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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

APPROACHES TO TEACHING ENGLISH LITERATURE

APPROACHES TO TEACHING ENGLISH LITERATURE
IN THE LANGUAGE CLASSROOM

Metin Boşnak[1]

Instructors and theoreticians have always searched for new and better ways to teach language to students. One such way is to benefit from literature in the language classroom. The literature of the target language is regarded as a contributing factor to language learning and has remained in the English curricula of non-English speaking countries.[2] There are several arguments about the use of literature in the language classroom and what it can offer to foreign language learners. These arguments primarily focus on the linguistic, the cultural and the educational value of the literature.
Literature is widely regarded as the richest source of a language. What Lee says about the value of studying literature in terms of language learning is noteworthy:

It is in literature that the resources of the language are most fully and skillfully used. It seems to follow that literature should enter into the language study of those who are to use the language with the greatest possible skill and effect.[3]

Collie and Slater argue that students enrich their language by studying literary works. For instance, srudents can be exposed to functions of the written language by means of literature.[4] Carter and Walker assert similar things, saying that because literature itself is language it can serve well for language learning purposes.[5] Rich metaphorical usages of language not only teach additional language but also engage students with critical concepts.
Furthermore, literature can offer authentic language to the language classroom. Collie and Slater explain that literary works are authentic because they are not arranged specifically for a language teaching situation (p.3). A great deal of authentic language is already available in recent course books, for instance city plans, advertisements, and newspaper articles. By means of these materials, students are exposed to real life situations in a classroom setting. Collie and Slater argue that nothing can be more complementary to these course books than literature (p.4). Once the students achieve some basic command of the language, they can start studying literature with works close to their proficiency level. Learners will thus start “to cope with language intended for native speakers, and […] gain additional familiarity with many different linguistic uses, forms, and conventions of the written mode: with irony, exposition, argument, narration, and so on.” (p.4) Yorke similarly states that, especially in narrative literature such as the novel, learners can always find something of human beings, their lives, experiences and problems: “It [narrative literature] contains a wide variety of styles, ranging from everyday conversation to suggestive rhetorical devices.”[6]
Nevertheless, when we look at the people who have studied the literature of the target language, we cannot actually see the achievements that literature studying is supposed to give. The reason offered by Stern for this failure is plausible. She emphasizes that traditional approaches are still being followed in literature teaching. Literature teachers want to improve the methodology they use but they do not have enough resources to do so. Furthermore, some instructors would like to experience literature teaching but do not have the background and training. Stern connects the reason for the ongoing usage of traditional methods in literature classes to a decline of interest in research on teaching literature. This lack of interest can be seen in three areas: scarcity and insufficiency of materials, deficiency of teacher preparation, and undetermined objectives concerning the role of literature. As a result, literature teaching still follows traditional patterns (Stern, pp.48–49).

 

Studies Conducted on the Teaching of Literature in Language Classrooms


The literature of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) reveals that only survey studies have been conducted on the methodology of teaching literature. One of these was carried out in Turkey by Akyel and Yalçin.[7] This survey investigates the present situation of literature teaching in the English departments of five selected private high schools in Istanbul, looking at the following specific areas:

1. Goals of the teachers,
2. Students’ reactions to the specific contributions of prose fiction, drama and poetry in developing linguistic and communicative competence,
3. Students’ reactions to text selection,
4. Classroom techniques used,
5. Teacher and student evaluations of the program
               
The findings regarding the goals of the teachers are quite interesting in terms of showing different opinions about literature teaching. A majority of the teachers, 86%, wanted to improve the literary appreciation of students. They preferred teaching classics to broaden students’ horizons, to improve cultural awareness, to stimulate the creativity and literary imagination of the students and to broaden their knowledge of the world. The teachers in this category were not concerned with the language competence of the students. Perhaps they supposed that language development would come automatically by means of studying literature (p.175).
The other group, approximately 23%, preferred a language-based approach to literature teaching. However, they did not feel secure about the methodology they used in the literature classes to help students achieve language proficiency. The teachers of the last group, 13%, were against literature teaching. They claimed that the literature syllabus cannot meet the needs of the students who are preparing for further college studies (ibid.).
As for the reactions of the students, they felt closer to the novel as a genre. They wanted to read about themes related to youth, friendship, and changing social values. They were sensitive to the choice of literary works they studied because they found many of those works above their level. They found high-level literary texts unbeneficial (pp.175–76).
The teaching methods most commonly used led to teacher-centered activities in the classroom. Giving background information about the writer and the literary work, loud or silent reading in the classroom, and comprehension questions about the text were most popular. Some of the teachers allocated some time to language skill development. They performed vocabulary expansion activities or clarification of grammatical difficulties. However, the students reported that they preferred having classroom discussions or debate activities on the meaning and interpretations of literary texts. They desired more writing activities to improve their composition skills and they wanted more emphasis on independent research and activities which would develop individual talents and interests and broaden their cultural horizons. Most students liked role-playing activities and believed in the benefits of these with regard to the improvement of pronunciation, fluency, and self-confidence. They also reported that their reading comprehension improved while their written expression remained poor. The researchers attribute this situation to the small amount of time allocated to specific writing improvement tasks in literature classes. (pp.176–77)
Akyel and Yalçin concluded that the goals of teachers are out of step with the needs of the students. in concluding that the use of communicative teaching methodology was very limited, that the amount of student-student interaction was also small, and that curriculum designers did not give importance to the attitudes and goals of the students regarding literary and linguistic competence (p.177).[8] The reactions of the students recorded by Akyel and Yalçin further showed that learners did not like the traditional teacher-centred practices in literature classes. They desired to be more active in the classroom, having discussions, debates, role-plays and so forth. Therefore, discrepancies between teachers’ goals and students’ language proficiency achievements occurred (pp.177–78).     

The Historical Development of Literature-Teaching Methodology

Stern gives a brief overview of the teaching of literature in TEFL. According to her, British literature appeared to have had a dominant role in the English syllabus in non-English speaking countries for over one hundred and twenty-five years. The teaching of literature was influenced by two traditions: the British and the Continental.
The British tradition emphasized that literature teaching has a special educational function, which is being able to read, recognize and understand the famous British writers. To be able to appreciate these writers was a sign of literacy and a fundamental part of language teaching. In the Continental tradition, the aim in studying English literature was to learn about a foreign civilization and culture. Academic, teacher-oriented instruction dominated both traditions. Teaching was conducted through lecturing and examining. There were occasional discussions and grammar translations. (See Stern, p.48).
These traditional approaches are based on several underlying assumptions which Karolides describes: (a) the author’s intention is the key to ascertaining what the work means, and this meaning can be identified; (b) the text is an object that has a determinate meaning of its own; (c) the text can be analyzed through objective, close scrutiny of its formal structure and techniques to establish the meaning. Furthermore, it is often assumed that there are not numerous meanings but only one. In these approaches, the reader’s role is neglected or omitted entirely [Karolides page references?].
Carter and Walker assert that such product-centered and teacher-centered methodologies of literature assume the text as the background knowledge which should be conveyed to the students and recalled appropriately by them when needed, as in the examination. These approaches are not concerned with how to actually use this knowledge or make one’s own meanings. Stable pre-defined meanings are almost always given to be memorized. Carter and Walker emphasize that “the outcome for students is that they learn to rely on authorities outside themselves either in the form of the teacher or in the form of histories of literature or books of literary criticism which can once again be memorized for narrowly instrumental purposes” (p.4) In this situation, those students who have good memories will be highly rewarded. Such a system does not bother with the language skills of the students and has no notion of integrating language study and literature (see ibid.).
But, according to Stern, “by the 1960s, English language educators had started to doubt this overemphasis on literature and to question the methodology used in the TEFL curriculum. Their attention shifted to developing much-needed linguistic skills. Based on the emerging recognition that literature study had to be adapted to new dimensions of TEFL work and new, less elitist educational objectives, the British Council held a conference at King College, Cambridge, in 1962 […] to discuss the issues and make recommendations for change.” (p.48) Stern observes that “this conference was the first and only major organized attempt ever undertaken to evaluate the teaching of literature in TEFL to make it more relevant to the goals of modern TEFL instruction” (ibid.). [9]
The process of questioning current teaching practices in the 1960s and the shift from product-centered teaching to process-centered teaching in TEFL leads to a new view of literature teaching as process-centred. Carter and Walker state that process-centeredness in literature teaching has “the teacher coming down from the pedestal or lectern and involves a classroom treatment of literature which does not view literature as a sacrosanct object for reverential product-centered study. A process-centered pedagogy for literature means that literary texts do not have special status in the classroom.” (p.5)[10]
In process-centered teaching, reading is not – as far too many teachers, and therefore readers, of literature view it – a passive act. For readers to make their own meaning is the ultimate aim in the process-centered literature teaching approach. But this does not mean that just any interpretation is valid. As Karolides points out, the concept of valid responses to a text is not the same as the belief that there is a single correct interpretation or meaning of a literary work. Readers may discover and acknowledge more than one valid interpretation, each supported by the text. This will help them to understand their own interpretative experiences and strategies, as differentiated from those of others, and to understand themselves. Often, given the nature of human existence, the shared personal experience and feelings of readers, and the author’s selected words and situations, there may emerge a core of common response, a convergence of feelings and understandings among readers. Such shared responses are accompanied by individual variations among readers.[11]
Adequacy of interpretation, then, can be measured against the constraints of the text: to what degree does the individual response include the various features of the text and the nuance of language? To what degree does it include aspects that do not reflect the text? To what degree has the reading evoked a coherent work? Thus, out-of-context responses – a memory or experience triggered by something in the text – may take the reader far afield, or a strongly skewed response might lead to the neglect of certain features of the text. These may be valuable responses for the reader, but given the criteria, invalid or less valid transactions with the text. [Karolides page numbers for this material?]
Rosenblatt emphasizes that “the process of understanding a work implies a recreation of it, an attempt to grasp completely all the sensations and concepts through which the author seeks to convey the qualities of his sense of life. Each of us must make new synthesis of these elements with his own nature, but it is essential that we assimilate those elements of experience that the author has actually presented.”[12] Rosenblatt uses the image of a musical score as an illustration of valid but individual readings or interpretations: no two violinists play a composition in exactly the same way, yet each of them plays it within the parameters of the score.[13] Christenbury also touches upon this point saying that, because each student response will draw on individual, even idiosyncratic, personal background and experience, and because exchange and exploration are the goals, reader-response teachers must be patient with factual misunderstanding. Eventually, individual misconceptions can be corrected in a community of meaning. In a reader-response classroom, paramount attention is not focused on “right” answers.[14]
Methodologically speaking, the outcomes of process-centered literature teaching are summarized by Carter and Walker as follows: literary texts can be taught through strategies adapted from the TEFL classroom. To activate students’ responses is essential. This implies the use of, for instance, cloze test, rewriting, prediction activities, role-playing, improvisation and so forth. Students can be asked to rearrange cut-up texts. The text can be dramatized even if it is not overtly a dramatic text (p.5). Stern advises group activities such as general debates, panel discussions and small group work on characters and themes (pp.53–54). Elliot suggests having students work with newspaper articles. Students might, for instance, put themselves in the place of different characters in the literary work and write an article to be sent to a newspaper or a periodical. In the article they can touch upon several issues in the story[15]. Elliot also emphasizes that having classroom discussions about students’ performances after role-playing and, similarly, about their articles puts students into the process of meaning-creation (p.193). As Carter and Walker put it, “The orientation is away from teacher-centeredness towards language-based student-centered activities which aim to involve students with the text, to develop their perceptions of it and to help them explore and express those perceptions.” (p.5)




[1] Head of American Studies and English Language and Literature, Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey. E-mail: m.bosnak@metinbosnak.com
[2] Susan L. Stern, “Expanded Dimensions to Literature in ESL/EFL: An Integrated Approach,” English Teaching Forum 25, no.4 (1987), 47–55 (p.49).
[3] Lee, 1970, cited in Howard Sage, Incorporating Literature in ESL Instruction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987), p.6.
[4] Joanne Collie and Stephen Slater, Literature in the Language Classroom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.3.
[5] Ronald Carter and Richard Walker, “Literature and the Learner: Introduction,” in R. Carter, R. Walker, and C. Brumfit (eds.), Literature and the Learner: Methodological Approaches (Hong Kong: Modern English Publications, 1989), pp.3–9 (p.3).
[6] Felicity Yorke, “Interpretative Tasks Applied to Short Stories,” ELT Journal 40, no.4 (1986), 313–21 (p.313).
[7] Ayse Akyel and Eileen Yalçın, “Literature in the EFL Class: A Study of Goal-achievement Incongruence,” ELT Journal 44, no.3 (1990), 174–180.
[8] See also Alan Hirvela and Joseph Boyle, “Literature Courses and Student Attitudes,” ELT Journal 42, no.3 (1988), 179–84.
[9] See also J. Press, The Teaching of English Literature Overseas (London: Methuen. 1963).
[10] See also Alan Maley, “Down from the Pedestal: Literature as Resource,” in Carter, Walker and Brumfit (eds), pp. 10–23.
[11] See Nicholas J. Karolides, “The Transactional Theory of Literature,” in N. J. Karolides (ed.), Reader Response in the Classroom: Evoking and Interpreting Meaning in Literature (New York: Longman, 1992), pp.21–32 [specific page reference?]
[12] Louise M. Rosenblatt, Literature as Exploration, 4th edn (New York: Modern Language Association, 1983), p.133.
[13] Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994), pp.13–14.
[14] Leila Christenbury, “‘The Guy Who Wrote this Poem Seems to Have the Same Feelings as You Have’: Reader Response Methodology,” in Karolides (ed.), pp. 33–44 (p.37).
[15] Roger Elliot, “Encouraging Reader-Response to Literature in ESL Situations,” ELT Journal 44, no.3 (1990), 191–98 (pp.195–96).

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