Dr Chris Lima offers ten top tips on why and how to use literature in ELT.


Using literature in English language teaching is an idea that may be alien to some teachers, especially to those who came into the profession at the time when Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was the main teaching approach in ELT in the 1970s and early 1980s. Teaching and learning were then dominated by a focus on communicative competence and the teaching of language for specific, practical and functional purposes. As a result, literature came to be seen as irrelevant to the needs of EFL learners. In the 1980s and 1990s, literature slowly started to return to ELT and, nowadays, students benefit from a range of approaches to the use of literature in English language learning, varying greatly from country to country and from programme to programme. Teachers have been using literary texts for various reasons, such as intercultural awareness, language and skills development, contextualization and to boost learners’ motivation and engagement with the language. In EAP, more specifically, literature might actually be students’ main degree subject but it can also be used by teachers working with students attending courses in a wide range of disciplines to promote the development of language awareness, critical thinking and interdisciplinary knowledge.

In fact, literature and English language teaching have always been intertwined, from Victorian times with the growth of the British Empire, through the period after WWII, to the establishment of English as a lingua franca in the twenty-first century. However, in spite of such close interdependence, there may still be some reluctance from teachers and students alike to the idea of incorporating literature into language teaching. One contributing factor may be a lack of experience in how to go about doing it. What follows are my ten top tips on why and how to use literature in ELT.

1. It is all about the text

Whatever novel, play or poem you choose, the text should always be the main focus of your lesson. Too often, the focus moves to the authors and their lives or the history behind the creation of the text. Although these can also be interesting and you may wish to explore them, the text should always take precedence. It is the story, the characters and the language the writer uses to create them that really matter the most.

2. It is all about selection

Even if you are working within a strict syllabus, there is usually some degree of freedom in relation to the text you will use with your students. Think long and hard about what text is most suitable, both culturally and linguistically, for your students. It is also important that you like and feel familiar with the text but, ultimately, the essential thing is to choose a text that they will enjoy. Also, you don’t need to work only with novels: graphic novels, short stories, plays and poems are also literature. You do not always need to work with original texts either; maybe graded readers, where literature is adapted to less demanding language levels, would be the best options for your learners.

3. It is all about response

Students need to be able to connect with the characters and situations in the text. They need to be able to make links between the text and their lives. Before working with language, give students the opportunity to respond to the text both cognitively and affectively. Consider the main themes in the text you are using (is it love, friendship, death, war, faith?) and use prompt questions or pictures to get students thinking about these themes in their own lives and present-day societies.

4. It is all about thinking

Neuroscience has shown us that reading creates new neural pathways in the brain and that literature, especially, provokes reactions that stimulate the thinking brain. Make your students think about the content of the text and also about how language is used to express ideas and create images. Ask students to think about particular words and images in the text and why they think they have been chosen by the writer; for example, ask them to analyse metaphors and similes, find contrasting words (such as black/white or sun/rain) and identify recurrent words and possible reasons for their use.

5. It is all about motivation

Pre-reading activities are very important. Use pictures, film posters, book covers and webquests to make your students curious about what they are going to read and to find out more about the story in the text.

6. It is all about options

Even if students have a limited choice of texts, they still should have some degree of agency over them. Allow them some input in the choosing of homework tasks and assessments you adopt. You can ask students to create presentations, design posters, and infographics about the text. If you are asking them to write an essay, give them a choice of questions.

7. It is all about connections

Relate the text to other media. The text you choose may have been adapted to film or into a cartoon or graphic novel; characters may have been the inspiration for painters; poems may have been put to music. Connect the text to other art forms. Do not limit your options to the written word.

8. It is all about sharing

Reading literature need not be a solitary activity. Create opportunities for your students to share information, ideas and perceptions about the texts they read. Also, create opportunities for them to share their writing and their homework assignments. This can be done using a group blog or discussion forum where students can post their writing. You can also help your learners produce a class publication at the end of term with their coursework. Recording short videos where students perform short scenes from the play they are studying and them sharing these videos online is also a possibility.

9. It is all about creativity

Reading creative texts makes us more creative as we start thinking in different ways. Create opportunities for your students to develop their own creative writing: they can write poems, letters, film scripts, prequels, sequels and spin-offs using the text they read as a source of inspiration.

10. It is all about learning

Being able to read a novel, play or poem in English can be really empowering for language learners. It may give them a greater sense of language control. It may also help them realize how much they have gained in terms of language and knowledge of the world.

You could use the tips I’ve shared above in the teaching of other materials that are not literary by nature. However, literature, more often than other texts, allows readers to explore a wide variety of ideas and concepts as well as respond both critically and personally. Storytelling is an intrinsic part of every society and culture as it is a way for us to make sense of life. Through storytelling, we use language to express our ideas, feelings and emotions. At a time when English language teachers are making use of an ever-expanding array of resources, from mobile games to social media, make sure your students don’t miss out on literature’s immense potential for promoting language learning.