Literature: An important mechanism for teaching language

In recent years the role of literature as a basic component and source of authentic texts of the language curriculum rather than an ultimate aim of English instruction has been gaining momentum. Among language educators, there has a hot debate as to how, when, where and why literature should be incorporated in ESL / EFL curriculum. Vigorous discussion of how literature and ESL / EFL instruction can work together and ersonal for the benefit of students and teachers,  has led to the flourishment of interesting ideas, learning and improved instruction for all. Many teachers consider the use of literature in language teaching as an interesting and worthy concern (Sage 1987:1). In this paper why a language teacher should use literary texts in the language classroom, what of literature language teachers should use with language learners, literature and the teaching of language skills, and benefits of different genres of literature to language teaching will be taken into account. Thus, the place of literature as a tool rather than an end in teaching English as a second or foreign language will be unearthed.

Teaching Literature: Why and What

Literary language is relative rather than absolute, in that certain texts or parts of a text may exhibit more or less of those linguistic features associated with literature than with others. Literary language is therefore not completely separate from other forms of language this has some implications for the use of literature in the classroom.

The use of literature as a technique for teaching  both basic language  skills (i.e. reading, writing, listening, and speaking) and language areas (i.e. vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation) is very popular within  the field of foreign language learning and teaching now-a-days. Moreover, in translation courses, many language teachers make their students translate literary texts like drama, poetry and short stories into the mother tongue. Since translation gives students the chance to practice the lexical, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and stylistic knowledge they have acquired in other courses, translation both as an application area covering four basic skills and as the fifth skill is emphasized in language teaching. In the following section, why language teachers use literary texts in the foreign language classroom and main criteria for selecting suitable literary texts in foreign language classes are stressed so as to make the reader familiar with the underlying reasons and criteria for language teachers’ using and selecting literary texts.

Here are a few points in brief:

w         Literature is authentic material. It is good to expose learners to this source of unmodified language in the classroom because they skills they acquire in dealing with difficult or unknown language can be used outside the class.

w         Literature encourages interaction. Literary texts are often rich is multiple layers of meaning, and can be effectively mined for discussions and sharing feelings or opinions.

w         Literature expands language awareness. Asking learners to examine sophisticated or non standard examples of language (which can occur in literary texts) makes them more aware of the norms of language use (Widdowson, 1975 quoted by Lazar 1993).

w         Literature educates the whole person. By examining values in literary texts, teachers encourage learners to develop attitudes towards them. These values and attitudes relate to the world outside the classroom.

w         Literature is motivating. Literature holds high status in many cultures and countries. For this reason, students can feel a real sense of achievement at understanding a piece of highly respected literature. Also, literature is often more interesting than the texts found in course books.

w         Literature broadens students’ horizons by giving them a knowledge of the classics of literature;

w         Literature improves student’s general cultural awareness;

w         Literature stimulates students’ creative and literary imagination and to develop their          appreciation of literature;

w         Literature introduces students to masterpieces in British and American literature as an educative experience, and to add to students’ knowledge of the world at large.

Reasons for Using Literary Texts in Foreign Language Classes

According to Collie and Slater (1990:3), there are four main reasons which lead a language teacher to use literature in the classroom. These are valuable authentic material, cultural enrichment, language enrichment and personal involvement. In addition to these four main reasons, universality, non-triviality, personal relevance, variety, interest, economy and suggestive power and ambiguity are some other factors requiring the use of literature as a powerful resource in the classroom context.

Reasons in details

1. Valuable Authentic Material: Literature is authentic material. Most works of literature are not created for the primary purpose of teaching a language. Many authentic samples of language in real life contexts (i.e. travel time tables, city plans, forms, pamphlets, cartoons, advertisements, newspapers or magazine articles) are included within recently developed course materials. Thus, in a classroom context, learners are exposed to actual language samples of real life / real life like settings. Literature can act as a beneficial complement to such materials, particularly when the first “survival” level has been passed. In reading literary texts, because students have also to cope with language intended for native speakers, they become familiar with many different linguistic forms, communicative functions and meanings.

2. Cultural Enrichment: Cultural model represents the possibility Literature brings into the picture as regards the understanding and appreciation of different cultures and ideologies together with the developing of one’s perception of feelings and artistic forms.

For many language learners the ideal way to increase their understanding of verbal / non-verbal aspects of communication in the country within which that language is spoken –a visit or an extended stay – is just not probable. For such learners, literary works, such as novels, plays, short stories, etc. facilitate understanding, how communication takes place in that country. Though the world of novel or short story is an imaginary one, it presents a full and colourful setting in which characters from many social / regional background can be described. A reader can discover the way the characters in such literary works see the world outside (i.e. their thoughts, feelings, customs, traditions, possessions what they buy, believe in, fear, enjoy; how they speak and behave in different settings. This colourful created world can quickly help the foreign learner to feel for the codes and preoccupations that shape a real society through visual literacy of semiotics.

Literature is perhaps best regarded as a complement to other materials used to develop the foreign learner’s understanding into the country whose language is being learned. Also, literature adds a lot to the cultural grammar of the learners.

3. Language Enrichment: Literature provides learners with a wide range of individual lexical or syntactic items. Students become familiar with many features of the written language, reading a substantial and contextualized body of the text. They learn about the syntax and discourse functions of sentences, the variety of possible structures, different ways of connecting ideas, which develop and enrich their own writing skills. Students also become more productive and adventurous when they begat to perceive the richness and diversity of the language they are trying to learn and began to make use of some of that potential themselves. Thus they improve their communicative and cultural competence in the authentic richness, naturalness of the authentic texts.

4. Personal Involvement: Literature can be useful in the language learning process owing to the personal involvement it fosters in the reader. Once the student reads a literary text, he begins to inhabit the text. He is drawn into the text. Understanding the meanings of lexical items or phrases becomes less significant than pursuing the development of the story. The student becomes enthusiastic to find out what happens as events unfold via the climax; he feels close to certain characters and shares their emotional responses. This can have beneficial effects upon the whole language learning process. At this juncture, the prominence of the selection of a literary text in relation to the needs, expectations, and interests, language level of the students is evident. In this process, he can remove the identity crisis and develop into an extrovert.

Maley (1989:12) lists some of the reasons for reading literature as a potent resource in the language classroom as follows:

1. Universality: Because we are all human beings, the themes literature deals with are common to all cultures despite their different way of treatment-Death, Love, Separation, Belief,  Nature—— the list is familiar. These experiences all happen to human beings.

2. Non-triviality: Many of the more familiar forms of language teaching inputs tend to trivialize texts or experience. Literature does not trivialize or talk down. It is about things which mattered to the author when he wrote them. It may offer genuine as well as merely authentic inputs.

3. Personal Relevance: Since it deals with ideas, things, sensations and events which either constitute part of the reader’s experience or which enter into imaginatively, they are able to relate it to their own lives.

4. Variety: Literature includes within it all possible varieties of subject matter. It is in fact a battery of topics to use in ELT. Within literature, we can find the language of law and of mountaineering, of medicine and of bull-fighting, of church sermons and nursery talk.

5. Interest: Literature deals with themes and topics which are intrinsically interesting, because part of human experience, and treats them in ways designed to engage the readers’ attention.

6. Economy and Suggestive Power: One of the great strengths of literature is its suggestive power. Even in its simplest forms, it invites us to go beyond what is said to what is implied. Since it suggests many ideas with few words, literature is ideal for generating language discussion. Maximum output can often be derived from minimum input.

7. Ambiguity: As it is highly suggestive and associative, literature speaks subtly different meanings to different people. It is rare for two readers to react identically to any given text. In teaching, this has two advantages. The first advantage is that each learner’s interpretation has validity within limits. The second advantage is that an almost infinite fund of interactive discussion is guaranteed since each person’s perception is different. That no two readers will have a completely convergent interpretation establishes the tension that is necessary for a genuine exchange of ideas.

Apart from the above mentioned reasons for using literature in the foreign language class, one of the main functions of literature is its sociolinguistic richness. The use of language changes from one social group to anther. Likewise, it changes from one geographical location to anther. A person speaks differently in different social contexts like school, hospital, police station and theatre (i.e. formal, informal, casual, frozen, intimate styles speech). The language used changes from one profession to another (i.e. doctors, engineers, economists use different terminology). To put it differently, since literature provides students with a wide range of language varieties like sociolects, regional dialects, jargon, idiolects, etc.  It develops their sociolinguistic competence in the target language. Hence, incorporating literature into a foreign language teaching program as a powerful source for reflecting the sociolinguistic aspects of the target language gains importance.

Criteria for Selecting Suitable Literary Texts in Foreign Language Classes

When selecting the literary texts to be used in language classes, the language teacher should take into account needs, motivation, interests, cultural background and language level of the students. However one major factor to take into account is whether a particular work is able to reveal the kind of personal involvement by arousing the learners’ interest and eliciting strong positive reactions from them. Reading a literary text is more likely to have a long term and valuable effect upon the learners’ linguistic and extra linguistic knowledge when it is meaningful and amusing.

Choosing books relevant to the real life experiences, emotions, or dreams of the learners is of great importance. Language difficulty has to be considered as well. If the language of the literary work is simple, this may facilitate the comprehensibility of the literary text but is not in itself the most crucial criterion. Interest, appeal and relevance are also prominent. Enjoyment, a fresh insight into issues felt to be related to the heart of people’s concerns; the pleasure of encountering one’s own thoughts or situations exemplified clearly in a work of art; the other, equal pleasure of noticing those same thoughts, feelings, emotions, or situations presented by a completely new perspective: all these are motives helping learners to cope with the linguistic obstacles that might be considered too great in less involving material (Collie and Slater 90: 6-7)

w         The period in which the reader lives.

w         The class or social position of the reader.

w         Reader’s background and knowledge of literature

w         Reader’s awareness and openness towards the different cultural aspects and to what extent can accept the cultural diversity.

Challenges Faced by Learners

There are some of the challenges to be faced when using literature in the classroom.

Literary texts can present teachers and learners with a number of difficulties including:

Text selection – texts need to be chosen that have relevance and interest to learners.

Linguistic difficulty – texts need to be appropriate to the level of the students’ comprehension.

Length – shorter texts may be easier to use within the class time available, but longer texts provide more contextual details, and development of character and plot.

Cultural difficulty – texts should not be so culturally dense that outsiders feel excluded from understanding essential meaning.

Cultural appropriacy – learners should not be offended by textual content.

Duff and Maley (2007) stress that teachers can cope with many of the challenges that literary texts present, if they ask a series of questions to assess the suitability of texts for any particular group of learners:

Is the subject matter likely to interest this group?

Is the language level appropriate?

Is it the right length for the time available?

Does it require much cultural or literary background knowledge?

Is it culturally offensive in any way?

Can it be easily exploited for language learning purposes?

Duff and Maley (2007) also emphasize the importance of varying task difficulty as well as text difficulty:

Level 1 Simple text + low level task

Level 2 Simple text + more demanding task

Level 3 Difficult text + low level task

Level 4 Difficult text + more demanding task

Literature and the Teaching of Language Skills

Literature plays an important role in teaching four basic language skills like reading, writing, listening and speaking. However, when using literature in the language classroom, skills should never be taught in isolation but in an integrated way. Teachers should try to teach basic language skills as an integral part of oral and written language use, as part of the means for creating both referential and interact ional meaning not merely as an aspect of the oral and written production of words , phrases and sentences.

Literature and Reading

ESL / EFL teachers should adopt a dynamic, student-centered approach toward comprehension of a literary work. In reading lesson, discussion begins at the literal level with direct questions of the fact regarding setting, characters, and plot which can be answered by specific reference to the text. When students master literal understanding they move to the inferential level where they must make speculations and interpretations concerning the characters, setting and theme and where they produce the author’s point of view. After comprehending a literary selection at the literal and inferential levels, students are ready to do a collaborative work. That is to state that they share their evaluations of the work and their personal reactions to it- to its characters, its themes, and the author’s point of view. This is also the suitable time for them to share their reactions to the work’s natural cultural issues and themes.

The third level, the personal/evaluative level stimulates students to think imaginatively about the work and provokes their problem solving abilities. Discussion deriving from such questions can be the foundation for oral and written activities (Stern 1991: 332)

Literature and Writing:

Literature can be powerful and motivating source for writing in ESL /EFL, both as a model and as subject matter. Literature as a model occurs when student writing becomes closely similar to the original work or clearly imitates its content, theme, organization, and / or style. However, when student writing exhibits original thinking like interpretation or analysis, or when it emerges from or is creatively stimulated by, the reading, literature serves as subject matter. Literature houses in immense variety of themes to write on in terms of guided, free, controlled and other types of writing.

Literature as a Model for Writing:

There are three main kinds of writing that can be based on literature as a model.

Controlled Writing

Controlled model based exercises which are used mostly in beginning level writing typically require rewriting passages in arbitrary ways to ersonal specific grammatical structures. For instance, students can be reporters doing a live newscast, or they can rewrite a third person passage into first person from a character’s point of view.

Guided Writing

This activity corresponds to intermediate level ESL / EFL. Students respond to a series of questions or complete sentences which, when put together, retell or sum up the model. In some cases, students complete the exercise after they receive the first few sentences or the topic sentence of a summary, paraphrase, or description. Guided writing exercises, especially at the literal level, enable students to comprehend the work. Model approach and scenario approach are very beneficial in this respect.

Reproducing the Model

This activity comprises techniques like paraphrase, summary, and adaptation. These techniques are very beneficial ESL / EFL writing exercises. In paraphrasing students are required to use their own words to rephrase the things that they see in print or hear aloud.

Since paraphrase coincides with the students trying to make sense of the poem, it is a strikingly useful tool with poetry. Summary work goes well with realistic short stories and plays, where events normally follow a chronological order and have concrete elements like plot, setting, and character to guide student writing. Adaptation requires rewriting prose fiction into dialogue or reversely rewriting a play or a scene into narrative. This activity enables students to be aware of the variations between written and spoken English (Stern 1991:333)

Literature as Subject Matter for Writing

Finding appropriate material for their writing classes is some times difficult for compositions teachers since writing has no subject matter of its own. One benefit for having literature as the reading content of a composition course is that the readings become the subject matter for compositions. In a compositions course whose reading content is literature, students make inferences, formulate their own ideas, and look closely at a text for evidence to support generalizations. Thus, they learn how to think creatively, freely and critically. Such training helps them in other courses which require logical reasoning, independent thinking, and careful analysis of the text (Spack 1985: 719).

There are mainly two kids of writing based on literature as subject matter: writing “on or about” literature, and writing “out of” literature. These categories are suitable and useful ESL/EFL.

Writing “On or About” Literature

Writing “on or about literature” comprises the traditional assignments – written responses to questions, paragraph writing, in-class essays, and take-home compositions – in which students analyze the work or in which they speculate on literary devices and style. Writing “on or about’ can occur before students begin to read a work. The teacher generally discusses its theme or an issue it raises, and the students write about it with reference to their own life experience. This helps interest them in the work and makes them ready for reading and writing about it. Most writing assignments done during as well as after the reading, however, derive from class discussion. They take many forms, such as questions to be answered, assertions to be debated, or topics to be expanded, discussion groups to be established.

Writing “Out of” Literature

Writing “out of” literature means making use of a literary work as a spring board for composition – creative assignments developed around plot, characters, setting, theme, and figurative language. There are many forms of writing out of literature, such as Adding to the work, Changing the work, Drama inspired Writing and A Letter Addressed to Another Character, etc.

Adding to work: This comprises writing imaginary episodes or sequels, or in the case of drama, “Filling in” scenes for off-stage actions that are only referred to in the dialog.

Changing the Work: Students can make up their own endings by comparing the author’s ending to their own. Short stories can be rewritten in whole or in part from the point of view of a character versus a third person narrator or of a different character.

Drama Inspired Writing: It is possible to derive drama inspired writing activities from plays, short stories, novels and sometimes poetry. The students step into the consciousness of a character and writes about the character’s attitudes and feelings.

Letter Addressed to Another Character: The student can write a letter to one of the characters, in which he / she gives the character personal advice about how to overcome a particular problem or situation (Stern 1991: 336)

Literature, Speaking and Listening

The study of literature in a language class, though being mainly associated with reading and writing, can play an equally meaningful role in teaching both speaking and listening. Oral reading, dramatization, improvisation, role playing, pantomiming, reenactment, discussion and group activities may center on a work of literature.

Oral Reading

Language teachers can make listening comprehension and pronunciation interesting, motivating and contextualized at upper levels, playing a recording or video of a literary work, or reading literature aloud themselves. Having students read literature aloud contributes to developing speaking as well as listening ability.

Moreover, it also leads to improving pronunciation. Pronunciation may be the focus before, during, and or after the reading.


Needless to say, literature based dramatic activities are valuable for ESL / EFL. They facilitate and accelerate development of the oral skills since they motivate students to achieve a clearer comprehension of a work’s plot and a deeper comprehension and awareness of its characters. Though drama in the classroom can assume many forms, there are three main types, which are dramatization, role-playing, and improvisation.


Dramatization requires classroom performance of scripted materials. Students can make up their own scripts for short stories or sections of novels, adapting them as closely as possible to the real text. Based on the story, they must guess what the characters would say and how they would say it. Scripts written by students are also probable with plays. Poems comprising one or more personae may also be scripted by students. Students should attentively read assigned sections of dialog in advance and be able to answer questions about characters and plot. They should indicate vocabulary, idioms or dialog they don’t understand and words they cannot pronounce. Students next realize the scenes with their partners. Although they don’t memorize it, they learn it well enough to make eye contact and say their lines with meaning and feeling. Moreover, they discuss semiotic aspects of staging the scene (i.e. facial expression, gestures, and the physical aspects). At last the dramatization is presented before the class.

Improvisation and Role playing

Both improvisation and role playing may be developed around the characters, plot and themes of a literary work. Improvisation is a more systematic activity, i.e., a dramatization without a script. There is an identifiable plot with a beginning, middle and end in improvisation. However, in role playing, students picture characters from the work being read and join in a speaking activity other than a dramatization, such an interview or panel discussion.

Group Activities

Making each student responsible for facts and ideas to be contributed and discussed, group activities stimulates total participation. All students are involved and the participation is multidirectional. When teaching English through literature, some of the group activities used in language classroom are general class discussion, small group work, panel discussions and debates. All of these group activities both develop the speaking abilities of the students and give importance to pronunciation practice. Teachers indicate pronunciation errors of the students during the act of such activities  so as to correct such errors (Stern 1991: 337).

Benefit of Different Genres of Literature to Language

Different genres of literature contribute different ways in language learning. For instance, poetry, short story, drama, novel etc. play an innovative diverse role in students’ learning language; briefly discussed below.

Benefit of Using Poetry to Language Teaching

Poetry can pave the way for the learning and teaching of basic language skills. It is metaphor that is the most prominent connection between learning and poetry. Because most poetry consciously or unconsciously makes use of metaphor as one of its primary methods, poetry offers a significant learning process. There are at least two learning benefits that can be derived from studying poetry:

w         The appreciations of the writer’s composition process which students gain by studying poems by components.

w         Developing sensitivity for words and discoveries that may later grow into a deeper interest and greater analytical ability.

w         Sarac (2003: 17-20) also explains the educational benefits of poetry as follows: Provides readers with different viewpoints towards language use by going beyond the known usages and rules of grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

w         It triggers unmotivated readers owing to being so open to explorations and different interpretations.

w         Evokes feelings and thoughts in heart and in mind.

w         It makes students familiar with figures of speech (i.e. simile, metaphor, irony, personification, imagery, etc.) due their being a part of daily language use.

w         Students may read each other the poem aloud at the same time, checking for each other’s pronunciation and rhythm. Do a whole class choral reading at the end.

w         Students may rewrite the poem, changing the meaning but not the structure.

w         Students can write or discuss the possible story behind the poem. Who was it for? What led to the writing of this poem?

w         Students may have a discussion on issues the poem raised and how they relate to the students’ lives.

As Cubukcu (2002:1) mentions poetry is a rewarding and enjoyable experience with the properties of rhyming and rhythm both of which convey “love and appreciation for the sound and power of language.” At this juncture it can be stated that students become familiar with the supra-segmental aspects of the target language, such as stress, pitch, juncture, intonation by studying poetry.


Through poetry, students can also study the semiotic elements in the target language. Semiotic elements constitute a cultural training as well.  As Hiller (1983: 10) states, poems should be seen as hyper signs of which constituents, “semiotic signifiers”,  come together in their common relationship and lead to the “symbolic level” and this level is the one inclined to be signified in a poem. This notion can be described as follows:


Semiotic level————          Signifier

Poem –Hyper sign— Symbolic level                                      Signified

Moreover, poetry employs language to evoke and exalts special qualities of life, and suffices readers with feelings. It is particular lyric poetry which is based on feelings and provides still another emotional benefit. Poetry is one of the most effective and powerful transmitters of culture. Poems comprise so many cultural elements- allusions, vocabularies, idioms, tone that are not easy to translate into another language (Sage1987: 12-13).

Benefits of Using Short Stories to Language Teaching

Short stories are often an ideal way of introducing students to literature in the foreign language classroom. For the teacher they offer many immediate and striking advantages. Short fiction is a supreme resource for observing not only language but life itself. In short fiction, characters act out all the real and symbolic acts people carry out in daily lives, and do so in a variety of registers and tones. The world of short fiction both mirrors and illuminates human lives (Sage 1987: 43).

The inclusion of short fiction in the ESL / EFL curriculum offers the following educational benefits (Ariogul 2001: 11-18):

w         It makes the students reading task easier due to being simple and short when compared with the other literary genres.

w         It enlarges the advanced level readers’ worldviews about different cultures and different groups of people.

w         It provides more creative, encrypt, challenging texts that require personal exploration supported with prior knowledge for advanced level readers.

w         It motivates learners to read due to being an authentic material.

w         It offers a world of wonders and a world of mystery,

w         It gives students the chance to use their creativity,

w         It promotes critical thinking skills,

w         It facilitates teaching a foreign culture i.e. serves as a valuable instrument in attaining cultural knowledge of the selected community,

w         It makes students feel themselves comfortable and free,

w         It helps students coming from various backgrounds communicate with each other because of its universal language,

w         It helps students go beyond the surface meaning and dive into underlying meanings,

w         It acts as a perfect vehicle to help students understand the positions of themselves as well as the others by transferring these gained knowledge to their own world.

w         It asks students to write what they think will happen next, or what they think happened just before.

w         It asks students to write a background character description of one of the characters which explains why they are the way they are.

w         It asks students to improvise a role play between two characters in the book.

In brief, the use of a short story seems to be a very helpful technique in today’s foreign language classes. As it is short, it makes the students’ reading task and the teachers’ coverage easier. An important feature of short fiction is its being universal. To put it differently, students all over the world have experienced stories and relate to them. Moreover, short fiction like all other types of literature, makes contribution to the development of cognitive analytical abilities by bringing the whole self to bear on a compressed account of a situation in a single place and moment (Sage 1987: 43).

Benefits of Using Drama to Language Teaching

Using drama in a language classroom is a good resource for language teaching. It is through the use of drama that learners become familiar with grammatical structures in contexts and also learn about how to use the language to express, control and inform. The use of drama raises the students’ awareness towards the target language and culture. In this context, the use of drama as a tool rather than an end gains importance in teaching a foreign language. Yet there is one obvious dange