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4 Creative Ways To Share Your Enjoyment Of Literature

teenagers enjoying literature togetherThroughout my teaching I have used literature in the EFL classroom, and the most rewarding moments have always been connected to lessons where I was teaching a poem, a short story, or a play. I’ve always thought that the most important factor was my own love of the pieces that I was teaching, and finding ways of sharing that love with my learners.

Here are four ways in which you can engage learners with literary texts, convey your own love of literature to your students, and show them how literature reflects human experiences and connects to our lives.

 

1. Connect the piece of literature to your students’ personal lives

James Joyce’s short story, Eveline, is about a young woman in early 20th century Dublin who has a chance to leave home with her suitor and go to Buenos Aires (you can find it here). I taught this to students aged 17 or 18, to whom the themes in the story were very relevant, introducing these themes without students even knowing that our discussion would lead to a literary work.

I start by presenting Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie and asking students to describe the woman in the picture, where she is, what she is doing, how she is standing, then what she might be thinking about. Then I ask them to write the first paragraph of a short story about this woman. Invariably, students describe her as tired, stuck in a tedious job; they suggest she might be thinking about household chores she still has to do; they write about her dreams for the future and escaping her lot through marriage. We discuss the students’ interpretations, their first paragraphs, what they mean about the students’ view of life. The students see this as an exercise in creative writing but, without knowing it, they are writing about many of the themes of the story.

At the end of the lesson (or even in the next lesson) I move to the first paragraph of the story:

She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.

This extensive introduction ensures that even before we start reading Eveline, the students have made connections between the main themes of the story and their own experiences.

 

2. Illustrate ways in which literature connects to current events

Many literary works are extremely relevant to contemporary events. They may be overtly political and obviously written in response to a major event, like W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939 (a wonderful poem, though I wouldn’t suggest using it in an EFL class!), but even poems that are not political have contemporary resonances. One example is Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, written in 1914, which talks about two neighbours meeting to fix the wall between their properties. It meditates on walls and boundaries, their uses and misuses, their personal and public meaning. Though Frost could not have known that 100 years later there would be such violent discussions of walls in the public sphere, the connection to current events is clear. Discussing this enables you to work on understanding other people’s points of view and balancing contradictions and ambiguities in one’s own thoughts – vital skills and attitudes in contemporary life.

 

3. Connect the piece of literature to art

Many artists have responded to literature in different ways. The contemporary American artist Roni Horn has responded to Emily Dickinson’s poems by casting lines from the poems in plastic letters. She embeds these in aluminium bars, which she then places against a wall – see here . When you walk into a room with these bars against different walls they present an enigma – you have to approach to realise that they include letters and words, and you realise slowly that these are lines from poems. The bars force you to consider their meaning – which is not immediately obvious or straightforward. As you walk round one of these bars and watch it from different angles the words appear and disappear – a wonderful metaphor for the way in which the meanings of poems are difficult to grasp and the way in which they enter and exit our consciousness.

By doing this you are demonstrating to learners that literature does not stand on its own – it is part of a rich cultural history and a rich cultural present.

 

4. Encourage students to react

One way of moving the focus from us to our learners is an easy technique called ‘a walkabout’ or ‘gallery walk’. The idea is simple – you choose a number of extracts, print out or photocopy enlarged versions of these extracts, and put them up on the walls around the classroom. Students walk around the room, read the extracts, and choose the one that they like most, or that means most to them. They then go and stand next to it, and discuss their reasons for choosing this extract with the other students who chose it. Each group then tells the others why they chose a specific extract.

In order for this activity to work the extracts need to be short – you can choose short poems, the opening paragraphs of different stories, or the opening paragraphs of different novels. I have also used it with short critical views of works that we have studied. Choosing short extracts means that students have time to read everything before they make their choice. Also, don’t choose too many extracts – 5 or 6 extracts are more than enough. This normally means that there is someone who chooses one of the extracts.

 

Want even more simple techniques to promote language development, for all levels and ages? Watch my webinar!

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Amos Paran is a Reader in Second Language Education at the UCL Institute of Education, University College London, where he teaches on the MA TESOL. He started his professional career in Israel, where he taught EFL in secondary schools and trained teachers. He has run teacher training workshops in countries such as Viet Nam, Uzbekistan, Israel, Switzerland, Spain and France, and works regularly in Chile.

His main research interests are reading in a foreign language and the use of literature in language learning, as well as distance education, and he has written extensively on these topics. He is co-editor (with Lies Sercu) of ‘Testing the Untestable in Language Education’, published in 2010 by Multilingual Matters. His most recent book is Literature, co-written with Pauline Robinson and published by Oxford University Press in the Into the Classroom series. He is also a lead tutor on the free Coursera MOOC, ‘Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task Based Approach’.


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Conveying Passion: Bringing Literature Into the Classroom

book literature blurred

Public domain via Pixabay

Amos Paran & Pauline Robinson look at some key principles to help you bring literature into the classroom.

I have always found literature to be an extremely powerful tool in the classroom. Maybe it’s because of my own love of literature – maybe I managed to convey some of my passion. Maybe the fact that I love literature made me try out more interesting lesson plans – for example, I think that the lessons in which I taught or used literature were much more learner centred than other lessons.  I always felt that my learners enjoyed their literature lessons and we always had great discussions about important issues.

One important point to make about literature is the distinction between ‘teaching’ literature and ‘using’ literature. I always feel uneasy about these distinctions, but one thing that is always important is not to teach about the literature. The learners must be involved with it directly.

When I think back to my own lessons, or when I have observed other teachers use literature in their classroom, it seems to me that there are a number of principles that can make such lessons a success.

Principle 1: Teacher Engagement

The first principle is probably that teachers need to be engaged in the work that they are teaching – so the choice of the literature they are using or teaching is important. In some cases teachers have little choice about the piece that they are teaching – but some teachers then can use their negative reaction as a discussion point in class.

Principle 2: Appropriate Tasks

With some literary texts you can just plunge in; others will require more preparation. But the tasks that we construct are crucial in helping the learners make meaning with the literary texts and enjoying them. And by ‘tasks’ I don’t mean any activity or any discussion – I mean a focused activity for which there is a clear tangible outcome.

Principle 3: Relevance

Relevance refers to the connection between the learners’ lives and what is happening in the society around them and the literature that we use.  Many of the works I have used in secondary classrooms concerned the construction of identity and finding one’s way in the world – a theme of huge importance to my learners.  When I taught James Joyce’s Eveline in a secondary school, I had a young woman in my class who was going through the inner turmoil that Eveline goes through and ended up marrying in the last year of secondary school only to escape her home.  Obviously, the themes which the story was bringing up were relevant not just to her but to the other learners in the class.

We can also connect literature to history and to our society’s view of historical events. For example, on July 1st 2016 we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in history. Learners can be made aware of this through literary works from World War 1 by poets such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, both of whom were killed in the war.

Supports going up after battle to relieve the soldiers in the front trenches.

Supports going up after battle to relieve the soldiers in the front trenches. Photo: National Museum via Flickr

 

Principle 4:  Student Choice

Outside the classroom we normally choose what we want to read; if we don’t enjoy what we read, we stop. In class this doesn’t happen often, although we know that ‘As students perceive that teachers respect them enough to provide genuine choices, students increase their effort and commitment to learning’ (Guthrie & Wigfield 2000: 412). If we provide a choice for our students – for example, by offering them a choice of three or four books from which they have to choose one that the class will study – we increase their investment in the class and create a space where the learners have a voice too. This choice can be extended to other areas too.

Principle 5: Continuous Support and Engagement

Learner engagement with literary texts is not something that is achieved miraculously on day 1 of class: like other areas in teaching, this is something that we need to work on continuously. For example, bringing in a short poem once a week and devoting five or ten minutes to reading or discussing it in class can sometimes be more effective than spending a long time on one piece and analyzing it in great depth. We need to move away from what I like to call ‘the tyranny of totality’, the idea that our learners have to know everything about the piece we are learning (or indeed, that we need to be absolute experts about it!) Literature is there to be enjoyed and experienced, and it can be experienced at many levels.

 

Bibliography

Guthrie, J. T. and Wigfield, A. (2000) Engagement and motivation in reading. In P.B. Mosenthal, M.L. Kamil, P.D. Pearson and R. Barr (eds.), Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. III. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum. pp. 403-422.

Amos Paran started his professional career in Israel, where he taught EFL in secondary schools and trained teachers. His main areas of interest are literature in language teaching and the teaching of reading and he has published widely in this area.

Based for many years at the University of Reading, Pauline directed language courses and taught on the MA TEFL programme. She has taught on short courses for students and teachers in many parts of the world, especially in Europe and Asia.