Lit Learning: A Guide to Literature in Language Teaching

Shakespeare. Molière. Neruda. Keats.

Do these names bring back scary memories of dull assignments from your own school days?

Even if your answer is “yes,” that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to use literature in your own language teaching.

In everyday life, literature tends to be something we either love or… don’t love.

If you’re a voracious reader who can quote a poem for every occasion, then the idea of bringing literature into your language classroom probably excites you.

For the rest of us, the thought may seem… well, boring.

And if we’re bored, our students certainly will be, too.

But teaching literature in the target language can be much more exciting than it seems at first glance.

There’s no other medium that provides the same vantage point on the world of language and culture. Not only does it reveal insider information about people, history, words and expressions… but it also reveals deeper truths about human nature that transcend language barriers.

So it’s worth being brave and taking the literary approach after all.

We’re sure that once you’ve gotten a few pointers about why and how to teach literature, you’ll be just as excited about it as we are, and ready to share that excitement with your students.

Literature in Language Learning: A Brave New Teaching Guide

The benefits of teaching second-language literature

First of all… why exactly should you teach literature? What can your students gain from the experience?

Three models of literature-based teaching in the language classroom have been developed, each one based on a different and compelling reason for the practice:

The Cultural Model. Advocates of this model believe that the value of literature lies in its unique distillation of culture. In this model, the class reads fiction or poetry as part of their instruction about history, politics, social mores and traditions.

The Language Model. Given that literature is built from language, it opens a path for students to construct their own understanding of words and phrases. According to this model, reading is of value for the same reason it’s valuable in a student’s native language: it gives them the tools for more effective communication.

The Personal Growth Model. In this model, the focus is on engagement. Teachers use literature to help students understand themselves better and connect with the world around them in a deeper way by exploring universal themes.

Which model appeals to you the most?

To reap the full benefits of literature in the classroom, you can certainly combine all three models. Language, culture and personal growth are intrinsically connected and it makes sense to teach them in conjunction with each other.

Here are the specific ways in which your students expand their language, culture and personal growth from the experience of learning literature in a second language:

  • Literature offers experiences that can only be accessed through the target language. That funny play on words in a scene of Shakespeare won’t have any meaning if explained out of context. The relationship between France and African countries like Algeria comes to life more vividly in light of the writings of Camus. Such experiences give students a front-row seat to history and culture which would be impossible to replicate otherwise.
  • Literature gives students a unique understanding of the target culture. Teaching idioms from a textbook is not memorable. But reading an idiom in a conversation between two strong characters will surely stick out in your students’ minds. They can also witness life through the eyes of soldiers, preachers, writers and statesmen in a way that gives insight into the people and events that shaped the culture.
  • Literature makes seamless connections between the language and other subjects. We all know that language is more relevant to students if they can connect it to other disciplines like art, history, math or instruction in their native language. Sometimes language teachers need to explicitly spell out the connections between the target language and these other disciplines. But literature makes these connections effortless, allowing us to teach to the whole person rather than targeting language solely.
  • Literature provides better understanding of the universal nature of language. How many times have you told your students that learning a second language helps them understand their own language better? Literature brings that point to life. Students will see examples of metaphors, symbols, puns and analogies that make them think about similar constructions in their native language and the universal truths behind them, connecting language and personal growth in a meaningful way.

But if literature is so wonderful for language learning, then why hasn’t it been used more in the past?

The answer is somewhat complex.

A brief history of literature in the foreign language classroom

Like most trends in the world of language teaching, the use of literature has waxed and waned depending on the times.

For years, literature was used as one of the components of the grammar-translation method. This was the time-honored method that involved lots of conjugation, rote vocabulary learning and (you guessed it) translation. The ability to speak and to listen was secondary at best.

Literature was simply a vehicle for students to practice their grammar and vocabulary. It gave authentic examples of sentence structures, verb conjugations and memorized words. Students were expected to translate texts word-for-word from one language to another.

In the mid-1900s, the focus of language teaching subtly began to change. Educators became more concerned with developing students’ abilities to communicate. The direct method and the audio-lingual method became more popular. Neither method placed much value on the translation process in language learning. In a classic example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” literature disappeared from curriculum as teachers focused on conversing instead.

The 1960s and the 1970s saw the advent of the “communicative approach,” which seems to be the favored method in most language classrooms today. With this change, we’re beginning to see literature reappear in our language classrooms.

That’s because many educators recognize literature’s potential for sparking meaningful communication. Discussions, role plays and group projects can all spring from the act of reading a book together. It also nurtures student opinions about events and behavior and gives them a soapbox to express those opinions.

In any language, great literature leads to great conversation.

And great conversation is, in a way, the whole point of language instruction.

But how can you actually get there?

How to use literature meaningfully in the language classroom

Here’s a concrete, step-by-step process to get you started on enjoying literature with your students. You can tweak this process to fit your individual class’s needs.

1. Choose a book that suits your students’ levels and interests.

Finding the right book is everything! Take into account your students’ age, hobbies and socioeconomic background. For example, chances are that your older teens won’t find much to relate to in a picture book for young children. And if you have a class of students who are into sports, they may not be interested in a Victorian romance. But a book about a famous athlete might just do the trick.

But ultimately, how exactly do you choose a good book for your class?

In the same way that you choose a good book for yourself. By asking for recommendations!

Talk to colleagues and find out what books they’ve found successful in their classrooms. You could also reach out to parents and teachers in the target-language country and solicit their ideas about books that kids or adult learners enjoy.

Another convenient way to find book recommendations is through Goodreads or Amazon. Both of these popular book recommendation platforms have the option of searching for books in the target language. Results can be filtered to search specifically for children’s or young adult books if applicable.

Here are a few that we like.

English. For primary-aged children, “The Name Jar” by Yangsook Choi offers some wonderful perspectives on cultural differences, as a Korean student searches for a new name to fit in at her American school. For older students, a classic like J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” or E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web” is always a hit, providing life lessons in an engaging manner that transcends cultural differences.

Spanish: Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “La Sombra del Viento” (The Shadow of the Wind) offers a compelling mystery, with the added bonus of a window on life in 1945 Barcelona. Another great choice is Isabel Allende’s “La Casa de los Espiritus” (The House of the Spirits).

Mandarin Chinese: Younger students will find much to relate to in the portrayal of a group of friends coming of age in Shanghai in Guo Jingming’s “Tiny Times 1.0.” You might also consider Weijia Huang and Ao Qun’s “Readings in Chinese Culture” or Jiang Rong’s “Wolf Totem.”

French: Although originally published in 1959, you still just can’t beat the relatable childhood humor in René Goscinny’s classic “Le Petit Nicolas” (Little Nicolas). Other great French books for language learners: Albert Camus’ “L’Étranger” (The Stranger) and Bernard Werber’s trilogy “Les Fourmis” (The Ants).

2. Pre-teach vocabulary for discussing literature.

Give students a repertoire of words for discussing things like genre, symbolism, theme and setting. Once they feel confident about the use of these terms, they can discuss stories in a more meaningful way.

3. Activate their prior knowledge.

Ask students to write down all the things they know or have heard about the book, the author and/or the historical period. This exercise will provide a relevant context for the book.

4. Model your process of thinking about literature.

While reading the first chapter, do some thinking out loud about the story. (“I wonder why the story began that way. I wonder what this character is going to do next.”) By modeling this process in simple language with vocabulary from the book, you can instill confidence in the students to have a deeper discussion.

5. Have students listen to an audio recording of the text while they read.

You can often find famous books or poetry recorded in the voice of the author, or that of a famous actor. Hearing the text read aloud makes the task less arduous and helps with pronunciation.

You could also couple the text with video clips of the book or poem being performed by actual native speakers of the language.

6. Provide discussion questions to be completed or discussed at the end of each chapter/section.

Formulate questions that help students get to a deeper understanding about the plot, the characters, the theme and the language. The questions should require them to dig deep with examples from the text.

7. Allow them to express their ideas about the story or poem by drawing a picture or acting out a scene.

Don’t just stick to routine question-and-answer activities to get your students to show understanding of the text. Mix it up with activities that spark their creativity.


As you can see, the study of literature doesn’t have to be boring.

You can transform it into one of the most memorable learning experiences you offer to your students, and instill in them a lifelong love of reading and language.

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