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Using authentic literary text with advanced learners
by
Katherine Byrne
- 1


Why literature?

I chose to examine the use of literature in the reading class for a number of reasons. The first stems from my own enjoyment of literature. I think this is vital if the lesson is to be successful. If the teacher is not enthusiastic about the material being presented, then it is difficult to see how he or she can engender positive attitudes in the learners. Secondly, my own experience as both a language learner and an observer of my students has shown me the benefits that reading literature in L2 can bring. I think that any experienced teacher could identify those of their students who read in English outside of the classroom. This increased exposure to language stimulates acquisition and expands awareness. The readers in the class not only have more extensive vocabulary stores, they also seem to possess greater communicative competence than the non-readers.

At advanced levels, reading literature exposes the learners to language being used in unconventional ways. It informs them about the culture of places where the target language is used. Extensive reading promotes the continuing expansion of lexical knowledge and develops reading fluency. It also helps to develop the learners' interpretive skills. Widdowson (1983:34) says that the value of literature in language learning is that, "of its nature (it) can provide a resource for developing in learners an important ability to use a knowledge of language for the interpretation of discourse." One way in which this ability may be developed is through the analysis of the use of figurative language in literature. The difficulties that this type of language presents for learners is dealt with in the next section.

Literature is often rejected by both teachers and learners as being too "difficult". Certainly, it will involve more preparatory work for the teacher. Authentic materials do not easily "fit" with the standard types of comprehension-testing exercises found in general course books. The treatment of the text and design of related activities has to be more imaginative for the reading to have validity.

I would include myself among those teachers who underuse literature in lessons. I have noticed though that , generally, there is little enthusiasm for practising and developing this skill in the classroom. If offered the choice of reading or doing another activity which is perceived as more interactive, the learners will usually opt for the latter. However, reading need not be a solitary activity. It really depends on what is selected and how it is treated. It would seem that , for many learners, the usual type of text and task found in course books is just not sufficiently interesting, relevant or motivating.. In course books, reading passages are often there to provide practice in language items. This is not to say that this is without value, but it does not provide an incentive for the learner to read on.

The use of authentic literary texts gives learners experience in "real" reading in L2. Successful comprehension of genuine texts can be confidence-building and motivating for students. Carefully chosen material accompanied by relevant tasks can foster interest in reading in the target language and provide learners with transferable strategies for interpretation of meaning, which they can then apply away from the classroom. In addition, literature can involve the learner as a whole person in the classroom. It allows for genuine response from the students, not just language display.


Background & problems

The native speaker generally reads for a purpose, which will vary with the text selected. In each type of activity - skimming for gist, scanning for specific information or reading for pleasure and global understanding - we call upon a variety of reading sub-skills. Munby has provided an extensive list of these and we apply a great many of them in our reading of literature. The list, which is not exhaustive, would include the following;

• deducing meaning and use of unfamiliar words;
• understanding explicitly stated information;
• understanding information which is not explicitly stated;
• understanding conceptual meaning;
• understanding relations between the parts of a text through lexical cohesion devices;
• understanding cohesion between the parts of a text through grammatical cohesion devices
• interpreting text by going outside it.

Munby's list directs us towards two areas where even advanced learners may have difficulty in comprehending literary texts. The last point noted indicates that we need to use knowledge that is not provided within the language of the text, in addition to our knowledge of the language contained within it, in order to reconstruct meaning. Nunan (1991:68) describes the process thus;

"In comprehending a given piece of language, we use what sociologists call interpretive procedures for achieving a match between our schematic knowledge and the language which is encoded systematically."

Our systemic knowledge is our linguistic knowledge; phonological, lexical, syntactical, semantic and discoursal. It derives from our experience of texts and how they are typically structured and organised. Our schematic knowledge is our knowledge of the world. This knowledge is stored in our memories and filed therein in inter-related patterns. This experiential knowledge, of the world and of known texts, guides us in our interpretation of new texts. Stanovich (1980), in outlining this interactive model of reading, says that, at any stage, deficiencies at one level of knowledge are compensated for by drawing on knowledge at other levels.

When we expose our learners to authentic literary texts, we often make the assumption that their systemic knowledge will be sufficient to guide their comprehension. However, if there is a failure to transfer their L1 schemata to the L2 code, this will not be the case. This is a problem that can be overcome by reading strategy training and the use of adequate pre-reading activities to activate the appropriate schemata. It is possible with some texts though, that the required schematic knowledge is simply not in place. Nunan (1991) cites research that shows that often, a breakdown in the comprehension process, which may present itself as a linguistic problem, in fact stems from absence of the relevant cultural knowledge. This is one area of difficulty that syllabus designers and teachers need to contemplate in the selection of texts for use with their learners.

A related problem that Widdowson (1983) points out is that literature is representational not referential. There are no conventional schemata in operation, which means the learners are involved in increased procedural work in the reconstruction of meaning with literary texts. One area where this is especially true, and that will present real difficulties for non-native readers, is the use of figurative language in literature.

Metaphors, similes and poeticisms use words and phrases in unexpected ways, where the main or common meaning is altered to produce images in the mind or to make comparisons. It may be fixed, as in idioms - "to beat about the bush", for example, or it may be creatively generated. The reader has to infer the link between two, normally unrelated items being compared, in fact to mentally complete the writer's meaning for themselves. It is assumed, although this is not always the case, that the native reader can comprehend the extension of meaning deployed in the simile or metaphor. Often though, the link between the two disparate elements being compared is opaque to the non-native reader. The words may be familiar at the systemic level but the language is not conforming to the systemic rules the learner expects and the meaning cannot readily be inferred. Lazar (1996:46) identifies three steps in the process of interpretation;

1) comprehending that two things which do not normally collocate together are being compared or brought together;

2) deducing which features of the one are salient in the comparison;

3) reinterpreting how the meaning of the other is altered when these salient features are applied to it.


A further problem is that the use of figurative language is culturally bound. It stems from the underlying assumptions and cultural inheritance of the society from which the literature proceeds. One example is the use of colours and their associations. In English-speaking cultures, for example, blue signifies vulgarity - a blue joke - or depression, yellow, cowardice and red, anger.

In using literature to teach the reading skill, we need to sensitise our learners to these cultural factors, allowing comparison with those of L1 cultures.

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