Tag Archives: Literature in ELT

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.

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.

Review: Writing About Literature

image.phpW.F. Garrett-Petts’ second edition of Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic is exactly what the title proposes: a manual to help undergraduate students to write more critically informed essays on literature. Although there is quite a lot of such supposed guides available both in book form and on the internet, most of them fall short of addressing the real issues behind the composition of essays, being no more than lists of formulae and tips on academic writing.

The author’s comment right on the introduction of the book definitely rings a bell for me and my literature and language students. He points out that the ‘great irony of our field’ is that students ‘spend a great deal of time discussing literature’ whereas ‘relatively little direct instruction is offered in how to write about literature (Garrett-Petts, 2013, p. xiii). Last term I tried to minimize the problem by introducing a writing tutorial done via our VLE right in the first week of the course; however, reading his book made me realise that there are still aspects that need to be addressed and that are missing in the course.

Particularly relevant is the concept of the four contexts for learning or the four critical stances proposed by the author and which serve as a framework for writing a critical response to texts: the social, institutional, textual and field stances (pp.1-11). First, the social stance is taken when students compare and discuss with other students their personal reactions to the text, their notes on vocabulary, metaphors, themes and issues raised by their reading. The institutional stance requires students to learn the series of writing conventions we adopt in academic writing, such as what constitute evidence, and attitude and tone expected by the department. The textual stance requires students to become familiar with the tools of trade in literary criticism, such as  the features of an academic essay, the organization of a paper, the use of quotations and the field vocabulary. Finally, the field stance means that students have to learn how to think critically about literature by adopting a critical approach to their analysis.

The writer adopts throughout the book a quite clear and didactic approach to writing  and carefully maps the terrain of literary criticism scaffolding the writing process so that students can have a solid basis to start with. The proposed six common places of literary criticism (pp.51-57) and his summary of the critical approaches to text (pp.57-68) could be considered reductionist and boarding oversimplification but for dazzled undergraduate students they can prove to be quite helpful and a clear starting point for future explorations. This is especially true for international students who may come from academic cultures that have a different approach to literary academic writing.

Clear examples and samples of students writing based on a sample text provided in the book help readers to see how the theory and the strategies suggested are put into practice. The section on poetry at the end is not as well-developed as the one on prose analysis but insightful nonetheless. A glossary and suggestions for further reading at the end can also prove useful to students wishing to go further in their understanding of academic writing in the field of literary studies.

All in all, I found the book a welcome addition to the field and I will definitely review the writing tutorial I offer to my students next term and incorporate to it some of its ideas and tasks.

Garrett-Petts, W. F. (2013) Writing About Literature: A Guide for the Student Critic. London: Broadview Press.

Re-examining World War I

2014 marks the centennial of the beginning of the First World War. This is not supposed to be a celebration but an act of remembering and reflecting on a conflict that cost hundreds of lives. It was also during those years that Russia would face its biggest change in its political regime and change history of East and West relationships for the remaining of the 20h century. Ironically, 2014 is also the year where we are just now watching again acts of aggression towards other nations and an escalating in the war mongering rhetoric among the old cold war adversaries.

It is just fitting that we turn to literature to try to find some rhyme and reason behind all this and a perspective that help us to deal with the realities of conflict and the suffering caused by war. At the IATEFL Literature, Media, and Cultural Studies SIG we decided to re-examine works of literature that focus on the topic.

To coincide with the forthcoming LMCS SIG PCE at Harrogate which deals with the literary, media and cultural aspects of the ‘Great War’ in the centenary year of its outbreak, we will run a discussion on aspects of World War I, from 6-12th March. Fielded by LMCS SIG Coordinator David A. Hill, we will look at some different types of texts and discuss how they might be used in language and literature classes. We invite everyone to take part, commenting on texts and teaching ideas offered and contributing their own suggestions too.

Re-examining World War 1
From 6th (Thursday) to 12th (Wednesday) March 2014
Fielder: David A. Hill

Please click on the link below to join us:

https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/LMCSSig/conversations/messages

WAR & CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  WORLD WAR I/THE FRONT