Teaching Language Through Literature: 7 Important Techniques and the Major Benefits
Teaching literature in the target language provides an incredible look at the relationship between language and culture.
Not only does it reveal information about people, history, words and expressions, it also reveals deeper truths about human nature that transcend language barriers.
Plus, including literature in language teaching and learning can help your students’ reading and writing skills, but it can also improve their listening, speaking and critical thinking abilities as well.
Taking an interest in literature with your students will do wonders for their journey to fluency.
So here are seven tips to help you do just that, plus the history and benefits of teaching language through literature.
- How to Teach Language Through Literature
- Literature in Language Teaching and Learning
How to Teach Language Through Literature
1. Choose an appropriate book
Finding the right book is everything!
Take into account your students’ ages, interests, levels and socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, chances are 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 love sports, they may not be interested in a Victorian romance. But a book about a famous athlete might just do the trick.
So, how exactly do you choose a good book for your class?
In the same way that you choose a good book for yourself—ask 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 even be filtered to search specifically for children’s or young adult books if applicable.
Here are a few you might consider for popular languages:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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).
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 students’ 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.
After, go through these together and share any important info that students didn’t already know. This exercise will provide a relevant context for the book they’re about to read.
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 your students to think deeper and have more in-depth discussions about what they read.
5. Play an audio recording of the text
You can often find famous books or poetry recorded in the voice of the author, or that of a famous actor.
You can play the recording while students read to help them follow along in the text. Hearing the text read aloud makes the task less arduous and helps with pronunciation.
You could also employ other innovative teaching strategies, such as coupling the text with video clips of the book or poem being performed by actual native speakers of the language.
6. Provide discussion questions
Formulate questions that help students get to a deeper understanding of the plot, the characters, the theme and the language employed in the story. The questions should require them to dig deep with examples from the text.
While these questions will be completed or discussed at the end of each chapter/section, feel free to provide them to students ahead of time and go over them together. This will help learners understand what to look for and notice as they read a foreign text.
7. Allow students to express their own ideas
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. They can share their thoughts on the story or poem by drawing a picture or acting out a scene, for instance.
Literature in Language Teaching and Learning
A Brief History
Like most trends, the use of literature has waxed and waned in language instruction over time.
In the early 1900s, the grammar-translation method reigned supreme. It involved lots of conjugation, rote vocabulary memorization and translation. Literature was simply a vehicle for students to practice their grammar and vocabulary, a place to view authentic examples of sentence structures, verb conjugations and memorized words.
In the mid-1900s, educators became more concerned with developing students’ abilities to communicate. The direct method and the audio-lingual method became more popular. In a classic example of “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” literature disappeared from the curriculum as teachers focused on conversing instead.
The 1960s and ’70s saw the advent of the communicative approach, the favored method in most language classrooms today. As such, we’re seeing a resurgence of literature in our language classrooms.
Three models of literature-based language teaching have been developed, each 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. The language learners read fiction or poetry as part of their instruction about history, politics, social mores and traditions.
- The Language Model: Because literature is built from language, it opens a path for students to construct their own understanding of words and phrases. Here, reading is of value for the same reason it’s valuable in a student’s native language—it gives them 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.
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.
You can also use discussions, role plays and group projects to continue the lessons from the books and stories you read in class. Literature can spark meaningful communication while also nurturing students’ opinions about various events and behaviors.
Teaching language through literature provides your students with tons of specific opportunities to expand their knowledge of language and culture and experience personal growth. Here are a few:
- 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 when reading Albert Camus.
Such experiences give students a front-row seat to history and culture which would be impossible to replicate without native language materials.
- 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 likely stick 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 they’re learning about.
- 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 student 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.
As you can see, using literature in language teaching and learning 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.