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ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice, Number 6 (January 2016)

Enjoy reading our selection:

The use of literature in ELT

Daniel Xerri and Stephanie Xerri Agius

ETAS Journal, Volume 30 Number 1 (Winter 2012), pp. 18-23

This extremely well-researched article discusses the rationale behind using literature in the language classroom (LLE) with reference to contemporary research. It also shows the benefits to the learner; questions teacher attitudes to LLE; discusses what kind of texts should be used (meaningful texts), and evaluates how a more in-depth approach, such as the study of stylistics, can enhance appreciation and language proficiency. The role of the teacher and methodology are addressed and handbooks and other sources of ideas for practical use are suggested.

This learned paper might seem rather daunting to the average teacher, who might be somewhat timid about using any form of literature in the classroom for a variety of reasons. The authors suggest that teachers might be resistant to LLE because of lack of knowledge of the research literature. I suspect that other reasons might play a part, not least because of the contemporary predominance of the course book (only touched on by the authors) and the pressure of the syllabus. In fact, given the current debate on competence-oriented teaching, the reader might have cause to wonder where the student and student-based teaching comes into all this.

The patient reader will be rewarded by a wealth of concrete ideas on how to use prose, poetry, and drama in the classroom. As someone who uses literature in all classes ranging from beginners to post-proficiency teachers and including the Business English classroom, I welcome the range of ideas, particularly in the area of drama, which is a concept I have previously under-exploited.

The reader is also reminded to bear in mind that the priority must be enjoyment of reading per se in order to encourage a love of literature which will become a life-long habit. Activities must have a clear aim and must be student-oriented. The teacher is not the ‘gatekeeper’ to the meaning of a text and the dangers of over-exploitation are made clear. The more student-centred the activities, the more other skills can also be nurtured.

Teachers who are considering introducing or extending LLE in the classroom will find this paper thought-provoking and stimulating.

Helena Lustenberger

Book Reviews Editor, ETAS Journal


The use of literature in ELT

Daniel Xerri and Stephanie Xerri Agius


The role of literature in language education (LLE) was a subject of debate for a number of decades before seemingly losing traction. Over the past few years, however, it has regained prominence due to concerns over the apparent international decline in reading and writing standards. Moreover, teachers’ enthusiasm for using literary texts in an ELT context has been reignited thanks to the growing awareness of the significance of extensive reading as a means of boosting students’ language proficiency. It is believed that exposing students to literature in the language classroom could spark their interest and lead them to develop a lifelong love of reading.

More than a decade ago, Paran (2000) complained that “the role of literature within the mainstream of EFL is still not firmly established” (p. 75). This was due to a number of factors, among them teachers’ anxiety about using literature and pressing demands to justify its use. Despite the fact that there are those who feel that the practice of using literary texts in ELT distracts from the business of language teaching (Edmondson, 1997), most of the research literature concludes that there exist multiple benefits to the incorporation of such texts in one’s English lessons. However, as Tasneen (2010) points out, “For literature to matter in language in education it has to have an aim – only then can it be integrated successfully” (pp. 176-177). This article seeks to show that one of the main aims of using literature in the English classroom is that of enhancing students’ language proficiency by encouraging them to engage with meaningful texts, thus leading them to become independent readers.

Meaningful texts

Literature in the language classroom provides students with the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of meaningful texts that are infused with imaginative potential. It allows students to come into contact with the target language in interesting and genuine contexts (Hill, 1986; Lazar, 1993). Literary texts are authentic (Collie & Slater, 1987) and as Hismanoglu (2005) indicates, “Literature provides students with an incomparably rich source of authentic material over a wide range of registers” (p. 65). In fact, Hirvela and Boyle (1988) affirm that “literature can be usefully approached as a particular example of discourse” (p. 181). In conformity with natural language acquisition theory, literature “can offer predictable yet natural language which promotes word recognition, as well as opportunities for authentic reading and writing tasks” (Ghosn, 2002, p. 174). For these reasons literary texts allow students to come into contact with one of the ways in which human beings creatively manipulate language.

The contemporary emphasis on coursebooks seems to be monopolising English classrooms all over the world, hindering students from experiencing the imaginative content of literary texts (Sivasubramaniam, 2006). Ghosn (2002) agrees with this and claims that “traditional ELT materials may fail to provide adequate support for development of L2 academic literacy” whereas literature “offers an alternative, motivating medium for foreign language acquisition” (p. 172). For example, Murdoch (2002) suggests that “short stories can, if selected and exploited appropriately, provide quality text content which will greatly enhance ELT courses” (p. 9). If teachers attempt to strike a balance between traditional coursebook material and literary texts, they will be able to provide their students with a more holistic language experience.

Language proficiency 

Those teachers who use literary texts in the language classroom agree with Krashen’s (1985) idea that literature is “an efficient vehicle for foreign language acquisition” (p. 15). In fact, Akyel and Yalcin (1990) found that teachers consider using literature in their lessons to be important because they assume that “language improvement will automatically be a by-product of literary studies” (p. 175). This is congruent with the idea that “the use of literature in the EFL classroom can provide a powerful pedagogic tool in learners’ linguistic development” (Savvidou, 2004). Unfortunately, not all teachers are convinced of the benefits of using literature as a means of teaching the target language, and this might be due to a lack of awareness of what the research literature says about the issue.

LLE operates on the principle that combining linguistic and literary elements is beneficial. By encouraging students to focus on the language of a literary text, this approach enables them to notice the target language and assimilate it. Combining literature and language learning provides students with the “the possibility of internalising the language and reinforcing points previously learned” (Hill, 1986, p. 7). An analysis of the language of a literary text allows students to “make meaningful interpretations or informed evaluations of it” as well as “increase their general awareness and understanding of English” (Lazar, 1993, p. 23). Moreover, literature “can create opportunities for personal expression as well as reinforce learners’ knowledge of lexical and grammatical structure” (Savvidou, 2004). Incorporating literature within language lessons exposes students to texts that are examples of a genuine yet well-crafted use of English. 

As a lesson resource, literature contributes to language learning because it merges a focus on meaning with a focus on form (Hanauer, 1997). The idea that language skills can be improved through literature is given weight by Adeyanju’s (1978) work on how poetry can “enhance the learning of certain aspects of structural patterns, rhythm, intonation, and idioms” in the target language (p. 136). This is an example of how “poetry offers a rich resource for input to language learning” (Maley & Duff, 1989, p. 7). In line with these ideas, Nance (2010) reiterates Krashen’s arguments that “extensive texts are especially useful to language students due to the quantity and richness of the input” (p. 6). Such texts give students the opportunity to “make better hypotheses about unfamiliar words and structures” (Nance, 2010, p. 6). As discussed above, this is partly due to the fact that literature provides the reader with a meaningful context.

Some proponents of LLE concentrate on literature as a means of practising the language and they appreciate a literary text as a resource that has the potential to generate engaging language activities (Maley, 1989; Duff & Maley, 2007). For students, according to Hill (1986), literature is “language in action, a living context and focal point for them in their own efforts to communicate” (p. 108). Literary texts are rich in styles, registers, and topics and they stimulate classroom discussions by being open to a variety of interpretations. An ability to critically engage with such texts is indicative of enhanced language proficiency since students come to see language as made up of choices (Wallace, 2003). For example, in using a literary text in class students might be encouraged to consider how a writer uses modality or conjunctive cohesion to create a particular effect (Cots, 2006). Carter and Long (1991) argue that LLE enhances students’ language development and puts them “in touch with some of the more subtle and varied creative uses of language” (p. 2). In dealing with the text, students will find the stimulus to engage in language production.


One approach to the analysis of language in literary texts is that of stylistics, which “involves the close study of the linguistic features of a text in order to arrive at an understanding of how the meanings of the text are transmitted” (Lazar, 1993, p. 27). Stylistic analysis involves using a number of tools to carry out “a close analysis of the language and style in order to draw out meanings that otherwise might have remained hidden” (Burke, 2010, p. 145). Despite the concern that stylistics is only suitable for advanced learners of English, Paran (2009) believes that it is possible to use stylistics with lower levels, arguing that “much may depend on the way the approach is used and modified, and there are examples of how it is possible, with appropriate choice of text and a careful attention to pedagogical issues” (p. 285). In fact, Chen and Squires (2011) point out that stylistics can be used in order to exploit literature written for children and adolescents for the purpose of developing students’ language awareness. Familiarity with some of the guiding principles of stylistics might help teachers in their efforts to incorporate literature in the language classroom.

Stylistics can be considered to have two main goals: firstly, that of enabling students to meaningfully interpret the text; secondly, that of enhancing students’ knowledge of the language (Lazar, 1993). Stylistics seeks to foster an aesthetic appreciation of the text by bridging its linguistic features and the intuitions that students form about its meaning. It investigates the way meanings are communicated by a text through a method that “uses the apparatus of linguistic description” (Leech & Short, 1981, p. 74). This essentially means “making sense of foregrounded aspects of language” (Leech, 1969, p. 225). Widdowson (1975) considers the prime advantage of this system to be the fact that students are able to acquaint themselves with the way the language is shaping literary texts and understand it as a particular instance of human communication.

Stylistics allows students to understand a text “by describing the linguistic devices an author has used and the effects produced by such devices” (Alderson & Short, 1988, p. 72). Carter (1988) affirms that stylistics is marked by the “intersection of the language of a text with the elements which constitute the literariness of that text” (p. 162). By means of stylistics, it is possible to position language centrally and hence understand a literary text primarily through the workings of language (Toolan, 1998). For example, if teachers want to clarify the use of a cohesive device like ellipsis, they could encourage students to notice this in a poem. This enables students to better understand how the poem attempts to generate meaning in a cohesive manner. As an approach, stylistics is “particularly useful in a foreign language” because, thanks to it, “a student can become more aware of, and take steps to solve, his or her problems as a non-native reader” (Parkinson & Reid Thomas, 2000, p. 33). This is especially fundamental for those foreign and second language learners of English who are motivated to improve their proficiency by engaging in extensive reading.

Students’ experience of reading

Developing students’ awareness of how language works in literary texts and encouraging them to relate it to their personal experience of language makes the reading of literature much more engaging. If a student is trained to become “someone who can comprehend literary texts through a comprehension of their language structures” (Cummings & Simmons, 1983, p. 5), then reading literature in a second language becomes less daunting. This means that once students “learn to see the significance of the writers’ linguistic and rhetorical choices … [they] develop their ability to talk and write more clearly and cogently” (Akyel & Yalcin, 1990, p. 179). Moreover, by encouraging students to isolate words and linguistic patterns in order to understand the purpose of the text, the teacher motivates “the reader to reflect on the experience of reading, and helps to illuminate it” (Gower, 1986, p. 129). Consequently, students will be able to engage with the text and think about whether they consider it to be successful or not in the effect it is trying to achieve.

However, Takagaki (2002) posits that “English reading should be meaningful for students so that reading does not simply mean language decoding activities and mechanical drills” (p. 5). Nance (2010) agrees with this and affirms that “developing the skill and habit of literary reading enables and encourages continued language use, helping all students to maintain and improve their skills even after their formal language study ends” (p. 8). The benefits of this are not only an increase in vocabulary acquisition and reading speed (Lao & Krashen, 2000), but, most importantly, a boost in students’ motivation and interest to read in an autonomous fashion (Tsai, 2012). This means that teachers should primarily encourage students to read for enjoyment.

The teacher’s role

What works against building students’ affective response as readers is that it is sometimes assumed that just because they are learning English as a second language, they are unable to understand the richness of literary texts. In fact, Hall (2005) declares that “assuming linguistic competence, rather than attempting to extend it through literature … is likely to be even more problematic” (p. 145). Due to teachers’ misconceptions, a highly teacher-centred approach is sometimes adopted whenever literary texts are used in class, with the result that students may feel that literature is removed from “their own response and cause them to undervalue it” (Collie & Slater, 1987, p. 8). This makes students dependent on whatever is provided for them by the teacher and in the process they fail to make the text their own and avoid sharing their views with one another (Collie & Slater, 1987). Teachers have to keep in mind that in order to fuel students’ enthusiasm for literature, their role should be that of facilitators rather than that of gatekeepers to the text’s meaning.

Gower (1986) advises teachers to consider how much and what kind of “assistance the readers will need while reading”, if it is at vocabulary level or whether it concerns analysis of “the effect of language, its meaning and significance” (p. 128). Paran (2008) believes that “providing adequate direction and clear scaffolding is vital” (p. 490). Teachers scaffold learning by means of the way they set up literature-based tasks and through their reactions to students’ ongoing discussion, guiding them whenever necessary.

Collaborative opportunities

Literary texts can help foster student interaction and collaboration and this enriches their language learning experience. The significance of interaction is underscored by the fact that a group of students “with its various sets of life experiences can act as a rich marshalling device to enhance the individual’s awareness both of his or her own responses and of the world created by the literary work” (Collie & Slater, 1987, p. 9). If students are involved in using a literary text in class in a more interactive manner, then they would feel that they have made a “personal investment” which will make “it more likely that they will want to extend their understanding of it by personal reading at home” (Collie & Slater, 1987, p. 9). This shows that sometimes in order for students to be encouraged to appreciate the solitary pleasures of literature, they first need to be provided with an opportunity of experiencing it in the convivial atmosphere of the language classroom.

A language-based approach to literature makes the text more accessible for students and allows them to engage with it by means of a number of collaborative activities that are learner-centred (Carter & Long, 1991). Van (2009) argues that “literature is an excellent vehicle for CLT methods that result in four-skill English language development through interaction, collaboration, peer teaching, and student independence” (p. 7). For example, Baurain (2007) found that by means of literature-based groupwork activities, students “gained heightened reading and interpretive abilities and developed more integrated language skills” (p. 244). Hence literature can be used profitably if complemented with the right kind of communicative activities.

Literature-based language activities

Innumerable ideas on how to incorporate literature into language lessons exist. A variety of handbooks have been published on the subject and most of them provide teachers with tips on how to organise activities that will allow students to develop their language proficiency. Some of them are general resource books that contain worksheets based on poetry, short fiction, or drama (Collie & Slater, 1987; Duff & Maley, 2007). Others consist of activities that focus on a specific genre. For example, Wajnryb (2003) concentrates on story-based activities whereas Maley and Duff (2005) offer a wide variety of teaching ideas based on drama. Quite a number of books focus on poetry activities given the unique advantages of this genre (Maley & Duff, 1989; McRae, 1998; Holmes & Moulton, 2001; Sloan, 2003; Spiro, 2004; Vaughan-Rees, 2010). Due to the growing significance of extensive reading, Bamford and Day (2004) devote an entire resource book to this area. Some ELT methodology books also contain sections on exploiting literature for language teaching purposes. For example, Harmer (2012) shares some ideas on how to use poetry and drama. It is clear that teachers can choose from a wide variety of resources when it comes to using literature in ELT. 


Some pre-reading activities that students might do with readers and prose extracts include examining illustrations, chapter headings, and blurbs for predictive purposes. They can do some research and create an author profile or deliver a short presentation on the story’s historical and cultural background. While reading the story, students can collaborate on jigsaw activities, engage in character role-plays, dramatise dialogue, and write character horoscopes. Watching clips from a film adaptation of the story and engaging in a compare-and-contrast activity is something that appeals to most students. The use of audio books is also to be encouraged as research has shown that simultaneous listening and reading may facilitate students’ comprehension of the text (Woodall, 2010). Some post-reading activities involve the writing of reading journals, reviews, and brief scenes in which the story is continued. Such writing activities can prove to be highly beneficial. For example, encouraging L2 students to keep reading logs helps them hone their understanding of literary texts and improves their reading and writing skills (Carlisle, 2000).


When using poetry, students can first of all be invited to recite the poem individually or as a group. They can draw pictures to illustrate the imagery in a poem, and use similes in order to describe what the poem looks and sounds like. They can also find appropriate music and images to accompany the words of the poem and create a film version of it. Visual poetry is considered an effective means of encouraging students to enjoy the reading and discussion of poetry (Templer, 2009) as well as developing students’ English proficiency (Charles, 2008). By means of a Venn diagram, students can find the similarities and differences between a prose extract and a poem dealing with the same subject. Another highly popular technique is that of creative writing, which can be used with students at all levels. The most basic kinds of poems that students can write are stem and frame poems, which merely involve filling in the gaps or continuing a line of poetry. A step further is that of using a model in order for the class to collaborate in the rewriting of a poem. This technique is commonly known as shared writing and Xerri (2011) found that by “imitating the model and recasting it … students enjoyed playing with the language used by an expert writer and … gradually discovered the courage to use their reading of poetry in order to compose their own poems” (p. 187). Poetry is perhaps an ideal medium for language learning because, within the conciseness of a poem, language is utilized in the most creative manner possible.


One-act plays or other short pieces of drama lend themselves to a variety of communicative activities. Activities such as asking students to mime certain scenes or else perform the dialogue by means of rap are usually considered to be highly enjoyable. Hot seating is another entertaining activity that involves a student taking on the role of a character from the play and being interviewed by the rest of the class. Students can collaborate to add stage directions to the text and discuss costumes and lighting. In a balloon debate students have to agree on which character is expendable and this usually leads to a lively class discussion. The writing of alternative endings and of scenes set 20 years into the play’s future taps into students’ imagination. Drama in the language classroom offers them a multisensory form of engagement with English.


When using literary texts, teachers need to keep in mind that the language focus of each activity is to be clearly defined and that all activities are to be as learner-centred as possible. Clear examples of this are learner-led discussion groups on literature, more commonly known as literature circles, which “offer a pedagogically sound platform for language acquisition to develop in the ELT classroom” (Shelton-Strong, 2012, p. 214). Learner-centred literature-based activities ensure that students become autonomous learners who develop an appreciation of literature that transcends the language classroom.

Teachers should be aware that the use of LLE could sometimes lead to an overemphasis on the analysis of a text’s language at the expense of students’ enjoyment of literature (Carter & Long, 1991; Lazar, 1993). Using literature in language teaching is not only meant to enhance students’ proficiency; most importantly, it is meant to cultivate their pleasure in reading literary texts. As Paran (2000) points out, one of the most relevant arguments for using literature in ELT is that “through literature I can deal with learners as people, rather than with learners as Language Acquisition Devices” (p. 88). Those teachers who make a conscious decision to harness the potential of literature for language teaching purposes do so because they also believe that literature has the power to enrich their students’ lives.


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About the Authors

Daniel Xerri teaches at the University of Malta Junior College and regularly speaks at international conferences. He is the author of a number of publications on literature in language education. Some of his talks and publications can be found at www.danielxerri.com

Stephanie Xerri Agius teaches English at a post-16 college in Malta and is currently conducting doctoral research at the University of Leicester, UK. Her research focuses on ways of improving students’ writing about literature.