The complex business of teaching literature and language

Teaching English language is a vast and complex field involving different perspectives, contexts and approaches. It may take some of us quite a long time before we can find a place in this vast world where we can feel at home; a niche that corresponds to our interests and matches the way we see teaching English. It may take us an even longer time to be able to devote ourselves to develop this particular interest and be able to put this into practice in our everyday work. I believe I can consider myself lucky that after so many years teaching English I can now start to gear my professional activities towards the area in ELT that makes me tick: combining the teaching language with the teaching of literature.

Both fields have been historically linked, albeit one can argue that not always in an entirely positive way (Eagleton, 2008; Howatt, 2004; Parrinder, 2008). However, a certain re-consideration of the potential benefits of using literature in English language teaching seems to have been on the way (Hall, 2005; Johnson, 2013; McGuinn, 2014) The fact that the British Council (2015) has been investing in producing materials in the field and that more presentations at IATEFL are devoted to different ways of bringing together literature and language (2015) seem to attest to such a trend that in fact started in the late 80s and early 90s (Brumfit, 1986; Collie & Slater, 1987; Cook, 1994; Gibson, 1998; Lazar, 1993; Widdowson, 1982).

Teaching literature and language in the field of English for Academic Purposes (EAP) is perhaps even more complex business that doing so in general English language education for it demands from the tutors a highly multifaceted set of knowledge and skills. It does not suffice to be keen on literature or have a BA in English; it is not enough to be an experienced teacher; it requires more than being knowledgeable on the practices and conventions in the field of literary studies. If fact, it requires all these things at the same time and at a very high level. The list below may help to illustrate the point I am trying to make.

Ideally, an English language and literature EAP tutor should have considerable knowledge of:

  • English literature in general
  • Specific literary works in the course syllabus
  • Film, theatre and popular culture
  • Philosophy and literary theory
  • Different lines of literary criticism
  • History
  • English Language Teaching
  • Teaching English for Academic Purposes
  • Academic reading in general and in the field of literary studies
  • Academic writing in general and in the field of literary studies
  • Linguistics
  • Syllabus development and materials design
  • Assessment in EAP
  • Use of learning technologies
  • Institutional values and regulations in Higher Education

Considering the lengthy list above, it is little wonder that there is considerable shortage of professionals in the field and if we want to keep improving the quality of the teaching we provide, more teachers need to be trained to do so. Learning technologies may help us by making distance learning teacher training programmes available to teachers working in different contexts all over the world. A first step was the creation of the ELT Online Reading Group (Lima, 2013), but I do feel now that we need a more focused programme and structure. I am still thinking about it, but this is certainly something I am considering putting into practice at some point in the near future.

References

  • Brumfit C.J. (1986) Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Carter, R. and Long, M. (1991) Teaching Literature. Harlow: Longman.
  • Collie, J. and S. Slater (1987) Literature in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Gibson, R. (1998) Teaching Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Eagleton, T., (2008) Literary Theory. Minneapolis. MN: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Hall, G. (2005) Literature in Language Education. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Howatt, A.P.R. (2004) A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Johnson, K. (2013) Shakespeare’s English. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Lazar, G. (1993) Literature and Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lima, C. (2013) Accounts from an Online Reading Group for English Language Teachers Worldwide. PhD. Open University, UK.
  • McGuinn, N. (2014) The English Teacher’s Drama Handbook. London: Routledge.
  • Parrinder, P. (2006) Nation & Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Widdowson, H. (1982) The use of literature. Paper given as a plenary address to the TESOL Convention 1981. New York, NY: Hines and Rutherford.

What student feedback may tell us

Every end of term or course good practice tells us that we should collect feedback from our learners on various aspects of the course, both those related to the administration as those directly related to the teaching and learning, such as the quality of teaching, assessment, and learning experience. Collecting feedback is seen as important to improve the quality of the educational services we provide and also give students the chance to voice their opinion and concerns.

There are different forms and approaches to the collection of feedback in education and although the practice is quite well engrained in most institutions, it does not lack its critics. Some teachers and academics have raised concerns on the validity of feedback and posed questions on how much we can trust on students’ partial views and limited experience when designing and/or reviewing a course organization, syllabus and/or materials. Doubts have also be raised on the wisdom of making changes on programmes based on the feedback provided by one cohort of students when the next one may well give you conflicting views on the same aspects you have just changed. Fair enough.

However, I believe most skepticism comes from the fact that we are looking at feedback from a wrong theoretical perspective. Although there is no point in asking feedback if you are determined to ignore it and have no intention to change anything, it does not necessarily mean that you have to implement the changes suggested or should take them at face value.

Seeing feedback from a dialogical (Bakhtin, 1981) perspective may help get us avoid such trap and see feedback for what it can be: an opportunity for learners to add their own voice to the conversation about the educational process in which they are the most important stakeholders, and an opportunity for teachers to see things from a point of view that is denied to them no matter how well-intentioned they are and willing to see things from the learners’ standpoint. As Bakhtin reminds us, we need the viewpoint of others to see things that are inaccessible to us. Feedback tells me what my students and trainee teachers can see on the courses that I cannot.

I may use the feedback I receive to make the changes suggested or make changes that go in a completely different direction. I may even decide not to make any changes at all. In this last case scenario, feedback can make me realise that if my students cannot see the rhyme and reason why things are how they are when my theoretical knowledge and my professional experience tell me that that is the way they should be, then the problem may not be with the course itself but on how I am conveying the message about it. Feedback in this case is invaluable to tell me that I have to find a clearer and more efficient way make people understand the rationale behind the course design and the teaching practices I have adopted.

Whatever our positions may be regarding student feedback, it is very likely that the institutions where we work will demand that we collect it in order to ‘improve the quality of our teaching’. However, we should not be naive to think that one day this will lead us to the development of the perfect course syllabus and the perfect course materials. Students change, contexts change, and we as teachers and course developers also change. What feedback can help us do it to get as close as possible to matching students’ needs and expectations to institutional demands and to our own ideas about what our courses should be knowing that that there will always have to be a compromise between them and that all solutions are temporary and likely to change in time anyway.

Below are some suggestions for further reading on various positions regarding student feedback:

  • Brandt, C., 2008. Integrating feedback and reflection in teacher preparation. ELT Journal, 62(1), pp.37–46.
  • Essex, C. and Cagiltay, K., 2001. Evaluating an Online Course: Feedback from ‘Distressed’ Students. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 2(3), pp.233–39.
  • Kember, D., Leung, D.Y.P. and Kwan, K.P., 2002. Does the Use of Student Feedback Questionnaires Improve the Overall Quality of Teaching? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(5), pp.411–425.
  • Leckey, J. and Neill, N., 2001. Quantifying Quality: The importance of student feedback. Quality in Higher Education, 7(1), pp.19–32.
  • McKone, K.E., 1999. Analysis of Student Feedback Improves Instructor Effectiveness. Journal of Management Education, 23(4), pp.396–415.
  • Richardson, J.T.E., 2005. Instruments for obtaining student feedback: a review of the literature. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 30(4), pp.387–415.
  • Spooren, P., Brockx, B. and Mortelmans, D., 2013. On the Validity of Student Evaluation of Teaching The State of the Art. Review of Educational Research, 83(4), pp.598–642.

Reference:

  • Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.