Teaching English Literature as Foreign Language


     Should literature be part of a curriculum for English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL)? Before supporting the idea of using literature in ESL/EFL classes, Sandra McKay first discusses this question with the common arguments against using literature:

First, since one of our main goals as ESL teachers is to teach the grammar of the language, literature, due to its structural complexity and its unique use of language, does little to contribute to this goal. Second, the study of literature will contribute nothing to helping our students meet their academic/or occupational goals. Finally, literature often reflects a particular cultural perspective; thus, on a conceptual level, it may be quite difficult for students. (quoted in Brumfit & Carter 191)

     In contrast with the oppositions above other critics believe that in English for speakers of other languages, there is renewed interest in use of literature in communicative classroom. For instance, Gregory Strong asserts that literature may be part of a communicative method in three ways: 1) by providing a context in which to develop student’s reading strategies and knowledge of non-fiction and literary texts; 2) by being the basis of an extensive reading program, with attendant acquisition of new vocabulary and grammatical forms; and 3) by offering the opportunity to explore cross-cultural values (Strong 291). Carter believes that “…the juxtaposition of literary and non-literary discourses in the classroom emerges as a strong teaching recommendation” (quoted in Nasr 347).

The History of Utilizing Literature to Teach Foreign Language

     The use of literature to teach second/foreign languages can be traced back to over one century ago. In the nineteenth century, second/foreign languages were taught with the help of the Grammar Translation Method. Students would translate literary texts from the second/foreign language to the native language. When this method was replaced by methods that emphasized structures and vocabulary, literature was no longer used. Thus, neither the Direct Method nor the Audio-Lingual Method utilized literature to teach second/foreign languages. In the 1970’s, methods such as the Community Language Learning, Suggestopedia, the Silent Way, Total Physical Response, and the Natural Approach did not utilize literature to teach second/foreign languages, and neither did the Notional-Functional Syllabus (Erkaya 1).

Teaching Literature as Foreign Language Nowadays

     Nowadays, more arguments support the relevance of using literature to the teaching of a foreign language, and discuss the usefulness of the linguistic analysis of literature for pedagogical purposes (Nasr 345). For the past two decades or so, literature has found its way back into the teaching of EFL; however, not the way it was used with the Grammar Translation method. Instructors have realized that literature can be used to reinforce the skills and complement language teaching. Scher (1976) affirms that with students at the beginning and intermediate levels, instructors can use literary texts for “language practice, reading comprehension, and possible aesthetic appreciation” (quoted in Muyskens 413). In contrast, with advanced students literary texts may be utilized for the “development of knowledge of world literature, practice in reading and discussing creative work, and the introduction of literary concepts, genres, and terminologies — e.g., recognition of figures of speech, levels of meaning, and other stylistic features” (413).

Difficulties and Problems in Teaching Literature as Foreign Language

     First, Teaching English literature becomes difficult in EFL classrooms when students come from different cultures and backgrounds who may do not have anything in common. Second, it also becomes problematic when the teacher understands that few or none have ever heard the literary language by a native or non-native (Van Doorslaer 3). And third, according to McKay “a text which is extremely difficult on either linguistic or cultural level will have few benefits” (quoted in Brumfit & Carter 193). One common method of solving the potential problem of linguistic difficulty is the simplification of the text. There are, however, serious disadvantages to using this approach (Brumfit & Carter 193).

The Benefits of Teaching Literature in EFL Classrooms

     Those who have integrated literature in the curricula have realized that literature adds a new dimension to the teaching of EFL. “Short stories, for example, help students to learn the four skills — listening, speaking, reading and writing — more effectively because of the motivational benefit embedded in the stories. In addition, with short stories, instructors can teach literary, cultural, and higher-order thinking benefits” (Erkaya 1). Moreover, students can gain insight into literature by gaining entrance to a world familiar or unfamiliar to them due to the cultural aspects of short stories, and taking a voyage from the literary text to their own minds to find meanings for ideas, leading to critical thinking. In poetry, the characteristics of verse such as rhyme, meter, etc. and the elements of narrative literature namely plot, character, setting, and theme, can also help promote reading comprehension by presenting special challenges to readers which demand that they learn to put into practice specific reading strategies. In this respect, literary selections provide the subject matter, the context, and the inspiration for numerous written and oral activities so that a single literary work becomes the central focus of a study unit. As opposed to materials written especially for ESL/EFL, literature may motivate students and, hopefully, help them develop the habit of reading both in and out of class (Nasr 348). Nasr believes that the poetic selections handled in EFL classes are rich in their vocabulary and structures, which allows for a variety of activities. “Whether we are teaching a foreign language or even a native one, literature is a highly recommended vehicle for a number of reasons. In such cases, focus on the language paves the way for a meaningful and rewarding literary appreciation” (Nasr 347). The literary selections give the students the opportunity to find out how the same theme could be handled in different types of texts and literary genres; and hence, they are able to compare styles and techniques.


Works Cited

Brumfit, C. J. & Carter, R. A. Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Erkaya, Odilea Rocha. “Benefits of Using Short Stories in the EFL Context”. Asian EFL Journal, v 8 November 2005.

Myuskens, J. A. Teaching second-language literatures: Past, present and future. The Modern Language Journal 67, 1983. p413-423.

Nasr, Najwa. “The Use of Poetry in TEFL: Literature in the New Lebanese Curriculum”. Lebanon: Lebanese University Press, 2001. CAUCE, Revista de Filología y su Didáctica, nº 24, 2001 / p345-363.

Strong, Gregory. “Using Literature for Language Teaching in ESOL”. Thought Currents in English Literature, v69, December 1996 / p291-305.

Van Doorslaer, M. P. “Reading Problems and Teaching Literature in Foreign Languages”. Paper presented at a meeting of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, Tucson, Arizona, October 1972.


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