Is literature an effective means for learning English? [Archives:2006/969/Education]

August 3 2006

Dr Ayid Sharyan
Associate Professor
Dept. of English
Faculty of Education
Sana'a University,
[email protected]

“For my part, I was always of a communicative disposition, so I thought it a shame to keep so much knowledge to myself.”

Charles Surface in Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1777)

This paper is a response to the following questions: Do EFL learners need English literature? Is Literature an effective means for learning English?

The question 'Do EFL learners need English literature?' is now more important than before for in recent committees of redesigning university curriculum there is a strong resistance to literature.

It is self-evident that literature is language in use. Literature is the language of the elite or the cream of language. Literature is what is beyond the literary language. However, whether a flowery language loaded with metaphorical, ironical, deviant expressions fulfill the immediate needs of a learner is debatable. It is true that it all lies in the hand of the teacher who can make literature meaningful or a futile exercise all together.

The argument put by language experts in this regard is that student teachers basically need to develop their linguistic competence and not literary acumen. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Donne and Alexander Pope are dead and buried. Their archaic language is as lifeless as the romantic ideas of Ode to the West Wind or to the Grecian Urn. We need professional teachers who are able to use sort of applied or general English. Teachers can and should efficiently build up in the learner the much needed linguistic and pragmatic competence. If a teacher does not know who said 'better be a king in heaven that a servant in hell' or 'to be or not to be,' is he/ she going to lose much? We do not aim at a cadre of creative writers who will replace Hemingway or Orwell. We do not care whether 'the eyes of his mistress' are like the sun or like the moon, whether 'man is an island entire to itself' or not. Is the answer to the question 'for whom the bell tolls?' going to make a teacher better? How does it make a difference if Robert Frost 'stops by woods on a snowy evening' or sunny morning for student teachers? The future teachers need to undergo a course of training for four years to be efficient teachers of English in Yemeni schools. It is irrelevant for them to study English culture, history, social background, etc. The current thrust at the Departments of English, as reflected in recent syllabus revisions, is to equip students with language skills, psychology of learning, evaluation and measurement strategies, computer skills, and perhaps life skills or strategies.

The question then arises: why do students at the Department of English (trainee teachers) study English literature at all?

Recently, a proposal to introduce literature courses in the present M.Ed. program was turned down on the assumption that students of education do not need a literature component in their curriculum.

The decision to curtail the literature courses to expand the period of teaching practice is in tune with the criteria set by the international reviewers who visited the Faculty of Education recently. This line of thinking also coincides with the policy of the Yemeni Cabinet (April 28, 2006) to embark upon a curricular pattern that offers only professional courses at Faculties of Education.

The educational goals (e.g. knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation according to Bloom's (1956) taxonomy of educational objectives) was and still is difficult to be realized in the literature courses. Literature resists limitation of goals and measurable behaviors to see if learning has taken place. We rely heavily on intuitions once it comes to literature and assessment is impressionistic to a large extent unlike in language courses. Methods of teaching literature are still in their infancy. They are not as clearly spelt out as the ones in teaching English as a foreign language. The linguistic complexities of literary texts are incomprehensible for the beginners and so are the techniques such as syntactic inversion, foregrounding, allusions, irony, paradox, lexical density, discoursal organizations or extended contextual support which are embedded in literary texts. The length of texts as fictional narratives is another hurdle. Cultural bias is reflected in a range of references that are not easily obtainable for foreign language learners. Most literary texts are liable for different interpretations. This makes it hard to achieve the objectives of teaching or measure the outcome. Conceptual difficulty is another formidable barrier in comprehension of the topics that deal with racism, suicide, homosexuality, rape, etc. Literature, as a specimen of expressive or persuasive, not informative language, remains out and out personal. In the light of the above, literature seems to be more of a luxury than of any practical value in our present context.

As part of a study to assess the learner attitude and motivation to the study of literature, I gave a questionnaire to 95 students from three universities (Sana'a, Yemenia, and Saba) who are to graduate in the current academic year, asking them: 'Is the language of literature important for students of English?' About 75% respondents replied in the positive while 25% thought it was not. About 38% like literature for its social effect and 21% like it for its linguistic effect. However, about 60% read it for entertainment and 30% like literature as a kind of escape. However, there was a general agreement on the part of students that literatures is an important component in the curriculum. The other question that was given to them was about the vocabulary they think they get from literature course.

About 43% of the respondents think that their vocabulary got improved from 41 to 60% due to the study of literature. About 28% believe their English doesn't get improved due to the study of literature.

So, the situation remains ambivalent. As such the paper ends where it began: Is Literature a means for learning English? The paper raises, more questions than suggesting answers.

Relative emphasis given to literature component in the university curricula:

The syllabus of the Faculty of Education of Science and Technology includes 24% language skills, 12% linguistics, 19% literature, 30% translation, 11% university requirements, 4% French. In Saba University, literature courses are given about 27% weightage. In Sana'a University, it is about 22%.

This article is part of a paper presented in the Two-Day National Seminar on: Teaching Language Through Literature (28-29 May 2006), organised by The Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Sana'a University.