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On Literature in the EFL classroom
by Nelly Zafeiriadou
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This article first appeared in the TESOL Greece Newsletter, July/Sept 2001

" A Lot of Water has Flown under your Bridge" or, a historical review of the issue

The issue of teaching English literature in a non-native context dates back from the early years of this century when literature was considered of high prestige in language study and access to literary works was assumed part of the purpose of language learning (Widdowson 1984). The approach was characterised by a concentration on the classics assuming that if the students were continually exposed to the best uses of the English language, it would in some sense 'rub off' on their own performance in the language. (Short and Cadlin 1989:91). However, on the one hand the difficulty and the inaccessibility of many literary texts to non-native English speaking students and on the other, the lack of a consistent and suitable methodology for the teaching of literature brought about rather the opposite effect than the expected one. The literature class consisted often of an enthusiastic teacher-orator and passive students being 'too busy writing in translations of unfamiliar words to respond to the text' (Long 1986:42).
The gradual disappearance of literature teaching from the language classroom was an expected consequence. Surrogate literature replaced authentic texts in the form of situational textbook dialogues and short tales that were devised to carry structure only but none of the literary effect that characterises a genuine text. (Short and Candlin 1984:91)

The place and the role of literature in the language classroom was questioned furthermore by the ELT approaches during the period 1960-1980, which did not encourage students to develop a 'feeling for language, of response to texts' (Long 1986:42-45). Structuralism on the one hand, with the emphasis on correctness in grammatical form and repetition of a restricted lexis was incompatible with the teaching of literature. As Widdowson commented:

'Literature, and poetry in particular, has a way of exploiting resources in a language which have not been codified as correct usage. It is therefore misleading as a model…….it has no place in an approach to teaching that insists on the gradual accumulation of correct linguistic forms.'
(Widdowson 1984:162)

On the other hand, the Communicative approach to language teaching during the 1970's and early 1980's emphasised the study of the language for practical purposes and since literature has no obvious practical uses it contributed nothing to the utilitarian objectives of language teaching thus, it had no place in the language classroom. The inclusion of literature was 'a potentially disruptive influence in the well-ordered world of the carefully controlled language courses' (Widdowson 1984:161). Widdowson, among the most dedicated supporters to the return of literature in the language classroom argues:

'There is more to life than safe investment of effort. Language learning is surely not simply a part of training, an element in actuarial estimates and the calculation of manpower needs. Surely, we might murmur wistfully, it should also have something to do with education as well?'
(Widdowson 1981/1984 :161)

However, during the 1980s there was a strong reawakening of interest in literature and language teaching. Linguists and ELT scholars ( Widdowson 1984, Brumfit 1985, Long 1986, Long and Carter 1991 among others) argued not only for the value of teaching literature in the language classroom but for the necessity as well of re-inventing a different pedagogical approach for non-native speakers of English. The pedagogical interface of literature and language teaching should become the students' responses to the text for the reason that:

'….the teaching of literature is an arid business unless there is a response, and even negative responses can create an interesting classroom situation.'
(Long 1986: 42)

The reawakening of interest in the teaching of literature to non-native students was a major motive for the design and publication of several books. Among others from the 1980s and the early 1990s Language for Literature (1983) by R. Walker, Reading between the lines (1984) by J. Mc Ray and R. Boardman, A Course in English Language and Literature (1986) by B. Lott, The Web of Words,(1987) by R. Carter and M. Long, Past into Present (1990) by R. Gower and Making Headway Literature (1992) by J. and L. Soars attempt to 'bridge the gap between language and literature studies' or 'to introduce [the students] to some of the finest literature in English' making use of the texts as a basis for language practice and 'to improve and develop students' understanding and use of the language through the reading and discussion of literary texts' . We read elsewhere that:

'the accompanying exercises are designed to further appreciation of the texts by showing how the different features of style and language work together to create the whole.'
(Gower 1990: Introduction).

According to the aims of the previously mentioned course books, emphasis is rather given on students' language development through the presentation of extracts of novels and short stories than on their literary development. In addition, the potential that literary texts carry for the students' critical ability development and personal growth seem to be underestimated or totally neglected . Looking at the Introduction of Language for Literature (1983) for example, the language exercises include:

• sentence structure and substitution exercises
• vocabulary exercises,
• text completion exercises,
• word use rephrasing exercises,
• grammar use or sound stress and punctuation exercises.
• plot exercises, character exercises, detail, style and technique exercises as well as 'open' exercises are included in the literary or content exercises.

More recently, Carter and Long (1991) describe the main educational, linguistic and psychological arguments put forward for the teaching of literature as three models which are associated with specific pedagogic practices: the cultural model, the language model and the personal growth model.

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