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Teaching "literary" texts

For secondary teachers, a significant new focus in the KS2-4 curriculum on "literary texts" - meaning stories, letters, poems and song. (Thankfully Michael Gove's original desire to see "great literature" in the curriculum was ditched.) Expect to see more "literary" material text books and examinations.

Now, I have to say that I have for a long time felt there was a lack of narrative texts in course books. Too many dry articles relating to the GCSE topics, not enough story-telling, not enough human interest. So, in general, I would welcome a better balance of texts. However, the key thing will be how stimulating texts will be. Any target language input is good provided it is meaningful and interesting, or "compelling" as Stephen Krashen would put it. You can have boring literary texts and boring non-literary ones. What we need is material which is meaningful, interesting and suitable for exploitation in the classroom.

I spend a lot of time seeking out good texts for frenchteacher.net and there are two key criteria for texts: are they interesting and do they lend themselves to classroom exploitation? What can you actually do with them? Is the level finely tuned enough to the learners' needs to make them usable? Some pieces look great, but when you then think how you might use them, you run into a brick wall. Other texts can be mundane, but open themselves up to all kinds of linguistic activity. I did a trawl recently for "literary" material and found it very difficult to locate appropriate resources. I ended up falling back on the tired and tested Déjeuner du matin (no typo there, by the way).

The best texts achieve both of the above goals. "Literary" or narrative texts can be particularly good because, at the level of meaning, they often involve personal human experience and can stimulate the imagination, whilst, pedagogically speaking, they can be exploited in various ways. For a detailed list of means of exploiting texts see here. Tasks which fit particularly well with narrative or literary texts include: detailed question-answer techniques using past tenses, creative writing (e.g. writing summaries, changing the narrative point of view, writing alternative endings) and dialogue creation based on the text. Simple poems open up the possibility for enjoyable creative tasks such as designing calligrams (though, in general, poems, by their syntactic nature, are not the best source of input). Songs are probably the best source by far in that they lend themselves to pleasurable close listening (gap fill, retranslation, matching etc). All of these tasks contribute to building up a student's internalised syntactic competence.

But we need to be careful here. We are in baby and bathwater territory. We do not want a return to O-level style texts which neglected practical, transactional language. I was browsing an old Whitmarsh book the other day and what struck me most was how deadly dull it was! How could anyone have taught with that?

We had good reasons for moving away from an over-emphasis on literary narrative. We do need to provide enough material to develop the ability to cope in everyday situations. We do still require plenty of input relating to intercultural understanding and everyday situational tasks. So what teachers should hope for is a sensible evolution in text books, not a revolution. Let us also hope for courses with an impressive array of creative teaching ideas, not the recent, rushed out exam board sponsored efforts which unimaginatively resemble GCSE assessments.

Lastly, I would hope that colleagues do not teach "literature" to younger pupils (up to age 16) just because they have been told they should. Teachers should reject material which is not easy to exploit, think for themselves, apply the criteria I referred to above and trust exam boards to use common sense in any adapted source material they come up with.

Note added January 2015

The ALL have been running the "ALL Literature Project" whose aim is to provide practical recommendations to address the challenge of teaching literary texts. The wiki hosts contributions from teachers in this area.

One thing I have noticed ever since we first saw references to "literature" and even "great literature" in the DfE documents is that the concept has become watered down, rather like the way "authentic texts" has. Thus I read in the ALL Languages Today magazine that literature can include: "songs, verses, homemade texts, tongue-twisters, poems, songs, articles, plays and letters. Just about anything written down then!

I would repeat my suggestion that teachers should not be running round looking for literature. They should use whatever texts promote good language learning: interesting, fun, graded and, above all, explpoitable.

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