Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Using literature for English teaching/learning?

Maria Spelleri, Manatee Community College, FL, USA

A teacher asks: "... how can I combine language teaching and literature together, to get my student more interested in English and to make English learning more meaningful?"

First, does "literature" refer to classics by Bronte, Hardy, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Oates, etc.?

If so, my quick response to this is: Who says that reading or studying literature makes English more meaningful to the students? Sure, making the language more "meaningful" to the students will increase their motivation in class, but I believe 100 year old foreign language literature is the kiss of death for high school students.

If you want to bring meaning to the students' study of the language and you want to incorporate reading, find some modern novels that feature teens or characters in their 20s. At least the language will be contemporary and there is more of a chance the students will be interested in the story. You don't have to read teen romance pap.

There is some excellent Young Adult (YA) fiction out there. You may even be able to find online teaching guides for some of most noteworthy. At the American Library Association page for book awards you can find titles and descriptions under "Young Adult" and "Newberry Awards."

Now some teachers have criticised me. The implication of this question was that teaching literature would increase student interest, and that teaching literature would result in more meaningful learning. To me, it sounded like literature, just because it is literature, will lead to meaningful learning, which I believe to be untrue.

"Meaningful" needs to be redefined with every class, with every student. Tolstoy might be meaningful to one person, while Auto Mechanics Digest will be meaningful to another. I can think of plenty of cases where bringing literature into the class would be the surest way to get some to drop out simply because it would not be meaningful.

Any kind of reading material for the class should be selected because of its appropriateness for the lesson and interest level for the student, not because someone calls it literature, and therefore "important" and "meaningful". That is the crux of the matter in my opinion. It does not mean you should never teach literature. It means that doing so will not necessarily provide interest and meaningful learning.

Finally, I see many list members' idea of "literature" is more broad than mine. While I certainly did not mean only dead white authors, I surely was not considering fables, myths, current best sellers, or everything written by NNS authors writing in English solely because they write of the cross-cultural experience. I was thinking, perhaps incorrectly, of writing that has stood the test of time as work of artistic and creative excellence.

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