Using Literary Quotes during ESL Classes

Literary quotations, if properly selected and introduced, can become valuable jump-off points for conversation in the English classroom. However, when using literary quotations, it is essentially important for the students to understand the circumstances in which the words were ”spoken” as we all know that out-of-context statements can be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Moreover, it is better for a teacher to know when to stop teaching as sometimes, the beauty of an affirmation can be spoiled with too much literary analysis and too many explanations.

Although some teachers prefer larger contexts to simple ”bits of language”, quotations are good examples of language concision and meaningfulness. As well as these, they can have a deep impact on students’ thinking and an influencial role on their behaviour. There are many people who adopt  someone else’s point of view for a long time, allowing a certain statement to follow them like a guide, lighting their way in life.

Quotations can be used in any of the three main stages of a reading lesson, but the warm-up and follow-up stages are better choices. A good quotation can introduce the new topic and involve the students both intellectually and emotionally into the atmosphere of the lesson. They may represent what Adriana Vizental refers to as ”ways to stir the students’ imagination and make them eager to express opinions and discover hidden meanings”.

Not being time-consuming, teachers can appeal to (literary) quotations to fill in some blank spaces in their lessons, taking into account that they can use quotations in relation with  the following teaching aims :

  • to facilitate cultural awareness;
  • to prepare students for a difficult topic or an increasingly demanding task;
  • to provide students with authentic samples of (literary) language, unknown vocabulary (e.g. idioms) or examples of collocation and connotation;
  • to guide and refine students’ aesthetic and emotional development;
  • to promote creativity, enjoyment, co-operation and moral growth;
  • to practise expressing opinions and preferences;
  • to encourage predicting and develop translating skills etc.

Here are some quotations I have used with surprising results during my English classes:

Thomas Hardy

“Our impulses are too strong for our judgement sometimes” (p.5)
“Every village has its ideosincracy, its constitution, often its own code of morality.”(p. 75)
“But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and therefore does not mend the matter.” (p.91)
“Fair women are usually asleep at midsummer dawns.” (p.167)

Charlotte Bronte

“If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked,while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”(p.71)
“It is vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”(p.111)
„Women are supposed to be very calm generally; but women feel just as men feel.”(p.111)
„Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’” (p. 173)
“The eagerness of a listener quickens the tongue of a narrator.” (198)
“A wanderer’s repose or a sinner’s reformation should never depend on a fellow-creature. Men and women die; philosophers falter in their wisdom, and Christians in goodness: if any one you know has suffered and erred, let him look higher than his equals for strength to amend, and solace to heal.”(P.217-218)

Nathaniel Hawthorne

“ It is remarkable that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society.The thought suffices them, without investing itself in the flesh and blood of action.”(p.140)
“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. “ Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers-stern and wild ones-and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.” (p.170)
“It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual life upon another; each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his object.” (p.221)

Henry James

“When it comes to recommending, it is a serious affair.” (p.88)
“I call people rich when they’re able to gratify their imagination.”(p.170)
“Being married is in itself an ocupation. It isn’t always active; it’s often passive; but that takes even more attention.”(p.468)
“The children of others may be a great interest.”(p. 484)
” A woman has to change a great deal to marry.” (p.521)
“There is no beauty without health.”(p.525)

To conclude with, teaching with quotes can challenge thinking and deepen understanding while engaging students into activities which promote interpretation and reflection. But using literary quotations is not about imposing personal opinions or “sharing” patronizing attitudes, no matter how experienced and qualified the teacher is. It is about having a purpose for reading, speaking and/or writing and encouraging communication, about inspiring and motivating each student to add a new brick to their own building of knowledge and spiritual growth.

Bibliography of Source Texts

BRONTË, CHARLOTTE, “Jane Eyre”, Penguin Popular Classics,1994
HARDY, THOMAS,  “Tess of the D’urbervilles”, Penguin Popular Classics,1994
HAWTHORNE, NATHANIEL, “The Scarlet Letter”, Penguin Popular Classics,1994
JAMES, HENRY , “ The Portrait of a Lady” , Penguin Popular Classics,1997

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