Teaching literature in the language classroom

If you’re anything like me, you’re an avid book reader. I dare say most English teachers probably love books and literature, in whatever form that may come.

But when it comes to teaching English literature to our learners, who use English as a foreign language… that’s often when it becomes problematic.

The importance of literature in the Italian context

Literature has always been a key pillar in the Italian education system. We can see its importance in the Indicazioni Nazionali, but we also have many concorso questions from the last few years, including:

Briefly illustrate how and why you would use Daniel Defoe’s description of Friday with your students. Define the school level and the types of activities you would choose (2016, classe di concorso AB24-25, prove supplettive).

Discuss the above quote from Virginia Woolf’s paper and briefly illustrate how you would encourage your learners to read literary texts. Define the context, the activities and the authors you would choose. Justify your choices (2016, classe di concorso AB24-25, prove supplettive).

Briefly discuss the above statement with reference to how you would introduce Shakespeare to your students. Define how you would use Shakespeare’s works and why, the school level and the main focus of your activities (2016, classe di concorso AB24-25).

How to teach literature

It is important for a teacher to have knowledge about and of English literature. However, what these questions focus on, is how to teach literature, i.e. what pedagogical procedures the teacher would employ and why.

If you’ve tried to look for information about teaching methodology that focuses specifically on this, you’ll know that it’s very hard to come by!

The issue of how to teach literature to L2 students has only recently become the focus of a body of research studies. As I explain in this article, the field of language teaching has undergone a number of shifts, with different methods being more prominent at different points in history. Simultaneously, the role of literature changed accordingly: from being key to language learning in Grammar Translation, to being excluded in performance-oriented method like Audiolingualism, literature has suffered a number of blows in the history of language teaching.

You can find out more about how the role of literature evolved in the history of language teaching in our video:

In any event, we can now safely say that literature has made a comeback: suffice it to say that the new CEFR, updated in 2018, refers specifically to the teaching of literature in various scales.

Key questions for literature teachers

Literature may be important, but when it comes to teaching it to students who study it in their foreign or second language, the literature teacher is faced with many questions. The main ones we have received and experienced ourselves include:

  • What texts should be used in the literature class, i.e. what is defined as “literature”?
  • Should literary texts be used as a vehicle for language learning or be the object of more academic study?
  • What is the best teaching approach for literature in the L2 classroom?
  • How can I encourage learners to read outside of the classroom?
  • How can I deal with the difficulty of literary texts?
  • How can I make my literature lessons engaging, awakening and keeping learners’ interest?
  • How do I work with specific genres, such as poems, plays and novels?
  • How can I reconcile the teaching of literature with the aims defined in the CEFR?
  • What should I assess (e.g. literary or language competence)? How should I assess my learners (e.g. through tests, essay, portfolios, etc.)?

Answering these questions

To a certain extent, the answers to these questions will be very contextual: as we discussed in Designing Activities and Lessons, classroom procedures need to cater specifically to each teacher’s learners. What’s more, there will be institutional and national constraints that will restrict or modify our ability to work with literature.

However, research now exists that provide us with pedagogical principles of good practice. And the good news is, there’s a place where you can find the answers to all of these questions and more.

We have been reviewing dozens of teacher manuals, lesson plans, research studies and books about how to teach literature in the language classroom. We connected them to the concorso questions and designed our new course: Teaching Literature in the Language Classroom, conceived specifically for language teachers and teachers who are studying for the upcoming concorso scuola.

Like all of our courses, you can try it for free and see if you like it.

Curious? Have a look at the topics we cover in our course:

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