The Role of Literature in Second Language Acquisition and Why It Matters

The language classroom.

It’s not just for conjugating verbs and playing vocabulary games (as much as we love them).

It’s a window to all kinds of exotic places. Like a Guatemalan village, a secret chamber in an old castle or an African jungle.

And it’s not just about the exotic places, but about the people you can meet and talk to.

How about conversing with a worker in Victorian London, cockney accent and all? Or exchanging ideas with a member of the French nobility at the time of the Revolution?

Do all these things seem impossible to you? You can bring all these events and people to life for your students through the lens of literature.

Yes, while it may seem boring, literature offers a fascinating view of language and of life itself.

Literature is often neglected in foreign language classrooms these days. Many of our students do not enjoy reading, and it is often seen as a boring barrier to the more exciting aspects of learning. But there are many great reasons to make literature an essential piece of your language curriculum.

Here, we’ll learn why literature is so necessary.

Unpacking the Role of Literature in Second Language Acquisition

Reading is the key to all other disciplines.

The captions on pictures. The text of tables and diagrams. The stories told in history books.

These knowledge sources are only valuable to students through text.

And it’s not just captions and textbooks which help students make sense of the world around them.

As they follow a story, your students are learning to make inferences and predictions based on the information presented. These skills will serve them well in their studies and in life.

Another benefit of reading literature in the target language is that it helps students form an identity.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Dover Thrift Editions)

One of my favorite books as a child was Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” I loved to imagine what I would have done had I fallen down the rabbit hole and met characters like the Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts. Defining my identity in this imaginary world helped me define my place in the real one.

Each of your students will encounter a similar experience as they journey through ancient Asia in Wu Cheng’en’s “Journey to the West” or as they rediscover the meaning of chivalry in Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” These stories reveal new aspects of who the reader is as a person. And it yields precious insights into how he connects with that particular language or time period.

Literature Gives Students Meaningful Ways to Interact with Culture

Culture informs language. Our environment shapes the words we choose. And literature may be the richest reflection of that influence.

A story that takes place in WWII Europe or Texas during the Spanish-American War gives students a window into the way language has changed throughout history.

And it helps them understand the cultural influences that have shaped history in the target-language country.

Of course, you can verbally explain this rich interplay of culture, history and language to your students. But seeing it come to life within the pages of a good story is so much more powerful.

Only in doing so can students gain first-hand knowledge of vocabulary specific to certain regions and time periods. You could easily just give them a list of words to memorize, but an encounter with specialized vocabulary from the mouths of engaging characters stays in the memory more easily.

To Kill a Mockingbird

For example, you could spend hours explaining the metaphorical meaning of the phrase “point of view.” But this statement from Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird” makes the phrase much more vivid: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view….Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

And it’s not just the target culture that will come alive for your students. An understanding of literature helps them make comparisons between the target language’s culture and their own.

In reading Gunter Grass’s “The Tin Drum,” students can reflect on progress in Europe in the 20th-century, and how that compares to the technological advances happening in their own time.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Hundred Years of Solitude” yields opportunities to compare Colombia’s unstable government of that time to the political climate of their own country.

Perhaps most importantly, literature highlights for us the value of language as a way to express universal themes across cultures.

Stories convey big ideas like forgiveness, prejudice and coming of age. Such themes govern our lives, no matter where we live or what language we speak. Encountering these themes in literature helps to break down the barriers that divide us, focusing on the similarities that we all share.

So now you know why literature is important. But how can you make it engaging? How can you get your students to look forward to literature in the classroom instead of dreading it?

The Good Stuff: Strategies to Make Literature Fun

Now that we’ve covered the nuts and bolts, are you ready to learn how to build literature-centered lessons that your students will love? Here are some ways to make literature a treat instead of a bore.

Have small discussion groups

Divide your class into groups to discuss a specific question or topic about the book together. For example, you might ask them to talk about a moral dilemma that a particular character is facing, and how they feel this character should act. Or you might ask them to discuss their predictions for the next chapter. Be sure to remind them to support their opinions with evidence from the text. And it’s also a good idea if each member of the group has a specific role (i.e., facilitator, recorder, presenter, etc.).

Choose the right texts for your class

When choosing a book, take into account how much support you are going to provide for them as they read. If they are reading independently, find a simple text with predictable sentence structure, repetition and cognates. If you will be reading the book together as a class, give them a bit of extra challenge, with a good amount of unfamiliar words to stretch them and help them learn.

Remember that if a book is too easy or too difficult, your students will quickly lose interest.

Use “pre-reading” strategies

Use plenty of activities to familiarize students with the setting of the book and with key vocabulary. Activating prior knowledge and scanning chapter headings are some effective methods for preparing to dive into the text.

For example, if you are going to be reading a book that takes place during the American Civil War, you might want to start by asking students to reflect on the things they already know about this era in history. Reflecting on prior knowledge helps students make connections between a work of literature and what they have already learned.

Encourage personal expression

What makes us remember a good book? Our own emotions and ideas in reacting to it. Give students plenty of opportunities to express their opinions and emotions about events taking place in the book. This helps them to make the book their own.

Act out scenes from your book

Channel their flair for drama by choosing a memorable scene for students to act out. As students become the characters, this activity will cement the scene in their memory. You will be surprised at their creativity, as each group will have its own creative take on the same scene. Alternatively, you can ask groups to choose different scenes to give presentations a bit more variety.

Create graphic novels

If your students love to draw, this is another wonderful way to channel their creativity. Illustrating the story with vivid pictures and short snippets of text allows students to demonstrate their understanding of major themes in a fun way.

Make character posters

Creating posters about individual characters helps your students to relate to them meaningfully. Capture each characters’ appearance, life story and motivation. Then display the posters around the room.

Keep updated journals

Ask students to get into the head of the main character by keeping a journal or diary as that character for one week. They can journal about their motivations, as well as their reactions to events in the story. As an alternative to old-school paper journals, you might try having them post their entries on an interactive blog or class website instead.


In many ways, literature is language’s highest achievement. When it comes to meaningful communication, you can do no better than an elaborate portrayal of characters, setting, emotions and events. Far from being boring, literature offers a true command of language which your students will surely learn from. With a little help from you, they can transfer these skills to other language tasks and other areas of their lives.

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