Use of English Literature in English Language Teaching

Daily News, Colombo
February 10, 2004

by C.T.M. Fernando
(Author is an Education Consultant and Ex-Principal, Royal College, Col.7)


If we consider teaching of English Literature from the perspective of a definite aid to the acquisition of language then our aim of teaching literature plus the methodology will assume a newer dimension.

Generally the study of literature of any nation tends to enhance the particular language ability as well, though necessarily it need not be so as a corollary. A clear distinction exists between the knowledge of a particular language, say linguistically and the proficiency in the use of that language. We should be able to distinguish between a piece of literary art and a compendium on topical diseases - both use the language but in different ways for different purposes. Literature is expressing in uncommon ways the common thoughts that occur to the generality of human beings.

The student of literature a few decades ago, when English Literature was a regular subject, in the curriculum from the junior form itself, could reproduce sentences like "The road was a ribbon of moon light," or "the wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees" (The Highwayman) as apt topic sentences for essays, hardly conscious of the fact that they were reproducing what had been "learnt" in the literature lesson; it came naturally to them, for learning of literature is a refined and satisfying, mental as well as a lasting emotional experience that touches the very rhythm of life.

Today, in the absence of the subject of literature in the time-table such impact will have to be generated remotely using a methodology adopted for the purpose. There are several ways of achieving such an objective though in the process we fail to share with the students that sublime aesthetic and emotional satisfaction which literature alone or allied subjects like music or dance can produce, only hoping that gradually a taste for literary language will develop in the student as a further objective.

Let us examine the position of English as second language vis-a-vis English Literature in the Sri Lankan context. The language of literature defies any kind of grading forms, generally used in second language teaching; nor is literature the normal language of communicative speech, that people are wont to use.

ESL needs are generally regional in nature. They do not satisfy the needs of a globalized scenario where there is a high foreign cultural component. Even when they do it would be for defined purposes like trade or commerce.

Lack of interest for perfect English competency

With the introduction of the mother tongue as medium of instruction in early sixties English was either neglected or just confined to areas where it was considered indispensable as in the case of medicine or science/technology. It was merely to serve a specific purpose. The need for broad based English competency beyond such confines, as would be needed in the area of research, advanced - studies in extended fields, in diplomacy, in journalism, etc, was blissfully ignored!

In most South-East Asian countries including Sri Lanka, English Language is not diverse in outlook but forms a general component in the curriculum developing in the learner just a capacity for the day-to-day use of the language as applicable to contextual situations in life. This invariably promotes language teaching to achieve general proficiency within a limited vocabulary range and prevents development covering a wider spectrum of language use.

Emphasis on the utility value of a language thus tends to establish definite goals such as comprehension and communicative skills, discouraging the study of literature as being something unproductive. This trend has been often reflected in the textbooks and other educational material produced for English language learning even in our school system.

All round declining interest in study of literature jeopardizes any attempts to resuscitate it by even the few who are interested in and are capable of doing so. Inconsistent language policies add to the debacle.

Extremist cultural views and neo-chauvinistic tendencies of those whose influence is brought to bear upon the populace contribute negatively to any attempt to "foster" an alien literature - more so of the erstwhile conquerors.

Whether all or any of the above stances have been responsible for none inclusion of literature as a subject in the curriculum, during the past two or three decades is not much of a guess. What needs to be done now to remedy the situation is to find ways and means of using literature to enhance language competence of those in the schools system.

One way is to encourage the study of English Literature as a subject at junior and secondary levels, which of course is more easily said than done due to the lack of qualified teachers and appropriate teaching materials.

Then what may be termed as interference of literature in the teaching of language offers greater scope. A feasible point of entry will be at the level of curriculum/ textbook preparation when an element of English Literature carefully culled excerpts from literary works-be made use of to supply the content of the reading material - the amount of bulk and its nature varying according to the levels or grades, existent.

Importance of literary language

The fact that literature has a role in language learning cannot just be ignored. The grace, the charm, the persuasive effect of literary language has to be realized and accepted. Even one's native language develops on this basis. Further the literature of any language has firm roots deeply implanted in the intellectual traditions of that particular nation, influencing themes and styles of writing whether it be English or any other established language.

This is sometimes referred to as the cultural aspect. Ironically it is this very fact that often becomes a barrier in adopting ELT/ESP methodology, though, nevertheless, it can be a source of motivation - a stimulant for reading, provided used judiciously.

Thus English Literature need not be pronounced as being counterproductive in any scheme of language teaching. Often our own methodologies render it a barrier when language for teaching purposes is being rigorously systematized or rigidly planned like in math or any other technical subject.

English is broad based and if confined to one specific purpose to achieve a singular objective then it will naturally cease to be creative, when in the broader sense, a language should develop creative potential. Language is much more than structural patterns grammar and pre-selected vocabulary! Literature can provide for creative use of language stimulate the mind and present problem solving situations.

Literature also develops creative and critical ability, aesthetic appreciation and cultural exposure. Of course one should avoid conceiving any undue prejudice against the culture of the foreign language.

In using literature as a methodology towards acquisition of language competencies three aspects to be considered are

1. The learner's level of achievement.

2. The type of text to be used.

3. The variety of the texts needed as supplementary reading material.

A fourth dimension however in the form of cultural differences between the native language and foreign, looms large in the context of any teaching - learning situation, and deserves consideration.

The above four aspects entail the appropriate selection of texts to satisfy both literary and linguistic skills. They should lead to proper comprehension and interpretation as short term objectives while preparation of the student to transfer these skills, thereafter, to other texts successfully should be the objective in the long term. Both these should be provided as a continuous process.

A teacher's contribution

Another important aspect can be identified as "the procedural" , where the teacher has to use whatever the text so as to involve the student in "purposeful" exercises and pedagogical procedure as, for the student too, it is a new mental (emotional too!) experience which he has to relate to other texts later on.

It is incumbent on the language teacher to devise different language exercises based on the text to be attempted by the student with only the guidance on the part of the teacher. No attempt should be made by the teacher to prepare indiscriminately simplified versions of the literary text affecting the meanings of and the sentiments expressed in the original.

Rather the text should be subject to reading, discussion, writing comprehension and studying the language system. The teacher should bring out any uniqueness with regard to lexical, semantic, grammatical and phonological aspects. Poetry and even selected pieces of prose may be read aloud for effect. It is opportune to ponder on "good literature contains all that is valuable and permanent and suggestive in the expressive possibilities of language" (Williams).

Greater and more effective interaction among the teacher, the pupil and text is very much needed mainly for linguistic development rather than any other formal exercise.

This requires considerable preparation on the part of the teacher with the main intention of bridging the gap between the literature and language traditionally considered separate components. To begin with a simple piece of literature preferably prose sentimentally close to the life of the student may be selected to be dealt with under the following objectives i.e.

1. familiarization with the language of text (deal with figures of speech)

2. getting at the direct information (comprehension)

3. interpretation and the inference (emotions, experiences, ideas etc.)

4. identifying the unfamiliar (cultural)

When dealing with poetry, rendering in prose and paraphrasing can be exercises in language. Such exercises should not however stultify the pure literary value of the piece. Unfamiliar lexical items and figurative language can pose a problem when it comes to understanding and appreciation. Use of poetic terms, images rhyme, rhythm should be appropriately dealt with without totally diluting their effect. In attempts at interface of literature and language it is advisable to start with the known and the familiar and proceed to the unfamiliar. In such interfacing the three fairly distinct phases discernible are -

1. Pre literary stage - literature in simple straight familiar language. e.g. "Who killed Cock Robin" as a poem.

2. Engaging with text. Linguistic analysis to give confidence to students through analogy. Selected poems from "Lyrical Ballads" - Wordsworth

3. Maturity of appreciation involving interference, appraisal and critical evaluation.

Selection of suitable text or excerpts is a decisive factor in promoting study of literature at all levels. Quite often injudicious and rather arbitrary selections have dissuaded students from taking to literature as a subject.

An example is the selection of poems prescribed for the GCE/AL where the literary language couches deep abstract thought in some of the poems a little too early for students who should rather enjoy reading than be labouring with the context at every turn. Students' disinterestedness can be frustrating for the teacher as well!

Much will depend on the commitment, and ingenuity of the teacher who has to have correct understanding of the concept of interfacing between literature and language toward the development of the latter.

The degree of the effectiveness of a teaching program is proportionate to the extent of student involvement or participation which should be more a voluntary phenomenon than one induced forcibly.

That involvement can take the form of mental challenge or a simple activity arising out of a situation - real or simulated - both forms necessitating an indulgence in language skills that should be purposefully designed. Drama as a component of literature is ideally suited as a means of direct student participation.

Drama comprises a vast range of opportunities at various levels of language competencies starting from the action songs at primary levels to stage plays at secondary and tertiary levels. Again here too, ESP methodology discourages the teacher from resorting to drama, as the latter is characteristically broad based and all-pervasive in language activity.

It must not be forgotten that participating students enjoy the learning situation in drama, so necessary as a stimulant to language learning. Figuratively too, in drama the stage is set for the student to experience the finer elements of language through expression of emotions, meaningful gestures etc. factors that do stimulate learning.

Much headway is possible in the area of SL teaching through proper use of literature if discriminatingly handled.

Copyright © 2003 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.

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