Presented at Liberlit 2016, Tokyo Christian Women’s University, February 22nd, 2016


The obstacles to the teaching of literature in a foreign language are many. Learners can struggle with lexical and grammatical complexity, idiomatic or metaphorical expressions, and contextual misunderstandings. These obstacles should not prevent teachers from introducing literature, however. This presenter suggests a three stage approach to literature in language classes. In the first stage, the teacher introduces the source material by recasting it via its adaptations (such as comic books, graded readers, television, radio or cinema versions). In the second stage, the learners recycle cultural and linguistic elements to demonstrate their understanding of the literature. Finally, the learners respond to the piece by remixing it and creating a version of their own, in relation to their own cultural context. By allowing the learners to understand foreign language literature on their own terms, we can provide the liminal space for intercultural development.


Lazar (1993) identifies three models for working with literature in language classes.

1. Language-based literature teaching, which uses literature primarily as a source for language to study and analyse.
2. Literature as content, in which the students cover specific literary texts in much the same way that they might in their first language.
3. Literature for personal enrichment, in which learners use literature in order to become more intellectually and emotionally involved in language learning.

Does the teacher focus on literature through language, or language though literature? If literature is the focus of academic study and the goal is better understanding of the themes and theory of literature in English, the teacher will need to provide language support – perhaps very little at the graduate level, but maybe a great deal for undergraduates. I would posit that the average university undergraduate in Japan lacks sufficient English proficiency to study literature without significant scaffolding. Thus it may be more profitable to switch our focus and teach language through literature. I would suggest that many of our undergraduates are potentially capable of thinking critically about literature, it is just that they lack practice. Lazar’s models are not mutually exclusive. By using a creative multiliteracy approach I believe we can enable our learners to reach a greater understanding of literature in another language.

What is Literature?

Unsatisfactory as it may be, much like ‘art’, ‘literature’ can anything named as such. If it is deemed so by cultural arbiters, it may be recognised as literature. We can also say that literature foregrounds language and / or has an aesthetic element. In comparison to other texts, literature tends to leave space for interpretation (consider the importance of clarity and precision in an instruction manual or a train timetable as a counterpoint). Finally, I think literature contains the possibility for universality. To quote the theme for this conference..

“Literature conveys subtle truths universal to the human condition. The best study of literature engenders personal responses in student readers and allows them to achieve moments of epiphany, discovery and personal transformation.”

Bringing Literature to the Learner

Source Material - New Page-4

There are many ways in which learners can be supported linguistically and cognitively in their efforts to learn from English literature. I propose a three stage cycle.

Activities for activating schemata and preparing the learner for the source material. These activities may use reference materials (such as news videos or short biographical readings) to support contextual or content knowledge, or may involve pre-teaching challenging but significant vocabulary.

Activities for exploring the source material together. These activities could focus on the dramatic aspects of the work (such as readers’ theatre) or look at the text critically (as with reading circles).

Activities for expanding on and responding to the source material. These activities may be personal (such as asking the learner to write a letter to a character), or collaborative (like staging a recreation of a scene or making a trailer for a cinematic version)

Case Study One: Never Let Me Go

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, the reader follows narrator Kathy H and her classmates Tommy D and Ruth C as they leave the ‘protective’ environment of their boarding school, Hailsham, and make their way in the world as carers and donors.


There are some complex ethical, cultural and scientific aspects to this story, and in order to help the learners approach the book / film with confidence these can be introduced through discussion and short video clips. We considered images of the traditional English boarding school, organ donation and cloning and the students were asked to speculate on how these may be connected in the novel. We concluded by watching the trailer for the film and discussing the opening quote.

The breakthrough in medical science came in 1952.
Doctors could now cure the previously incurable.
By 1967, life expectancy passed 100 years.

The uncomfortable truths in ‘Never Let Me Go’ are masked by euphemisms (death is ‘completion’, for example), and there are other terms used frequently in the book which have a special significance . I collected these into simplified glossaries and had students explain their lists to one another.


Hailsham, the school which the main characters attend as children, dominates the narrative as a place of both comfort and fear. I selected three passages from early in the novel, in which Kathy H discusses the pavilion, the woods and the sales. Each student read a different passage, then presented it to their classmates.


Students are asked to respond to the story with short creative writing pieces. They also dramatise short passages from the script and stage them in their own context, or record short conversations between characters which didn’t take place in the book (for example, a discussion between Miss Emily and Madame, after Tommy and Kathy leave their home with Tommy’s artwork).

Some of the materials used for ‘Never Let Me Go’ and ‘Emma / Clueless’ can be found at the website I developed for the film class I teach. You can also find more information on student film making there.

Further Reading

Ali, S. (1993). The reader-response approach: An alternative for teaching literature in a second language. Journal of Reading, 37(4), 288-296.

Day, R. R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive Reading in the Second Language Classroom. Cambridge University Press.

Culler, J. (1997). Literary Theory: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.

Cumming-Potvin, W. (2007). Scaffolding, multiliteracies, and reading circles. Canadian Journal of Education/Revue canadienne de l’éducation, 483-507.

Erten, I. H., & Razi, S. (2009). The Effects of Cultural Familiarity on Reading Comprehension. Reading in a Foreign Language, 21(1), 60-77.

Gersten, R., & Jimenez, R. T. (1994). A delicate balance: Enhancing literature instruction for students of English as a second language. The Reading Teacher, 47(6), 438-449.

Hedgcock, J., & Ferris, D. R. (2009). Teaching readers of English: Students, texts, and contexts. Routledge.

Lazar, G. (1993). Literature and Language Teaching: A guide for Teachers and Trainers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lazar, G. (1994). Using literature at lower levels. ELT journal, 48(2), 115-124.

Liu, J. (2000). The power of readers theater: From reading to writing. ELT Journal, 54(4), 354-361.

I was fortunate to meet Junko Yamanaka at the 5th Annual Extensive Reading Seminar in Nagoya, Japan. She is a well known figure in extensive reading circles, especially in Nagoya, and I have used several of her textbooks very successfully. We talked about her experience as a teacher, teacher trainer and materials writer, about education in Japan, and many other things. It was great to finally meet her!

Thanks also to the JALT ER SIG for putting on such a great event and doing such great work all year round promoting Extensive Reading in Japan.

I was very pleased to spend some time with Dr. Stephen Krashen at the 5th Annual Extensive Reading Seminar in Nagoya, Japan. Dr. Krashen is a man so well known that even my wife was impressed when I set this one up. We talked about some of his hundreds of publications, about his groundbreaking hypotheses, and about learning to read in first and second languages.

If you would like to know more, Dr. Krashen makes plenty of his work available online. Scott Thornbury’s blog post ‘K is for Krashen’ is interesting as ever, but the comments (including those from Stephen Krashen himself) add value. Finally, thanks to the JALT ER SIG for putting on such a great event and doing such great work all year round promoting Extensive Reading in Japan.

It’s that time again…. a couple of quick ones in time for Jason Renshaw’s Hallowe’en Lesson Plan Challenge.

The first worksheet is a set of questions to get them in the mood – there are four different question sheets with spaces to add extra questions. Students can circulate and make notes, then report back to their original team (language practice – reported speech “Tomomi told me that…” / most of / the majority of / almost everyone said that…). I have a stable pdf version, but if you’d like to play around with it there is a word version too.

Next is a pair of urban legend readings. You can cut them up and have groups of students work together to put one of them in order (good for noticing structures and organisation). Then students can tell one another the story they completed.

truck driver hallowe’en story (pdf)

university students hallowe’en story (pdf)

If you want to add local place names and personal touches to give the students an extra chill, you can use these word versions.


Uni Students

Finally, I have written before about the Kuchisake-onna, one of my favourite urban legends. Students can read about her, and her little sister Toire no Hanako, in these two short passages…

kuchisake onna and toire no hanako.

However, after the readings A and B put their papers aside and compare information. Can they find the nine differences?

destroy all monsters!

Happy Haunting……

In a previous post I mentioned an article I had read on ‘nativised’ reading materials – readings which are adapted to include local (and familiar) names, places and foods (for example) whilst retaining the vocabulary and grammar structures of the original. In the article, the researchers took a story based in New York and transplanted it to Canakkale, a coastal Turkish city. The authors reported that students’ reading fluency was best with a combination of pre-reading tasks and ‘nativised’ readings. I had a little correspondance with Salim Razi, one of the authors, who is kind enough to allow me to reproduce some of his insights here.

Recently I have been reading a book titled ‘Acts of reading: Exploring connections in pedagogy of Japanese’ which was edited by Hiroshi Nara and Mari Noda (2003). It might help me answer your question, I suppose. Nara gives an example of a tofu recipe in the book (I think, you are familiar with tofu soup as you are living in Japan but I am not as a Turkish resident). It is important to make an awareness of the topic by providing essential background knowledge in case of lack of relevant prior knowledge; however it is also important to provide the balance between teaching culture and reading comprehension. The teacher needs to consider his/her aims in asking students to read the text. If the aim is comprehension then is it really vital to spend much time on culture? I do not mean to imply that we should not teach culture in foreign language classes; but I try to stress that culture should be taken into consideration when it is necessary. Especially if we are teaching English which has more non-native speakers than native ones and called as franca lingua. The case might be different for Japanese language teaching as Japan is the only country in the world speaking it. We have Japanese language teaching department here at Canakkale and I know that they integrate much more cultural elements into their curriculum.

It’s a point I think we have to consider. If we learn the Japanese language, we need to study the culture too. I don’t disagree with that. Is English different from other languages in this regard? Is there even an ‘English’ culture? And how do teachers of Spanish, French, Arabic and other languages with a wide range deal with it? Is it a debate for them too?

I didn’t set out to rip off Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent blog gimmick, but it turned out that the number of free online journals I like is six!

First up is elearn magazine, collecting papers on learning with technology (mainly) for educators in tertiary education. The journal has been going for a few years now, and still has a fairly strong focus on multi-media online programmes (what might be called Virtual Learning Environments) rather than individual applications or websites. It also looks at the deeper impact of changing technology on the ways that we learn and teach. Stephen Downes’ article, Elearning 2.0, from 2005, is quite a good place to start.

The National University of Singapore has been publishing the Electronic Journal of Foreign Language Teaching for the last five years, covering language instruction across Asia in a number of different languages. I particularly recommend Nikitina and Furuoka’s article “A Language Teacher is Like…”: Examining Malaysian Students’ Perceptions of Language Teachers through Metaphor Analysis, being a big fan of metaphor in the exploration of beliefs and attitudes.

The Centre for Applied Linguistics at the University of Warwick produces an annual, peer-reviewed journal entitled “English Language Teacher Education and Development” which does what you would expect, very well. This article, written by the editors in the latest edition, gives an excellent overview of the project, its beginnings and where it stands now. I also enjoyed Elham Sadat Mousavi’s article about teacher stress in native and non-native teachers of English. The NNEST / NEST thing is one of those ongoing issues that never loses steam…..

 If you are at all interested in reading, then “Reading in a Foreign Language” should have something for you. It’s co-edited by Richard Day at the University of Hawai’i, a man who knows a thing or two about extensive reading. I like İsmail Hakkı Erten and Salim Razı’s fascinating study into “The effects of cultural familiarity on reading comprehension“, which looks at the impact on fluency of using “nativised” texts – the question is whether we are using texts purely for building skills, or for teaching culture and content. Either way, the study has definite implications for the selection and creation of extensive reading materials.

TESL-EJ covers a broad range of language teaching issues in a quarterly journal, usually with one or two feature articles and a lot of great book reviews. Reinders and Lazaro’s article “Current Approaches to Assessment in Self-Access Language Learning” struck a chord with me; the space at my university has been very successful, but one is always walking the tightrope in trying to encourage students to exercise their autonomy. The minute it becomes a requirement, it dies, right?

Finally, a relative newcomer to serve the growing needs of International Foundation Programme Teachers produced by the University of Reading, InForm. It is not specifically aimed at language teachers, but most international foundations are studying content in a second language (CLIL?). You should go straight to issue four and read the article about learner / teacher development through reflection by a young man with a bright future called Darren Elliott…..

Please comment on any recommended links you have, and I’d also like to know what you think of the articles I have recommended.

(Update – 26/4/2010: Comments disabled due to huge spammage! Please email if you have any recommendations)

A vocabulary test in which the students merely have to vomit the words onto the page, and once purged walk away fresh with no memory of the incident, is no good to anyone. How can we ensure our students LEARN words, rather than just REMEMBER them.

  • Learner Autonomy – Are students more likely to learn words if they are relevant, personal and useful?
  • Learner Training – Is it better to teach students how to study vocabulary, rather than teach them vocabulary?
  • Language – What does it actually mean to learn a word? When can you truly say “Yes, I KNOW this word”?

I’ll point you in the direction of two excellent resources, and bear in mind that quite a few academics offer pdf downloads of scholarly articles on their websites these days. Both names will be familiar if you know a little about vocabulary. The first is Norbert Schmitt ‘s staff page at the University of Nottingham, the second is Paul Nation‘s page at the University of Wellington. Both are chock full of reading, but if you wander about halfway down each I’d recommend two particular articles (citations after the jump). Nation suggests self-selection of vocabulary, and Schmitt recommends a system of whole-word study.

I decided to try an experiment with a couple of reading classes I teach. As the students are focussing mainly on their extensive reading, and thus encountering completely different vocabulary, it seemed a good fit. Each student would compile a list of new words encountered in their reading (or anywhere else), and check for synonyms, definitions, antonyms, translations, word family and collocations. I also pointed out that they should check how useful a word is before studying it – most modern dictionaries (certainly the electronic ones my students use) will tell you if a word is amongst the top 1000, 2000 or 3000 words in spoken or written English. I encouraged them to choose words they liked for whatever reason.

Every couple of weeks, I’d take in the list of words and write a code beside each. For example, (C) means collocation, (ES) stands for example sentence and so on. In the second semester, I am dropping in words from their previous lists to recycle. This pdf is the handout I gave to the learners to explain the task

How to learn vocabulary

..and this pdf is the template for the tests

Vocabulary Test Template

Both are specific to Japanese learners, so if you want a word document you can play with, email me ; D

So far, it has been fairly successful. There are a couple of question marks.

  • There is some evidence that antonyms and synonyms cause interference, if BOTH words are new. For example, it may well be wrong to teach left and right together – fix one concept first, then introduce the next.
  • Some students will choose words which are too ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ for their needs or current language level.

Working on these, but it’s an interesting experiment nonetheless.

Moir, J. and Nation, I.S.P. (2002) Learners’ use of strategies for effective vocabulary learning Prospect 17, 1: 15-35.

Schmitt, N. and Schmitt, D. (1995). Vocabulary notebooks: Theoretical underpinnings and practical suggestions. English Language Teaching Journal, 49, 2: 133-143.

ibuki, reading for pleasure

Extensive reading –  reading for pleasure, reading widely, reading what one wants to read, reading at one’s current level of attainment. Does it actually work? You’ll be waiting a long time if you want conclusive proof of anything to do with learning languages, but the general consensus seems to be that it is a pretty good thing (another good article here).

The publishers are certainly getting behind it. If I were wearing my cynical hat I would suggest that they might make more money shifting millions of little books that take less effort to develop. But I don’t really have a head that suits hats, and a lot of the graded readers being produced these days are, in fairness, very nice indeed and thoughtfully put together.

The trouble is how to use them. True extensive reading is autonomous; the very second a teacher puts a hand to it it loses that quality. However, some choices are better than others when choosing how to proceed.

  • Keeping track of student reading.

Some would question whether this is necessary at all. Realistically, for most of us it is a requirement in an academic programme. A paper reading record (pdf here) can be sufficient, but this semester I am using (a very handy guide to which can be found here). On balance, it is probably better not to give a reading requirement. If you do, although some students might choose to exercise their right to read nothing, even the most keen will probably just stop at the minimum asked of them. With no clear guidance, though, I find that most students tend to read as much as they can to be safe.

  • Choosing what the students read.

Basically, you shouldn’t, although this may depend on what is available. I am currently fortunate enough to work in a school with an extensive library, so the only limit I put on students is that they try and read at their level. I’m not especially dogmatic about this, either – I also ask the learners to find news articles of interest to them to bring in for discussion. Strictly speaking, news articles (being short and complex) constitute intensive reading, but the freedom to choose from the entire internet is very “extensive”.

Some teachers like to use class sets, and have everyone read together. Although this removes freedom of choice, it can be less intimidating in the early stages of a project as students can discuss shared readings from a position of mutual understanding.

  • Reacting to reading.

Almost all graded readers have comprehension questions at the back, and (as is the trend these days), a raft of supporting test books, activity worksheets and teachers guides. I understand that the market probably demands it, that it is a great selling point for the busy / lazy teacher, but it is somewhat contrary to what extensive reading ought to be.  A graded reader can very easily become a very long intensive reading. One notable exception is the Oxford Bookworms Club, which introduces learners to reading circles for discussion. Largely, though, most published materials appear to place greater emphasis on checking comprehension than interperating or responding to reading in a personal way.

I ask students to summarise what they are reading for one another, and to create their own discussion questions based on the themes or ideas in their books. Plundered partly from Maley and Duff’s “Literature”, partly from Bamford and Day’s “Extensive Reading Activities for Language Teaching” , I’ve set my students a choice of two assignments from a possible eleven (pdf here) this semester. It’s not huge, but it does give them a variety of ways to respond to what they have read.

There is a great deal of joy in finishing a whole book in a foreign language, more so if it’s one you chose yourself, and you understood it. If you are lucky enough to have access to graded readers, make the most of them. ( All books mentioned available in the bookstore, folks!)