Teaching English Literature Is a Great Challenge

Literature was always viewed as „food for thought”, it was meant to partly inform, partly stimulate people. Literature forces us to think about life and about others, not just about ourselves. It contributes to our ability to understand others and to transcend differences. Reading literature may be a very pleasantly instructive and educational activity but understanding literature is always a painstaking one.

The main goal of literary works, communication, has changed with the times, authors, and styles, not to mention that it has also changed within the same author’s works, according to his own ideas or principles. With time, the reader felt the need to interpret the piece of literature, now according to his/her own ideas and principles, and most of the times, even according to the geographical background of the production, if that was different from his/her own. This interpretation always involved serious general knowledge on the culture of the original area the literary work belonged to, varied and even unexpected associations, as well as an inquisitive mind and linguistic abilities. But a reader cannot be competent and appreciative unless s/he knows what to look for in a literary work , and this is where education and the teacher intervene.

The multiple advantages of using literature in the language class have been presented by many authors who have studied the complex task of teaching literature. According to some of them (Brumfit, C., Carter, S.: 1983), a list of arguments in favor of literature teaching may include such points as:

  • to insist on complexity and fine distinctions for understanding the world. To insist that students take care with their approaches, words and responses.
  • to give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about
    socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile.
  • to offer students a break from the other demands on their lives.
  • to inspire curiosity

The reader response tradition is different from language to language. Just as constructivist psychologists (such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner and Gardner) emphasize a knower ‘s acts of  interpretation in deriving meaning from experience, reader response critics emphasize the reader’s  activity in constructing meaning from an encounter with a text.

The reader response critic, Louise Rosenblatt (1937/1978), holds that in any act of meaning creation from literature there are three parties.
One, of course, is the text – a web of marks on the page shaped by an author. The text by itself has no meaning, however, without a reader who makes meaning in a transaction with that text, during which the reader interprets, in terms of his or her back ground of associations, the marks on the pages. Included in the reader ‘s background of associations are understandings of word meanings, mental concepts and schemes for situation s and events of human life, latent emotions and images, and past literary experiences (including awareness of genre, knowledge of works from various periods and nations, as well as other works by an author). As a result of the transaction between the reader and the text a third entity is created, which Rosenblatt calls the „poem” (in the Greek sense of poesis, „the result of an act of creation”). The poem, the text-as-interpreted, i s created by the reader during a real time transaction with the text. The poem is what the reader brings to mind later when he or she reflects upon a text. Reader response theory has five immediate implications for teaching.

One underscores the importance of the reader’s activity in making meaning with texts. If texts come to have meaning as a result of the reader’s activity of interpretation, it follows that teachers should encourage readers to question, associate, and reflect as they read, in order to get the richest experiences of meanings, the richest poems. Because any reader’s complex of associations is unique to that reader, the poem is unique to every reader. That leads to the second implication of reader response theory.

Since readers bring their own experiences to the co-construction of the poem , different poems, different interpretations of the same text, are the result of every individual act of reading. But differences also occur in individuals ‘ interpretation of any complex phenomena – such as determining what responsible citizenship or justice, or fairness means; or deciding where to draw the boundaries between those who are „like me” and „other.” Individual variations of interpretation are the source of much social conflict; and here is where the study of literature can contribute to social well -being.

At its best, a classroom of readers can afford the opportunity for students to explore the problems of variety in responses, understand different people ‘s interpretations of the same text (or event), and learn to solve problems together in spite of differences of point of view (Bleich 1975: 87). It follows from the reader response view that some of the literature students read and discuss should be closely relevant to the problems presented by their own lives.

Literature will contribute to their ability to understand others and to transcend differences if students read about people with problems like their own: people making life choices in circumstances of uncertainty, people searching for ideals in an increasingly materialistic world, people seeking to relate to others across cultural boundaries. Finally, reader response theory challenges traditional assumptions of authority in interpretation.  If the reader brings the text to life with her or his own associations, it follows that the teacher, the jury of literary critics, and even the author must share with the reader the right to say what a text means. Once teachers realize this point, their approach to evaluation of learning must change, since it is no longer plausible to measure the extent to which students apprehended some predetermined meaning from a text. Also, problems of relativism emerge; reasonable means must be found to decide what constitutes a justifiable response to a text, and which responses are solipsistic.

There is a fifth   implication   of reader   response   criticism that deserves a separate discussion. I have so far highlighted the effects of the reader’s past associations in the transaction with a text during which meaning is made. But these effects go both ways. That is, what the reader takes from the text also adds to or shapes that reader’s store of associations. This, of course, is just what a constructivist learning theory would predict: We use our prior associations or cognitive schemes to interpret the world, and in the process, those schemes become more elaborate, so that our future acts of interpretation are more nuanced, capable of perceiving finer shades of meaning in our experiences.

There is a darker side of literature, however, that must be considered as well.  Literature has the power to pass on cultural attitudes in a largely unconscious way. As William Doty has it, any work of literature implicitly takes some stance toward the social order: that is, toward the kinds of behavior that is expected of members of different groups; or the rights and privileges that accrue or are denied to this or that category of person. A work of literature may explicitly affirm the social order or may overtly challenge it. More commonly, however, the work may take the social order for granted, may treat the pattern of social relationships as „understood.”

The anthropologist Roy Rapaport uses the concepts of mythos and logos to describe the way literature relates to the society. He argues that the stories we hear and read are loosely joined into a more or less coherent mythos, which, in its entirety, expresses or represents that society’s logos, (its conception of the world’s moral and natural order) and how it came to be (Rapaport 1986:319).

The folk tales, religious stories, canonical works of literature historical legends, and even popular fiction we share as a people form our mythos, which conveys (without having to explain) the logos of our society, our beliefs about what is good and evil, about how our society came to be and what qualities and conditions are necessary to keep it alive, about different categories of people should relate to each other in order to maintain social harmony. The mythos is not a single story, but a sort of fabric made up of several stories.

When we pick up a book, we usually do so with the anticipation of pleasure. We hope that by entering the time and place of the novel and sharing the thoughts and actions of the characters, we will find enjoyment. Unfortunately, this is often not the case; we are disappointed. But we should ask, has the author failed us, or have we failed the author? We establish a dialogue with the author, the book, and with ourselves when we read. Consciously and unconsciously, we ask questions: „Why did the author write this book?” „Why did the author choose that time, place, or character?” „How did the author achieve that effect?” „Why did the character act that way?” „Would I act in the same way?” The answers we receive depend upon how much information about literature in general and about that book specifically we ourselves bring to our reading.

Young children have limited life and literary experiences. Being young, children frequently do not know how to go about exploring a book, nor sometimes, even know the questions to ask of a book. The books they read help them answer questions, the author often coming right out and telling young readers the things they are learning or are expected to learn. The perennial classic, The Little Engine That Could, tells its readers that, among other things, it is good to help others and brings happiness: „Hurray, hurray,” cried the funny little clown and all the dolls and toys. „The good little boys and girls in … iit the city will be happy because you helped us, kind, Little Blue Engine.” In picture books, messages are often blatant and simple, the dialogue between the author and reader one-sided.

Young children are concerned with the end result of a book – the enjoyment gained, the lesson learned – rather than with how that result was obtained. As we grow older and read further, however, we question more.  We come to expect that the world within the book will closely mirror the concerns of our world, and that the author will show these through the events, descriptions, and conversations within the story, rather than telling of them. We are now expected to do the interpreting, carry on our share of the dialogue with the book and author, and glean not only the author’s message, but comprehend how that message and the overall effect of the book were achieved. Sometimes, however, we need help to do these things.

A novel is made up of many parts interacting to create a coherent whole. In reading a novel, the more obvious features can be easily spotted theme, characters, plot – but we may overlook the subtler elements that greatly influence how the novel is perceived by the reader: viewpoint, mood and tone, symbolism, or the use of humor. By focusing on both the obvious and more subtle literary elements within a novel, some literary books aid readers in both analyzing for message and in determining how and why that message is communicated. In the discussion on Harper Lee’s to Novels for Students, Kill a Mockingbird (Vol. 2), for example, the mockingbird as a symbol of innocence is dealt with, among other things, as is the importance of Lee’s use of humor which „enlivens a serious plot, adds depth to the characterization, and creates a sense of familiarity and universality.”

The reader comes to understand the internal elements of each novel discussed-as well as the external influences that help shape it. „The desire to write greatly,” Harold Bloom of Yale University says, „is the desire to be elsewhere, in a time and place of one’s own, in an originality that must compound with inheritance, with an anxiety of influence.”

A writer seeks to create a unique world within a story, but although it is unique, it is not disconnected from our own world. It speaks to us because of what the writer brings to the writing from our world: how he or she was rai sed and educated; his or her likes and dislikes; the events occurring in the real world at the time of the writing, and while the author was growing up.

The novels for students provide a plot summary and descriptive list of characters to remind readers of what they have read-also explores the external influences that shaped each book. Each entry includes a discussion of the author’s background, and the historical context in which the novel was written. It i s vital to know, for instance, that when Ray Brad bury was writing Fahrenheit 451 (Vol. I), the threat of Nazi domination had recently ended in Europe, and the McCarthy hearings were taking place in Washington, D.C. This information goes far in answering the question, „Why did he write a story of oppressive government control and book burning?” Similarly, it is important to know that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, was born and raised in Monroeville, Alabama, and that her father was a lawyer. Readers can now see why she chose the south as a setting for her novel – it i s the place with which she was most familiar- and start to comprehend her characters and their actions.

The teaching of English as a foreign language is now one of the most important subjects in most European primary schools. The implementation of English has brought along the need to establish clear objectives that are different to the ones traditionally assigned to secondary schools. While in secondary schools we still find, in many cases, a teaching based in the formal aspects of the language, i.e. grammar; primary school teachers have had to adopt a different approach as the age of the children make the teaching of formal aspects not advisable. A s a result of this point of view, the different Educational Departments have decided to establish, as the main purpose of the EFL teaching, the development of the four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. However, the implementation of this approach has not been trouble-free as many teachers insist on asking their children to understand every single word they listen to or read or expect their pupil s to write or speak without making the mistakes normally found in the process of acquiring any language.


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prof. Gina-Liliana Giurgea

Școala Gimnazială Nr. 5 Elena Doamna, Tecuci (Galaţi) , România
Profil iTeach: iteach.ro/profesor/gina.giurgea

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