9 New Tips for Using Literature in the ESL Classroom

9 New Tips for Using Literature in the ESL Classroom

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 34,908 views |

No matter what age group you teach, there is a vast pool of English literature that can supplement your curriculum. Including classics in the ESL classroom though, isn’t like teaching a text to native speakers.

Here are some tips to keep in mind the next time you teach a novel in your ESL class.

How to Use Literature in the ESL Classroom

  1. Review Literature Terms

    Though students have probably studied literature in their native languages, you should review the most common English literature terms with your class before starting a literature unit. These terms include vocabulary about people: character, protagonist, and antagonist. They also include parts of the literature: setting, plot, climax and resolution. Giving your students the tools to talk about literature both increases their vocabulary and enables them to express their individual ideas and opinions once they have read the piece. Without the necessary vocabulary, good insights may be lost when your students are not able to express themselves.

  2. 2

    Select American or British Literature

    Though not as noticeable to native speakers, there is quite a difference between American and British English. Make sure when you select your literature that you are choosing the correct style for the dialect you are teaching. Even children’s books or abridged books in the wrong dialect will cause great difficulties for your students when reading.

  3. 3

    Contemporary Novels May be Easier to Understand

    Contemporary novels may be easier for your students to understand because they are in a more familiar context. It can be hard enough for your student to try to live in and understand a foreign culture, but add a fifty year time gap and the task can approach impossible. Choose novels with contemporary settings as opposed to historical fiction or those with a fantasy setting. Though more advanced students may be able to handle historical fiction, there is no reason to add stress to beginning and intermediate level students with a setting that’s hard to relate to.

  4. 4

    Choose Books that Have a Movie

    You can show the movie before reading the piece, while reading it or after reading it. Make the movie available in language lab for students to watch on their own. There are also many activities you can do with the movie. See the Movie Novel Connection article for more information on using the movie to teach literature.

  5. 5

    Review Characters in the Piece

    Take time before reading to introduce the characters to your students, and give them a list of the most important ones. If you can provide a description of each character’s role in the novel or story you will be giving your students a heads up for comprehension. You can also take time to explain the relationships between the characters to your students. Include the concept of a family tree, if appropriate, and you can lead into a unit on family and relationships as well.

  6. 6

    Present Themes

    Introduce themes that students will encounter as they read the text. Have a discussion time before reading to talk about these themes. If themes are controversial you may want to look at tips specific for working with a controversial topic. See our article titled ‘33 Controversial Topics And How To Teach Them’.

  7. 7

    Give a Summary

    It may feel like cheating, something all teachers want to avoid, but when it comes to reading a foreign language the rules are a little different. Give students a summary of each reading selection. Make it optional to read. They may want to read the text, then the summary, then the text again. Encourage your students to focus on content rather than structure while they read.

  8. 8

    Review Unusual Vocabulary

    Before assigning the text, review the vocabulary with your students. There are many ways to introduce new vocabulary (see ‘4 Fresh Ways to Introduce New Vocabulary’, ‘5 Best Ways to Introduce New Vocabulary’, and ‘Teaching English Vocabulary – 10 Fabulous Ways to Teach New Words’). You may want create a vocabulary list for each chapter as you read it. Reassure students that they are not expected to understand every word they read, but encourage them to guess at the meaning of unfamiliar words just as native speakers do. It’s a reading skill that is necessary for their future success with English.

  9. 9


    One of the most beneficial activities to come from reading a novel as a class is discussion. Discuss what you read. Discuss what the author’s message is. Discuss what your opinion of the issue is. Allow your students to observe what they read, interpret it and apply it to their own lives. Giving discussion questions ahead of time will allow students to think while they read and be more prepared for class discussions. See ‘How to Lead Discussions: No Need to Speak Like Obama’ for more information on leading discussions in the ESL/EFL classroom.

In general, there is a great bounty of English literature just waiting to be used in the ESL classroom.

Don’t let intimidation stop you from opening a new world to your students through reading. You’ll see a new world yourself as literature breathes freshness and vitality into your class.

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