On trial and error

St Andrews is a very special place indeed for a number of quite obvious reasons and I was lucky to be able to come back this year to present at the annual EAP Conference that takes place at the University of St Andrews. A well-deserved word of praise is due here to Kerry Tavakoli for superbly organizing the event.

The theme this year was the balance between language and content and I presented a paper on combining literature and language. I started my presentation looking at the some of what I call the ‘EAP mantras’, i.e. some of the ideas and concepts that seem to have taken root in our approach to language teaching at HE and that generally go uncontested and unscrutinized. I have for a couple of years repeated these ‘mantras’ myself because they do seem, at a first glance, to make a lot of sense and there are for sure some grain of truth in them.  These are the kind of principles that have been instilled into my professional thought and practice when I started designing EAP lessons and materials:

  • ‘There must be a specific grammar and/or vocabulary focus in each lesson.’
  • ‘There must be a language output activity in each lesson.’
  • ‘Our job is to teach English language, not disciplinary knowledge.’
  • ‘These are international students. They are here to improve their English.’

Yet, when teaching literature and language I soon found out that these ‘mantras’ profoundly conflicted with my students’ needs and expectations and with my own understanding of what it means to work with literature in English language teaching. For two years I tried to find a compromise between those ideas and the reality of my classroom. I failed. I failed, especially in relation to the place of language in the syllabus and in the materials.

My first attempt was to focus on grammar and vocabulary. This was based on a selection of specific ‘advanced’ language discrete points informed by the CAE syllabus. Then I selected literary extracts where these pre-determined language items appeared and the language work was then as controlled language practice and activities that required students to summarize and paraphrase the extracts of the literary text using the target language. The problem with this approach is that Literature then becomes a mere source of grammar and vocabulary examples. The text becomes an ‘excuse’ for language use and practice and the language tasks are disconnected from literary analysis. Moreover, all too often students’ previous familiarity with selected grammar structures and vocabulary rendered the activities dull and there was no sense of linguistic improvement. The biggest issue, however, is that students ended up the term feeling that in fact they have studied very little of literature and there was no observed improvement in their essay writing skills.

My second attempt to address the language issue led me to  focus on ‘academic language’. Instead of working with generic grammar and vocabulary, I designed the language component of the units around academic language functions, such as hedging, causality, compare and contrast, signposting, style and register. Most work was done on literary criticism and again the activities involved controlled language practice and, as such, there was a fair amount of writing about the literary text using the model language. With hindsight, it is easy to see that this was also doomed to be a failure: Literature took a second place to criticism, there was a lack of engagement with the language in the primary text, and the language tasks were disconnected from literary analysis. Students tended towards a mechanical use of academic phraseology by using isolated expressions or vocabulary items in their writing. Once again there was no significant improvement in their essay writing skills.

It was at this point that I decided to turn the table and start it all over. My first step into this change process was to go back to the fundamentals and draw on my core understanding of what language and literature are. The mantras had to be rejected. They had to go because essentially they are based on a dualistic view of literature and language as two distinct entities or, in a less metaphysical phraseology, two discrete threads in the course syllabus: a language focus and a literary focus. Basically, this is wrong. My argument is that when teaching literature and language we don’t need to add a distinctive language component to a course or lessons because studying literature means to study how language creates characters, places, situations, themes, plots and responses from the reader. Literature is language in meaningful and memorable contexts. What we need to do is to focus on the literary text and go back to close reading – the old-fashioned technique employed by both structuralist and post-structuralist oriented literary critics.

By focusing on the text we are able to help students develop their language awareness, look at meaning in context, identify multiple voices in the text, look at how grammar generates meaning and how vocabulary choices shape the reader’s understanding of the characters and plot as well as give us the opportunity to explore figurative and dramatic language. I propose to replace those EAP mantras by the principles below:

  • There is no need to ‘add a language component to each lesson’ when you work with literature. Studying literature means to study language.
  • Writing output in the field of literary studies requires extensive reading and thinking – most output should thus be done as an independent learning activity outside the classroom.
  • Our job is to create opportunities for students to improve their language, study skills and critical thinking as well as give them the tools to expand their subject knowledge.
  • These are international students. They are here to improve their English, their knowledge of the subject matter, and to learn what it takes to be part of their academic community.

I don’t claim here to have found the perfect balance between language and content also because saying that would be to fall again into the trap of seeing both as distinct things, which may be the case with other subjects but not with Literature. In my courses, the most important aspect is to find a balance between input and output and between the reading of primary and secondary texts, but this is stuff for future blog posts.

Further reading

  • Cook, G. (1994) Discourse and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Bakhtin, M. M. (1891) The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Translated by V.W. McGee. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
  • Crystal, D. (2008) Think of my Words: Exploring Shakespeare’s Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Davis, P. (2013) Reading and the Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Garrett-Petts, W. F. (2013) Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. London: Broadview Press.
  • Johnson, K. (2013) Shakespeare’s English. Harlow: Pearson.
  • Hall, G. (2015) Literature in Language Education. 2nd Edition. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
  • Smith, E. (2013) Macbeth: Language & Writing. London: Bloomsbury.
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