Teachers too often complain that their students do not read and this is because students are very rarely accustomed to reading for pleasure. They do not know how to read properly, why they should read at all, what reading can give them. All these things are called into question in a computer-dominated world. To read properly, fully, with a deep and satisfying understanding of what a writer is saying, is not an easily acquired ability, since it involves a whole series of skills and capacities which go very far beyond the traditional pupil’s concept of reading. For a great many students to read is to study. So, the reading that they do is limited in scope and direction: it takes them as far as an examination, and very often no further.
One solution to the problem may be given by the teacher’s having more faith in the extract, the representative passage which, if carefully chosen, can stimulate students’ interest more than any long stretch of extensive reading. Therefore, a sensible text selection, a theme-based approach, and a development of interactional potentialities of texts can offer a valid and practical solution to the problem. Much of the literature of the past can very usefully be recovered as reading material for the present generation: the difficulty does not lie in the literature, but in the methods and techniques used to present it to the students.
Reading, beyond the necessary technical abilities required of the reader, has to involve some stimulus of cognitive and responsive processes. It is here that level becomes important. For the level of the text that can be used depends very largely on what the students are asked to do with the text, rather than on any inherent grading problems. A text which would clearly be of Proficiency level if used as reading comprehension can be used at much lower levels if the apparatus and the demands made on the student are apposite to that lower level. Grading the tasks rather than the texts is vital. Closed texts are fine for developing technical skills; open texts are necessary for the development of reading with interactive understanding and response, whatever the language level of the students is.
The use of stories
Stories are fundamental in language teaching as they are a fundamental part of human experience. Original stories can be retold in many more accessible ways and then have the students compare the versions, which would help them into a better understanding of how language can be richer/ poorer, more complex/ simpler, more or less modern, and so on. The use of simplified materials can offer the stimulus of a story, and can vitally encourage the development of reading skills and competence. The greatest value of the use of stories in language teaching is their encouragement of students towards extensive reading, towards reading for pleasure. “What will happen next?” is the basic motivation which keeps the reader interested-and keeps the reader reading.
As we have all seen, careful text selection is fundamental to the successful use of any kind of literary texts. How these texts are then linked together is just as important. Clearly, learning objectives will often dictate how texts are grouped. For example, collections of short stories are one simple way of grouping texts by genre, and such collections are widely used; many of them are united by theme (sea stories, childhood stories, war stories, love stories, and so on). Furthermore, the works of a period or of a genre are grouped together. Texts can be then grouped under headings such as: Argument, Narration, Humour, Reflection, Philosophy, etc. Linguistic groupings, focusing on specific language features, are also possible: speech acts, sound and sense, dialect, register, even punctuation, can be foregrounded in such groupings. Here the connections to be exploited between the texts will be linguistic and stylistic rather than content-based. No matter which criterion links the texts, it is vital that grouping decisions be clearly communicated to the students. They must know why a particular text is being studied, and what relationship it has with other texts which have been or are to be studied. But in terms of language use, it would be enormously difficult to group texts which will usefully foreground, for example, noun phrases, verb phrases, the clause, cohesion, while still retaining reading attractiveness, interest, value, and comparative discussion and evaluation potential.
The theme based-approach: some pros and cons
This approach permits the grouping together of the most diverse texts, of any period or genre, because of some thematic link between them. However, it can be argued that the approach is reductive as choosing a passage from a novel, play or poem is already diminishing the work as a whole. Choosing a passage for a theme may very well misrepresent the work from which it was taken, in that the theme under discussion may not have been any major concern of the author*s in writing the text. Isolated texts do not necessarily represent their period or the traditions in which they were created. And the drawing out of similar themes from very different texts might run the risk of making the texts seem to resemble each other too much, or, conversely, make a text seem less successful in examining the theme, and therefore less well-written than might otherwise be thought. Also, the very artificiality of putting diverse texts together can be challenged. All of these queries must be recognized and accepted as possible drawbacks inherent in the theme-based approach. But almost all of them can be countered; and the approach can be more than justified in practical and pragmatic terms as the most suitable way of using literary material in a language classroom, as well as furnishing an introduction to the study of English literature for non-native speakers.
Very often, comparison or juxtaposition with another text brings out more from a text than at first seemed possible. Theme grouping indicates a possible way in which meaning of the text is achieved and communicated. It gives the reader the opportunity to explore a selection of texts which are grouped together for a reason, but does not prejudice the autonomy of the individual texts. It gives a reason for reading, stimulating the students to seek out the full text, of which they have read a passage, or other works by a writer they have encountered in the context of theme-based reading. The move towards extended reading should, in many teaching situations, be part of the objectives of a theme-based course.
The theme-based approach implies comparison; implies, therefore, evaluation. This is to say that the students, consciously or subconsciously, are rating texts as better/ more interesting/ less attractive than others. They are building up a subjective ability to distinguish between texts and the way they work on the reader. This process moves from a subconscious to an explicit comparative evaluation of what has been read. If reading is a process of decoding a written message, there have to be several levels of decoding/ receiving/ understanding involved. It is very rare with imaginative reading materials that any reader, even reading in his or her mother tongue, achieves complete understanding of the written text, especially when reading for pleasure rather than for study purpose.