A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

What? Literature! Taking a re-look at using literature in the ESL classroom



‘To use or not to use (literature) that is the question’, seems a very reasonable dilemma that has divided opinions while multiplying controversies. The proponents of literature teaching hold that the best way to learn language is through literature since one cannot learn a language without attention to literature.

Teaching language through literature is considered the best way to learn language in an authentic ambience as grammar, vocabulary and usage are available in contexts that chunks of language presented as isolated units cannot. There is yet another reason provided by literature lovers for using literature- literary texts mirror life; they portray human emotions - love, anger, sadness, joy, betrayal, jealousy, etc. and therefore appeal to readers’ instincts and interest. The mind absorbs words, phrases and sentences from the texts read for pleasure, leading to language learning. Literary pieces become fertile breeding grounds for ideas, opinions and different points of view. Learners can therefore use literature as a springboard for enhancing their reading and writing skills. Literature teaching trains learners to be critical and deeply independent thinkers. All these reasons make a persuasive case for including literature in the ESL curriculum.

Opponents on the other hand see literature teaching as imposing an alien culture with a view of glorifying it and that language learning and literature are mutually inconsistent with each other. It is the contention of language teachers that English teaching needs to divorce itself from literary texts and concentrate instead on the bare essentials: only language in its barest form- tenses, voices, reported speech, idioms and phrasal verbs and clauses should figure in the texts and therefore argue for a textbook that has a lot of role plays, situational dialogues and other activities that use English in authentic situations. Just as there are sound reasons for teaching language through literature, there appear to be strong grounds for dispensing with literature in the ESL classroom.

McKay supplies what literature opponents say are the reasons due to which it is unwise to use literature in an ESL curriculum.

First, since one of our main goals as ESL teachers is to teach the grammar of the language, literature, due to its structural complexity, does little to contribute to this goal. Second, the study of literature will contribute nothing to helping our students meet their academic and/or occupational goals. Finally, literature often reflects a particular cultural perspective; thus, on a conceptual level, it may be quite difficult for students. These arguments certainly need to be addressed if we are to reach a decision as to whether or not to use literature (McKay, 1982, p.529).

The wisdom of using literature depends on the linguisticand cultural level of difficulty that learners encounter when reading or interpreting literary pieces.

The study

The motivation for this study sprung from the texts –prose and poetry pieces –I taught and the concomitant difficulties I encountered when doing so; I realised that literature was easy to read, understand and appreciate while teaching it was not. Informal talk with those I had taught revealed the difficulties one ran into when teaching language through literature. The mismatch between expectations and outcomes was too conspicuous to be omitted and I set about analyzing reasons based on the informal talk with students, the salient points of which are provided below.

The college(s) I taught in had students of arts, sciences and commerce, where General English was compulsory for the first two years of the three year course. English is in the curriculum since it is viewed as helping students cope well with the demands of the curriculum in which all subjects barring languages are taught in English, the medium of instruction in classroom is English and the mode of answering is also English.

The students on the courses may be divided into four categories. Students who are from:

(a) Rural areas and regional medium schools

(b) Semi-urban areas and regional medium schools

(c) Urban areas and regional medium schools

(d) Urban areas and English medium schools

Of these, students of categories A, B and C formed the majority; teaching them was a real challenge. These learners opened up when asked about the difficulties they encountered in comprehending a text. The first difficulty stemmed from the language in use to explain the contents of a prose piece or poem. I experienced this when teaching them Mathew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. I used Telugu and occasionally Hindi to explain the meaning of the poem but realised I had hit a roadblock when I got to the third line:

Upon the straits; on the French coast the light

Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,

Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

The elucidation was done in English because I knew no better! All the students wanted scaffolding in the mother tongue; they were quick to point out that being first generation learners and having had their education in Telugu/Hindi in school, they were facing a huge hurdle in being able to understand English. It was not literature that was to blame but the teaching method and the choice of texts. A poem like ‘Dover Beach’ is difficult to interpret because of the philosophical underpinnings that form the poem’s layer and Arnold’s own melancholic take on the conflict between science and religion in Victorian era.

Second, students were not interested in the figurative meaning. They wanted to learn grammar and vocabularyfrom the units and wanted exercises that taught them language as it was used in everyday speech and writing. The exercises based on the poem wanted students to appreciate the inner meaning of the poem and the message it had for the reader, a difficult task given the low levels of English proficiency of the learners.

Among the genres – short story, essay, and poems, poetry was seen as most difficult because of the vague, complex and abstract imagery used and the difficulty in bringing out the subtle messages couched in the poem. It was difficult to use even mother tongue to translate the poems prescribed, for example William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’ was tough to tackle. It is both insensible and amusing to teach poems of this kind for exploring grammar or usage since there isn’t much the poem can offer to a student of General English course.

Third, students with low proficiency in the language were looking for short paragraphs to help them learn language gradually but confidently; they needed a lot of help by way of background knowledge and found even short stories by foreign writers difficult to follow. The setting and themes seemed alien to them and they were unable to identify with the culture or characters described in the stories.

Finally, almost all the students stood united in their opinion that as students of science and commerce, they did not want English for broadening their horizons through ‘a knowledge of the classics of literature’ (Akyel and Yalcin, 1990, p.175) or to develop cultural awareness. They did not want anyappreciation of literature since most of them felt their limited command of English did not permit that.

All the students wanted English to enhance their language competence and welcomed the inclusion of any text that helped them achieve that. They wanted to learn English for instrumental purposes. To them English was essential to prepare them for interviews, provide them with a good job, and help them use it as a common language of communication. They were in effect looking for an ESP course that trained them for using English in real life.

Implications: The following implications flow from the opinions gathered from students about the idea of using literature in ESL classroom.

  1. The necessity of using mother tongue to explain crucial ideas is not only inevitable but the only option to aid comprehension. It may not be possible all the time for teachers to translate the central idea of the text being discussed into the L1. In such cases, one may seek the help of learners themselves in making sense of the text. Thus fluent users may help their weak counterparts with meaning through translation and this arrangement may go some way in ensuring that the enterprise of ELT is not a waste of time or resources.
  2. As students complained about the inappropriacy of texts, in particular poetry, which everyone believed was ‘unequivocally difficult to grasp’(Ramanathan, 1999,p.225), it is imperative that the selection of poems be such as to make possible comprehension even for a learner with very average competence in English. For example, a learner can relate better to a poem by Gieve Patel ‘On Killing a Tree’ or Wole Soyinka’s ‘Telephone Conversation’ than s/he can to ‘Dover Beach’ by Mathew Arnold or ‘This is Just to Say’ by William C.Williams.
  3. The students also confessed to being confused and alienated from some of the prose pieces they had been studying; they complained of ‘cultural dissonance between themselves and the topics portrayed in the literature’ (Ramanathan, 1999, p.225). It is perfectly understandable if one considers their socio-economic background and the concomitant absence of support at home which their English medium peers enjoyed. If literature is to be included, then let it be literature that is a reflection of everyday realities and one that can be ‘culturally transposed in local terms’ (Ramanathan, 1999, p.226). In other words essays and short stories by R. K. Narayan or works of contemporary Indian writers will resonate better with their lived experience than short stories or essays by Addison, Steele or Charles Lamb. I can testify to the happy experience of teaching paragraph writing to students using essays and short stories of R.K. Narayan.
  4. A remedial course in English with emphasis on speaking, a much neglected skill, would be better than dense pieces of poetry or prose. Students have grown wise to the fact that while learning English may be difficult, it is indispensable for upward social mobility. They therefore emphasise their commitment to learning English at their own pace and for purpose of communicating fluently with others. They made clear their desire to be taught spoken English and grammar.

Literature therefore needs to be trimmed and tailored to meet the needs of learners who are the ultimate judges of the effectiveness of teaching materials used.


Akyel, A & Yalcin, E. (1990). Literature in the EFL class: A study of goal–achievement incongruence. ELT Journal,44(3), 174-180.

McKay, S. (2003). Teaching English in an international context: The Chilean context. ELT Journal, 57(2), 139-148.

Ramanathan,V. (1999). English is here to stay: A critical look at educational and institutional practices in India. TESOL Quarterly, 33(2), 211-230.


M.R.Vishwanathan is Assistant Professor of English at National Institute of Technology, Warangal. His areas of interest are bilingual education, ideology in language teaching, academic writing, genre analysis and communication strategies.