Presented at Liberlit 2016, Tokyo Christian Women’s University, February 22nd, 2016
The obstacles to the teaching of literature in a foreign language are many. Learners can struggle with lexical and grammatical complexity, idiomatic or metaphorical expressions, and contextual misunderstandings. These obstacles should not prevent teachers from introducing literature, however. This presenter suggests a three stage approach to literature in language classes. In the first stage, the teacher introduces the source material by recasting it via its adaptations (such as comic books, graded readers, television, radio or cinema versions). In the second stage, the learners recycle cultural and linguistic elements to demonstrate their understanding of the literature. Finally, the learners respond to the piece by remixing it and creating a version of their own, in relation to their own cultural context. By allowing the learners to understand foreign language literature on their own terms, we can provide the liminal space for intercultural development.
Lazar (1993) identifies three models for working with literature in language classes.
1. Language-based literature teaching, which uses literature primarily as a source for language to study and analyse.
2. Literature as content, in which the students cover specific literary texts in much the same way that they might in their first language.
3. Literature for personal enrichment, in which learners use literature in order to become more intellectually and emotionally involved in language learning.
Does the teacher focus on literature through language, or language though literature? If literature is the focus of academic study and the goal is better understanding of the themes and theory of literature in English, the teacher will need to provide language support – perhaps very little at the graduate level, but maybe a great deal for undergraduates. I would posit that the average university undergraduate in Japan lacks sufficient English proficiency to study literature without significant scaffolding. Thus it may be more profitable to switch our focus and teach language through literature. I would suggest that many of our undergraduates are potentially capable of thinking critically about literature, it is just that they lack practice. Lazar’s models are not mutually exclusive. By using a creative multiliteracy approach I believe we can enable our learners to reach a greater understanding of literature in another language.
What is Literature?
Unsatisfactory as it may be, much like ‘art’, ‘literature’ can anything named as such. If it is deemed so by cultural arbiters, it may be recognised as literature. We can also say that literature foregrounds language and / or has an aesthetic element. In comparison to other texts, literature tends to leave space for interpretation (consider the importance of clarity and precision in an instruction manual or a train timetable as a counterpoint). Finally, I think literature contains the possibility for universality. To quote the theme for this conference..
“Literature conveys subtle truths universal to the human condition. The best study of literature engenders personal responses in student readers and allows them to achieve moments of epiphany, discovery and personal transformation.”
Bringing Literature to the Learner
There are many ways in which learners can be supported linguistically and cognitively in their efforts to learn from English literature. I propose a three stage cycle.
Activities for activating schemata and preparing the learner for the source material. These activities may use reference materials (such as news videos or short biographical readings) to support contextual or content knowledge, or may involve pre-teaching challenging but significant vocabulary.
Activities for exploring the source material together. These activities could focus on the dramatic aspects of the work (such as readers’ theatre) or look at the text critically (as with reading circles).
Activities for expanding on and responding to the source material. These activities may be personal (such as asking the learner to write a letter to a character), or collaborative (like staging a recreation of a scene or making a trailer for a cinematic version)
Case Study One: Never Let Me Go
In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, the reader follows narrator Kathy H and her classmates Tommy D and Ruth C as they leave the ‘protective’ environment of their boarding school, Hailsham, and make their way in the world as carers and donors.
There are some complex ethical, cultural and scientific aspects to this story, and in order to help the learners approach the book / film with confidence these can be introduced through discussion and short video clips. We considered images of the traditional English boarding school, organ donation and cloning and the students were asked to speculate on how these may be connected in the novel. We concluded by watching the trailer for the film and discussing the opening quote.
The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.
Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.
By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.
The uncomfortable truths in ‘Never Let Me Go’ are masked by euphemisms (death is ‘completion’, for example), and there are other terms used frequently in the book which have a special significance . I collected these into simplified glossaries and had students explain their lists to one another.
Hailsham, the school which the main characters attend as children, dominates the narrative as a place of both comfort and fear. I selected three passages from early in the novel, in which Kathy H discusses the pavilion, the woods and the sales. Each student read a different passage, then presented it to their classmates.
Students are asked to respond to the story with short creative writing pieces. They also dramatise short passages from the script and stage them in their own context, or record short conversations between characters which didn’t take place in the book (for example, a discussion between Miss Emily and Madame, after Tommy and Kathy leave their home with Tommy’s artwork).
Some of the materials used for ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘Emma / Clueless’ can be found at the website I developed for the film class I teach. You can also find more information on student film making there.
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