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.

‘Had I your tongues and eyes’

2016 marks 400 years since Shakespeare’s death and it very likely that most people will only manage to miss it if they are living on another planet. Yet, there is still a chance that someone will have the idea of broadcasting some of the most famous sonnets into space in the hope the radio waves will reach some less well-read extra-terrestrial life forms out there. Or maybe it should be the ‘What’s a man’ soliloquy in Hamlet performed by Cumberbatch? Not a bad idea at all. I hope someone from NASA reads this post.

Jokes apart, indeed there are many organizations, institutions, and publishers committed to provide the means to celebrate Shakespeare in 2016. There is concerted effort to share his works and Shakespearean scholarship among a broader readership and audiences around the world and this is a very good thing indeed (for a list of links to Shakespearean sources on the Internet, click here).

In the course of the last months I have been asked a couple of times to talk about why Shakespeare is still relevant today and I am sure others have been through the same experience. My standard answer is twofold: one reason refers to language and the other to content. Firstly, Shakespeare’s language is alive in the English we speak nowadays as it became part of the fabric of the language in a way that can only be compared to the influence exerted by the language in the King James’s Bible. Secondly, his plays and poems talk about things that are still relevant to all of us everywhere regardless of the culture to which people belong. Still, there is more to it…

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell my students that Shakespeare’s language is very similar to our English, that linguists have found out that only 5% of Shakespeare’s words are indeed out of use and different from Modern English (Crystal & Crystal, 2002), and that difficulty is a perceived and shifting concept. I can still read the skepticism on their faces. And they are right. Shakespeare is difficult. However, I still don’t think language is the main source of difficultness, although we have to admit that some passages can be particularly dense. The difficulty comes from complexity of thought (Crystal, 2008), from extended metaphors, punning, and complex imagery (Kermode, 2000), as well as ‘poetic allusiveness’ (Smith, 2007, p.72).

Davis (2013, p.7) argues that poetry is vital to humans in a way that other writings are less so because poetry ‘lights up in the brain some new force of emotional interest’ that shifts the ‘mind attention and energy’ creating a ‘field of consciousness around it’. For him, Shakespeare’s use of language offers ‘both writer and reader a holding-ground for the contemplation of experience’ (p.16). Perhaps more than any other writer, Shakespeare is able to create this field of consciousness about language. He prompts the awakening of our thinking brains; he surprises us; he keeps us on our toes; he requires us to be critical readers; he forces us to read things from different angles and points of views. Every time we encounter Shakespeare, we are challenged.

Difficulty, I want to argue, is perhaps one of the main reasons why Shakespeare is still relevant today.

The problem is not with Shakespeare; it is with us. We have been conditioned to think that difficultness is a bad thing. There are plenty of examples of who people try to digest Shakespeare to others in order to make it ‘easy’: there is a website called ‘No Fear Shakespeare’; some argue that we have to translate him into ‘more accessible’ language; there are tips out there to make Shakespeare ‘easy’ to our students. We want everything easy and accessible – our motto seems to be ‘Just Google It’. Sorry, that will not do here. There may be some place and use for these things, but I shall argue that finding ‘easy reading’ is not the reason why Shakespeare endures the taste of time and is still relevant to us. On the contrary! Umberto Eco, the philosopher and fiction writer who sadly passed away just yesterday once said, ‘People are tired of simple things’. He might as well have been just thinking about Shakespeare.


  • Crystal, D and Crystal, B. (2002) Shakespeare’s Words. London: Penguin.
  • 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.
  • Kermode, F. (2000) Shakespeare’s Language. London: Penguin.
  • Smith, E. (2007) The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The old gods and the new

Sometimes when characters in Game of Thrones feel the need to have their words backed-up by a higher authority than themselves, they swear ‘by the old gods and the new.’ Invoking someone with superior knowledge to attest for the veracity of what you are saying does not only happen when you call for a god; we do exactly the same in academic writing. Academic writing is, by its own nature, full of references to people we believe have some knowledge on the topic we are discussing, even when we dispute the accuracy and relevance of such knowledge. We refer to other thinkers and researchers because we need backup for what we are saying or want to contest their arguments in order to advance ours. Either way, we do need to invoke others’ ideas and research findings to strengthen our positions.

When it comes to the use of references one of the most common questions students have is ‘how old’ a source can be. Simply there is not one right answer for this question but students often comment that their supervisors constantly ask them to ‘update’ their literature review and to get rid of anything that has been published more than 10 years ago. What students, and sometimes EAP tutors, do not understand it there is a need to discriminate between the different kinds of references and the purposes for which they are being invoked. I find it hard to believe that any lecturer would indiscriminately banish sources because they are two-digit old.

I cannot speak for all the disciplines but I can reassure my students and trainee teachers that in education and in literary studies there must be space for both the old and the new. If we are looking for empirical studies that give us specific data on the phenomena we are interested in, the newer the better. For example, there is little point in citing a piece of research on the use of technology in English language teaching that was published in 1990 because this was before the expansion of the internet, the creation of social media and the invention of mobile technology. In this case, you’d better look for research articles that describe more recent studies in the field; unless you happen to be writing about the historical development of CALL. However, I would also expect to find in such a paper a theoretical discussion on how people learn and for that you cannot do without referring to writers like Vygotsky (1978), Bordieu (1990) and Bruner (1979), to mention just the basics. Indeed, it is all a matter of going back to the basics as key ideas and seminal papers are not written every each year. In fact, sometimes it takes decades or even centuries for ideas and concepts to evolve and disseminate among us, especially in the field of the Humanities.

Actually,  I confess that one of the things that irritates me considerably is to see students citing writers who wrote about people to whom they should be directly referring. Apologies for the self-reference here but if, for instance, if you want to discuss Bakhtin’s concept of dialogism don’t cite Lima 2013 but go and read Bakhtin 1981 instead! You may want to refer to Lima 2013 if you are looking for an example of how to apply the concept of dialogism to the analysis of communicative interactions among readers and texts. In Literary Studies, for example, if you want to discuss the Novel, your literature review is very likely to contain sources that have been published quite a while ago, such as Eagleton (2005), Parrinder (2008) and Watt (1987), not to mention Bakhtin (1981) himself. If a student submits such a paper to me and it only contains sources that are ‘updated’ and newer than 5 years old, I will certainly send him/her packing back to the library to do some ‘proper reading’.

When calling others to back your ideas and arguments, what matters the most is not date of publication, but authority and relevance. We are still looking for someone that can say something more relevant on literature than Aristotle (n.d). As I said before, there is no easy answer to the question of how old a source can be as we need to consider the discipline in question and the topic addressed in the paper. Having said that, a rule of thumb is ‘use more recent articles for empirical studies and examples of applied theory and seminal papers for theoretical principles and key ideas in the field, no matter when they were written’. A good paper would have a proper balance between both as there should be space in your writing for both the old gods and the new.

With a new cohort of students starting in the first week of October I have decided to revisit some of the books I believe are works we still have to turn to if we are looking for influential and inspiring ideas in the field of literary studies. I am calling this the ‘Seminal Papers Series’ and I will be posting on them on My Literature Blog from time to time. I hope my students read them…

• Aristotle, n.d. Poetics. 1996 ed. London: Penguin.
• Bakhtin, M.M., 1981. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
• Bourdieu, P., 1990. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Translated by J.C. Passeron. London: SAGE.
• Bruner, J., 1986. Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Eagleton, T., 2005. The English Novel: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
• Lima, C., 2013. Accounts from an Online Reading Group for English Language Teachers Worldwide. PhD. Open University.
• Parrinder, P., 2008. Nation and Novel: The English Novel from its Origins to the Present Day. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Vygotsky, L.S., 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
• Watt, I.P., 1987. The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. London: Hogarth Press.

ELTons 2015

Receiving the 2015 British Council Macmillan Education Award for New Talent in Writing for the EAP Shakespeare materials I developed for the University of Leicester was something very special indeed. I started developing these materials two years ago and, through an ongoing process of designing, piloting, and editing over this period of time, I saw them growing from a collection of lessons to a set of coherent and organic course materials that form the basis of the two credit bearing courses delivered at the ELTU to students in the Erasmus and Study Abroad programmes. I hope it will inspire other teachers to bring to their students drama, prose fiction and poetry in order to develop their reading skills and trigger reflection, critical thinking and meaningful discussions.

EAP Shakespeare is a set of classroom teaching materials based on Shakespeare’s plays in which I try to explore the texts from both literary and linguistic perspectives. The materials were designed having in mind a hybrid approach to Shakespeare that should reflect the needs and interests of my students: mostly Europeans and Korean learners doing a wide range of undergraduate courses, from literature to TESOL to management. When I designed the materials, my major concern was to help my students better understand and creatively engage with Shakespearean texts at the same time that they develop their academic reading and writing skills, critical thinking, and language awareness.

The entries for the ELTons are judged by a panel of independent ELT expert and I was very pleased with their comments when they said that the materials constituted ‘a detailed, thoughtful course making Shakespeare’s works fresh, appealing and relevant to high-level English language learners.’ Apart from the thrill of winning such prestigious award, I am particularly happy because this was given to a course that brings literature into EAP. There is still considerable resistance from some professionals to the idea of including literature in academic English courses. I hope this award will serve as evidence that it is possible to bring together literature, language and academic content in meaningful and innovative ways in order to provide high standards of tuition to international students.

I am very thankful to the British Council and Macmillan for the award. It means a lot to me. It means recognition from my peers in the ELT industry for the work I have been doing in the field of literature and language.

Thanks to my colleagues at the ELTU, especially to Jock McPherson, the Erasmus Programme Coordinator, and Phil Horspool, the ELTU Director, for their incredible support and for giving me freedom to put my ideas in practice. For me, bringing an ELTon to the University of Leicester also means achieving public recognition for the high quality work developed in our department.

My very special thanks to all my students for responding so well to the courses. Without their participation, feedback, and participation in the process, I would not have been able to develop the materials to the stage they are now. Thank you guys!

Thanks to Eduardo, my son, for his suggestions, feedback, constructive criticism, and for his generosity in letting me include some of his own writing in the materials.

And of course, thanks Will!!

The English Language Teaching Innovation Awards (ELTons) are the only international awards that recognise and celebrate innovation in English language teaching. They reward educational resources that help English language learners and teachers to achieve their goals.

The 2015 ELTons Awards ceremony took place on Thursday 4 June in London at Tavistock House and was attended by key names in the ELT industry, including materials writers, scholars and researchers in the fields of education, linguistics and literature, publishers, representatives of UK universities, and educational authorities. The Awards ceremony was hosted by Angela Rippon, OBE.

For more on the ELTons, please visit http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/eltons