19 February 2007

Literature in Language Teaching

Sometime in the bad old 1980s, English language teachers decided to remove literature from language teaching. The idea at that time was that English should be taught using “authentic texts” for “specific purposes.” Even today, most English language teachers in the country use “content-based instruction,” which means primarily that the texts used to teach language come from fields other than literature.

The big news today is that literature is back in language teaching, and with a vengeance.

Last week, I attended a British Council international seminar in Kuala Lumpur on “Reading across Cultures: Teaching English through Literature.” The seminar was the first time the Oxford Conference on the Teaching of Literature ventured out of the UK since it began 21 years ago. The Conference continues in Oxford, but from now on, there will also be Oxford seminars outside the UK.

I have to say that it was one of the most personally gratifying weeks of my life. When I attended part of the Conference in 1988, while I was a Visiting Fellow at St Antony’s College in Oxford, the speakers were people like Terence Hawkes and Toril Moi, then the biggest names in literary studies.

In the Kuala Lumpur conference, there were only three writers invited as guest speakers: Louise Doughty (multi-awarded British novelist, playwright, critic, and columnist), Roger Robinson (British poet and short fiction writer), and (ehem!) me (to represent Asia).

We were asked to read from our works. I read excerpts from Bienvenido, My Brother and Josephine and did a staged reading of my English translation of Kuwadro. I initially felt intimidated by Robinson (an outstanding performance poet who was earlier in Manila) and Doughty (whose bestselling novel Stone Cradle is funny though profound), but the friendliness of the audience (made up mostly of alumni of Oxford) made me lose my stage fright.

The key academic speaker at the seminar was John McRae of the University of Nottingham, who is the biggest name in language and literature studies nowadays; he is so big that one other big-name lecturer, John Corbett of the University of Glasgow, quoted him, not realizing that he would be in the same seminar.

In 1991, McRae listed several reasons for “covering literature in English Language Teaching” (this is Corbett’s summary): “language learning, linguistic confidence, language description and awareness, language practice, memory, active involvement, classroom interaction, post-lesson stimuli, production, enthusiasm, receptivity, related world knowledge, personal satisfaction, cultural awareness, linguistic or aesthetic curiosity, critical evaluation, grammatical, structural, or functional reinforcement, information, and constructive enjoyment.”

McRae’s and Corbett’s discussions were mostly technical, meant for the high-level government officials and language specialists in the audience, but their thesis was clear: to teach the English language, teachers should use literary texts.

As my own contribution to the language and literature discussions, I showed a working cut of the episode on Basho’s frog haiku in CONSTEC Literature: A Telecourse for Students and Teachers of Literature, the 40-episode television course I am producing for the Foundation for Upgrading the Standard of Literature (FUSE).

A number of the participants asked how they could get a copy of the episode, as well as the rest of the series. I also found out from the Malaysian Ministry of Education officials that Malaysia had a similar series done some years ago. I asked them for a copy of their series, in order that we would not duplicate lessons on the same literary texts. If all goes well, we should be able to show their series together with ours, and they will show ours together with theirs.

After the showing, one Chinese education official approached me and said that the haiku form was invented in China, not in Japan. Ah, well.

(First published in The Philippine Star, 15 February 2007)


Anonymous said...

I really admire you, for for two years i've been trieying to integrate literature in language teaching, but i still haven't the foggist idea how to do it successfully.

Virgínia Coutinho said...

Hello, I am glad I reached your blog because I absorbed many information I needed for the work I am doing right now.
Can you tell me more where I can find literature about "back to literature teaching?"
Many Thanks from Portugal
virgínia Coutinho

Isagani R. Cruz said...

Try looking up the books of John McRae: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/lookup/lookup_az.php?id=NjQ=&page_var=personal

For example, there's his Reading Between the Lines.