Literature in ELT

The use of literature in the ELT classroom is enjoying a revival for a number of reasons. Having formed part of traditional language teaching approaches, literature became less popular when language teaching and learning started to focus on the functional use of language. However, the role of literature in the ELT classroom has been re-assessed and many now view literary texts as providing rich linguistic input, effective stimuli for students to express themselves in other languages and a potential source of learner motivation.

What do we mean by literature? 

John McRae (1994) distinguishes between literature with a capital L – the classical texts e.g. Shakespeare, Dickens – and literature with a small l, which refers to popular fiction, fables and song lyrics. The literature used in ELT classrooms today is no longer restricted to canonical texts from certain countries e.g. UK, USA, but includes the work of writers from a diverse range of countries and cultures using different forms of English.

Why use literature in the ELT classroom?

Literary texts provide opportunities for multi-sensorial classroom experiences and can appeal to learners with different learning styles. Texts can be supplemented by audio-texts, music CDs, film clips, podcasts, all of which enhance even further the richness of the sensory input that students receive.

Literary texts offer a rich source of linguistic input and can help learners to practice the four skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing – in addition to exemplifying grammatical structures and presenting new vocabulary.

Literature can help learners to develop their understanding of other cultures, awareness of ‘difference’ and to develop tolerance and understanding. At the same time literary texts can deal with universal themes such as love, war and loss that are not always covered in the sanitized world of course books.

Literary texts are representational rather than referential (McRae, 1994). Referential language communicates at only one level and tends to be informational. The representational language of literary texts involves the learners and engages their emotions, as well as their cognitive faculties. Literary works help learners to use their imagination, enhance their empathy for others and lead them to develop their own creativity. They also give students the chance to learn about literary devices that occur in other genres e.g. advertising.

Literature lessons can lead to public displays of student output through posters of student creations e.g. poems, stories or through performances of plays. So for a variety of linguistic, cultural and personal growth reasons, literary texts can be more motivating than the referential ones often used in classrooms.

What are some of the challenges to be faced when using literature in the classroom?

Literary texts can present teachers and learners with a number of difficulties including:

  • text selection – texts need to be chosen that have relevance and interest to learners.
  • linguistic difficulty – texts need to be appropriate to the level of the students’ comprehension.
  • length – shorter texts may be easier to use within the class time available, but longer texts provide more contextual details, and development of character and plot.
  • cultural difficulty – texts should not be so culturally dense that outsiders feel excluded from understanding essential meaning.

Duff and Maley (2007) stress that teachers can cope with many of the challenges that literary texts present, if they ask a series of questions to assess the suitability of texts for any particular group of learners:

  • Is the subject matter likely to interest this group?
  • Is the language level appropriate?
  • Is it the right length for the time available?
  • Does it require much cultural or literary background knowledge?
  • Is it culturally offensive in any way?
  • Can it be easily exploited for language learning purposes?

How can literary texts be used?

Teachers can exploit literary texts in a large number of ways in the classroom. Classroom work with literary works may involve pre-reading tasks, interactive work on the text and follow up activities.

Pulverness (2003) provides some useful advice: Maximise pre-reading support.


This stage is often referred to as ´lead-in´. The goal of pre-reading stage is to prepare students for the text, to arouse their interest in the topic of the text and motivate them to read (Williams 1984:37). To prepare students for reading means to ease students’ stress from their fear of not-being able to cope with language difficulties (Williams 1984:37). Thus the “teacher’s role must be to play up the sense of adventure while providing a supportive atmosphere that will be reassuring to the students” (Collie and Slater 1987). At the beginning of preparing the pre-reading stage Williams suggests that the teacher should think of the following questions and so find how to introduce the text, motivate students and to incorporate language preparation:

  1. What do the learners already know about the topic and how can this knowledge be used in work with the text?
  2. Why is the text worth reading and how to make the learners share the same reason? (1984:37)

Students are encouraged to express their expectations and predictions by discussing pictures, the cover page, titles, or the author’s biography, brainstorming the relevant vocabulary, matching titles and parts of a text, ordering parts of a text, or answering questions.

To set the scene, to get in the mood, to support understanding of the text , or just to reduce learners’ stress it is possible to use visualization i.e. students listen to a topic-related music or to a short literary extract and then try to construct meaning in a creative way.


This stage is aimed at the clarification of text content and at students’ understanding of the writer’s purpose and the text structure (Williams 1984:38). What is important for the teacher to consider in this phase is “what the effect of these exercises is and whether this corresponds to both his and his learners’ aims” (Williams 1984:38).

Therefore, prior to choosing or developing suitable exercise, the teacher should pose the questions regarding the function and the organization of the text, what information to extract, what the learners can deduce from the text, what language can be taught or what styles can be practiced (Williams 1984:38-39). According to Williams the while-reading activities are necessary to be organized from the general understanding to understanding of smaller units e.g. paragraphs or sentences (1984:39).

While-reading activities involve traditional comprehension exercises in the form of true or false questions, answering pre-reading questions, matching halves of sentences, guessing what comes next, identifying who said what, completing maps, diagrams or fact files, cross-words and word-search puzzles. Basically, the while-reading activities deal with the characters, the plot, language, and topic issues.


In the final stage of reading students are supported to consolidate and reflect creatively upon what they have read. Further, during this stage the text is personalized and related to the students’ personal experience, emotions, views and interests in order to stimulate their reactions to the text.

The whole organization and types of the post reading activities are determined by the objectives of the program; so when planning the post-reading activities the teacher should consider whether the topic of the text is recommendable, whether it invites completion and primarily whether learners may involve their personal experience when working with the text (Williams 1984:39).

The post-reading stage may include writing activities e.g. writing a summary or a recommendation, a letter to a character, re-writing the story from a character’s point of view; speaking activities e.g. role-plays, interviewing the characters, dramatization; project work e.g. drawing illustrations, preparing a series of pictures for comics; or combination of these. As Williams points out, “the problems of motivation, language and reading related activities are not dealt with separately in each of the three phases, but are ´spread´ throughout the three phases”; and therefore “the three-phase approach is not to be carried out mechanically on every occasion” (1984:40). The advantage of this three stage approach is grounded in the fact that “it respects and makes use of the student’s own knowledge of language and of the world and uses this as a basis for involvement, motivation, and progress” and it also “leads to the integration of the skills in a coherent manner” (Williams 1984:40).

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