sound a bit old-fashioned, but in my opinion close reading is still be best way to work with a text

Close reading is a literary criticism technique used by both structuralist and post-structuralist critics to analyse the text. It is up to you to decide in which direction you want your students to go. I personally favour an approach that combines an analysis of the form and figurative language that is illuminated by a theoretically informed reading of the text. This may sound a little bit ‘too advanced’ for some language learners but in fact it is just a way to help students think about the nuances and implications of what is going on in the play. You may find out that some theoretical approaches work best with some particular genres. For example, I mainly use the new historicist approach with the history plays and feminist criticism/gender studies theory to analyse the comedies. Particular plays might also better lend themselves to particular readings, such psychoanalyst criticism with Hamlet or post-colonial criticism with The Tempest.  However, this is not carved in stone; you can use any approach to look at any of the plays.

My presentation was kindly sponsored by Macmillan since I am writing a couple of lesson plans and materials, as well as articles, for onestopenglish on teaching Shakespeare to EAP students. A video should be available soon.

Birmingham highlights

Every year is the same story: there is so much going on at the same time at the IATEFL Conference that you would need to clone yourself to be able to attend everything. As a SIG Coordinator, and also being in the Selections Editorial Team, I have to attend a couple of meetings while others are enjoying the talks and workshops, not to mention that I have to chair the SIG Day which, albeit letting me enjoy the presentations in the SIG programme, prevents me from attending other talks. This year, for example, I missed the ELTJ debate which I have assiduously attended for seven years in a row. What a shame!

Not all is lost though as fortunately there is IATEFL Online and you can catch up with some of the presentations. My highlights are in the links below:

There are also a couple of interviews that I think are really interesting and relevant to language teachers and learners. My selection below:

For more videos, including a series of four interviews with the current Hornby Scholars, click here

Shakespeare at IATEFL

If you look at the programme at the 50th IATEFL conference this year in Birmingham you may be excused to think it could well be called the IATEFL Shakespeare Conference instead. There was a lot of Shakespeare going on and I am proud to say that the Literature, Media and Cultural Studies SIG has contributed quite a lot to it.

We started on Monday with a tour in Stratford-upon-Avon with a VIP visit to the Birthplace, a lecture on the recent archaeological discovers at New Place, followed by a visit to Harvard House and Hall’s Croft, culminating with the evening performance of Marlowe’s Faustus at the RSC – no Shakespeare play on Monday, I am afraid.

The Pre-Conference event on Tuesday counted on presenters coming from a variety of backgrounds and their presentations were meant to appeal to participants working in a multiplicity of ways as they covered discussions on Shakespeare’s language, the analysis of particular aspects of his work, and practical activities to bring Shakespeare to students in your everyday teaching practice. The PCE would not be possible without the generosity of our SIG friends who agreed to take part in the day. Thanks to Jeremy Harmer for accepting to open the event and to all the presenters for sharing their expertise, knowledge and experience with us. My heartfelt thanks to Professor David Crystal, the IATEFL Patron, who has so graciously agreed to share his vast knowledge of Shakespeare with us. Thanks to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the British Council for their fantastic support and for sending their speakers, Lisa Peter and Martin Peacock, respectively. To know more about the PCE presentations, check the event programme here.

There was also Luke Prodromou presentation of Shakespeare’s female characters on the LMCS SIG day and I contributed with my tuppence with a presentation on Shakespeare in EAP, sponsored by Macmillan. Not to mention the British Council Signature Event on Shakespeare (click here to watch) and the marvelous evening events: first with Jeremy Harmer, Amos Paran, Marjorie Rosenberg and Glyn Jones singing Shakespeare’s songs, followed by David and Hilary Crystal double act presenting ‘an entertaining potpourri of new and old pieces on Shakespeare, including some unbelievable recent discoveries about the bard’, and closing with David Gibson and Luke Prodromou performance of ‘an original comedy inspired by a dozen works of the greatest writer in the English language’.

To see some photos, click on the link below