Stopford Brooke once said that literature is “a pleasure which arises not only from the things said, but from the way in which they are said; and that pleasure is only given when the words are carefully or beautifully put together into sentences.” People all over the world value literature and the beauty of linguistic expression that comes from it. When a person is studying a foreign language, though, appreciating literature in that language can be a seemingly impossible task.
A teacher can make a significant difference in how a student is able to learn from and appreciate literature in a foreign language. The following are strategies for the ESL teacher for teaching literature that your students will not only appreciate but also come to love.
How to Teach Literature in Your ESL Classroom
When we hear the word literature, we tend to think of classic pieces that have impressed generations, but the classification of literature does not need to be so esoteric. Many types of written pieces can either be considered literature in and of themselves or can be used to guide your students into more mature and well-respected literature. When encouraging your students to read literature, start with your students where they are. There is bound to be some type of writing that is of interest to even the least engaged students. Start by assigning reading from the areas that interest your students. This may mean giving them fables, comic books or songs to read. Once they are comfortable with one of those categories of writing, move to a more complex level of the written word. You can use current magazines, letters, diaries or journals for material in your reading class. The next step is moving your students into the world of the short story. There are many stories on limitless topics; something will be of interest to your students. After the short story, the step to a novelette or novella or early reader book will be smooth. These give way to the novel and finally the classic literature novel. When you take the time to slowly move your students from one level to the next rather than plunging into a maturity of reading for which they are not ready, you will make larger strides over a shorter amount of time and see more results in your students reading abilities.
A class reading assignment is a great addition to any reading class. Before approaching a piece of literature as a class, give your students some time to discuss the reasons for reading literature in the first place. Why do they read? Why do you read? Have groups brainstorm a list of reasons why someone might read literature and then ask each student to prioritize those reasons for himself. Then pair students and have them discuss the order they determined and explain the reasons behind their choices. Students will find that each person’s reasons for reading literature will vary. It also helps to have clear expectations before reading a piece of literature so you can be sure to design your class activities to meet the interests of your students and so they will understand the reasons behind the activities you do as a class.
Review the Vocabulary
The study of literature uses many specific vocabulary words that will probably be unfamiliar to your students even if they have studied literature in their native languages. You should take some time and review with your students at minimum the following literary terms and give examples of each. This step is important because if your students do not have the tools i.e. vocabulary to talk about their ideas, they will not be able to share them.
- Alliteration – a literary technique that uses the same sound at the beginning of a set of words (the large laughing lion languished)
- Antagonist – the person who comes against the protagonist or hero. The antagonist is often the villain. (the Joker is the antagonist to Batman)
- Author – writer of the book (Mark Twain was the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.)
- Climax – the emotional high point of the piece of literature where the reader does not yet know the outcome
- Genre – the class of literature to which a piece belongs (includes biography, romance, mystery and science fiction among others)
- Plagiarism – Use of another person’s words or ideas without proper citation
- Point of view – the perspective from which a story is told, usually either first person (I shall tell you of my grand adventure.) or third person (He spoke of lands unknown and people unseen by modern eye.)
- Protagonist – The main character or hero of the piece (Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer)
- Resolution – the completion or correction of the conflict in a story
- Setting – the time and place of a story (in The Help the setting is Mississippi in the 1960’s)
- Symbolism – using one person or thing to represent another (chaos is often symbolized by water)
All in the Class
If you have the opportunity to read a piece of literature as a class, you can then move your generalized literature discussion to focus on that particular piece of literature. Start by familiarizing your student with the piece. Discuss the genre and main characters. You may also want to discuss some of the themes that the books presents. Ask your students to give their opinions on a particular topic or theme that they will read about in the book, and ideally have them write about their opinion. Once you have read the book, revisit those themes again and ask your students if their perspectives have changed and if so, how have they changed and what brought about the change. This is a good activity to do in small groups both before reading the book and after.
Whenever you lead a class discussion on a piece of literature, the key to expert facilitation is to try to keep your opinions reserved while encouraging your students to express their own opinions. Ask open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes, no or other one-word answer. As students express their opinions, encourage them to think deeper and determine why they hold the opinions that they do. Make sure all your students participate in the discussions. If someone seems unwilling to participate, break the class into smaller groups where that person will have to contribute. Then come back together and discuss the same questions as a class. Overall, do not force your own opinions about a book on your class. In literature, each person’s opinion is equally valid, and making your own opinion sound like the only option will discourage discussion among your class.
A literary topic that is sure to get your students talking to one another is the idea of banning books. Different groups have been banning books for hundreds of years for many different reasons. Divide your class into groups and ask them to discuss how they feel about banning books. For what reasons might people seek to ban particular books? Do they know of any books that have been banned? What would they do if they disagreed with the banning of a particular book at their school? This can be a great topic about which to have your students write opinion essays or participate in a debate. In this way, your students will get speaking practice and writing practice as well as reading practice in your class.
ESL teachers can have successful and profitable experiences teaching literature in their classes; it just takes some advance preparation to help your students understand.
Making sure they understand what literature is, what parts literature contains and then applying what they have read to their own lives are the keys to a successful examination of literature in the ESL classroom.
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