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The use of literature as a medium for language learning purposes in the EFL classroom

Analysing exemplary text book material

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2015 26 Pages

English - Pedagogy, Didactics, Literature Studies

Excerpt

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Context
2.1 The Transition from Traditional Approaches to Communicative Language Teaching
2.2 Communicative Competence (CC) and Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC)
2.3 Interactionism and Constructivism: Two learning theories that shape CLT
2.4 What are the means or methods that best facilitate learning according to CLT?
2.5 The role of literature in the English as a foreign language classroom

3. Application: Analysis of exemplary textbook material
3.1 Qualitative evaluation of the literary example in question
3.2 Methodological analysis of the corresponding classroom activities in relation to the literary text

4. Critical Discussion and Conclusion

5. References

The use of literature as a medium for language learning purposes in the EFL classroom: Analysing exemplary text book material

1. Introduction

The development of new digital technologies like the computer and the internet have changed the use of media for teaching in all kinds of schools considerably in the last 15 to 20 years. But despite that, literature has not lost its importance. It is still one of the most – if not the most – important medium for language learning purposes in the English as a foreign language (EFL) classroom today. Furthermore, literary material is not limited to the classical texts like the literature by Shakespeare anymore. Nowadays, students also have to deal with different types of recent literature. This be­comes obvious when having a look into contemporary teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) school books, in which a relevant amount of the presented material is based on literary texts not belonging to the canon[1] (British Council).

The question, however, is how literature is used for language learning purposes and why it is so commonly used in TEFL contexts. Therefore this paper aims at examining the use of literature for language learning purposes in the EFL classroom on the basis of one specific textbook material[2] that makes use of a literary text. The material is taken from the school book “Pathway. Lese- und Arbeits­buch Englisch zur Einführung in die gymnasiale Oberstufe”, which was published by Schöningh in the year 2014 and is designed for grade 10 at a grammar school (Gymnasium). The material is embedded in the topic “Let's come together?! - Migrants, Minorities and Majorities”. The literary text itself is an extract from the popular fiction young adult novel “The Namesake” by Jumpa Lahiri and together with the responding tasks and classroom activities it shall serve as the basis for the analysis and qual­itative evaluation of how literature or more specifically this chosen material can support the students' language learning effectively.

In order to evaluate the material, it is, however, necessary to start with a brief description of current modern paradigms and principles of foreign language teaching, i.e. the approaches to effect­ive teaching English as a foreign language. Bearing in mind this theoretical context unfolded in chapter 2 section 3 aims to apply this theoretical and methodological background in order to analyse and evaluate the material in question. Questions that chapter 3 attempts to answer are for instance: What are the aims of TEFL? How is effective language learning perceived? How can the material based on a piece of literature be used in class? Does the material and its recommended classroom activities meet the different aims of TEFL? In what way does the material in combination with the tasks foster effective language learning? The fourth section will contain a critical discussion and comment on the topic. It is supposed to connect the research question, the theoretical context as well as the analysis.

2. Theoretical Context

This chapter will provide a brief overview of a small selection of the most influential concepts and theories of second language learning. This theoretical background is needed to evaluate the textbook material in chapter 3 with regard to current paradigms and principles of foreign language teaching. Questions that are to be answered briefly are the following: How does learning in general and lan­guage learning in particular take place? How is a foreign language (L2) learned effectively and what are the central aims and principles of its teaching? What are the means of teaching and how do they work to meet the aims? What is the role of literature in the English as a foreign language classroom? How is literature used and what benefits are related to the use of literature in TEFL?

2.1 The Transition from Traditional Approaches to Communicative Language Teaching

Today, the behaviouristic views about learning stressing that all learning primarily happens through imitation and a simplistic input-output system are commonly rejected. Learning in general or language learning in particular is not considered a mere habit-formation process as a result of a stimulus-response pattern reinforcing or rewarding expected behaviour anymore (Rivers 1968: 73; Lightbown/Spada 2006: 10f; Brown 2000: 22f, 80-82). Methods of foreign language teaching like the Audio-Lingual-Method, which became popular in the middle of the previous century, put this behaviouristic theory into practice by making use of, for instance, computers in language labs for repetitive language drills focusing on grammar structures and vocabulary (Harmer 2001: 79f; Richards/Rodgers 2014: 58-80). The focus was mainly on “building up a large repertoire of sentences and grammatical patterns” (Richards 2006: 6) with the expected result of the performance of accurate utterances without any emphasis on communication in the real physical and social world (Bleyhl 2005: 49). A student then was supposed to learn “through a trial-and-error process [by which] he gradually learns to make finer and finer discriminations until his utterances approximate more and more closely the speech of the [surrounding] community” (Rivers 1968: 73).

However, these kinds of methods are – at least in this form – a relic of the past. Nowadays, scholars view language learning as a much more complex process (Bleyhl 2005: 61).[3] Bleyhl even ar­gues that such an Input-Output-approach to learning based on imitation and reinforcement is harm­ful (ibid: 52). In contrast to the 1960ies and 1970ies when foreign language teaching was predomin­antly influenced by the behaviouristic learning theory the “criterion of success” (Trim 1992: 8) in modern foreign language teaching is "communicative effectiveness [...], not the mere performance of linguistic exercises without error" (ibid.) or "formal correctness" (ibid: 10). Thus contemporary foreign language teaching is a communicative one. It puts the focus on content and primarily teaches its stu­dents to use the foreign language as a means to communication (Bleyhl 2005: 51). Accordingly, effi­cient foreign language learning cannot only be based on the knowledge of the linguistic structures and words of a language. It is rather the result of the use of the target language in the context of content-oriented meaningful social interaction (ibid: 60) in “socially and culturally appropriate ways” (Byram et al. 2002: 7).

These characteristics of foreign language teaching in general or TEFL in particular basically de­scribe the essence of the very influential concept called communicative language teaching (CLT). In short, CLT is a “set of principles” (Richards 2006: 2) employing a “meaning-based, learner-centred ap­proach to L2 teaching where fluency is given priority over accuracy and the emphasis is on the com­prehension and production of messages, not the teaching or correction of language form” (Spada 2007: 272). However, some authors prefer a slightly stronger definition and argue that CLT includes "attention to both fluency and accuracy" (ibid.). According to Richards (2006: 13) the central prin­ciples of CLT are:

- “Make real communication the focus of language learning.
- Provide opportunities for learners to experiment and try out what they know.
- Be tolerant of learners' errors as they indicate that the learner is building up his or her com­municative competence.
- Provide opportunities for learners to develop both accuracy and fluency.
- Link the different skills such as speaking, reading, and listening together, since they usually occur so in the real world.
- Let students induce or discover grammar rules.“

Furthermore, according to Gebhard (2006: 68) language teaching that aims to be communic­ative needs to fulfil four requirements: First, there needs to be a shift from teacher-centred teaching to learner-centred teaching which requires a "reduction in the centrality of the teacher" (ibid.). The teacher's role changes to a "facilitator and monitor" (Richards 2006: 5) demanding a higher degree of autonomy from the students at the same time (ibid: 5, 25f).

Second, it is essential to appreciate the "uniqueness of individuals" (Gebhard 2006: 68). The view that a class is a very homogenous group of learners and that learning can be the same for all those students – if only all external conditions are controlled so that they are the same for each student – is rather an unrealistic wish common until today among teachers (Haß 2013: 1). Not only does this view contradict the principles of modern TEFL, it also very much relates to the behaviouristic theory (Demirezen 1988: 138), which – as I mentioned above – has proven not to be a helpful approach to effective language learning. Every student is different for various reasons (e.g. different social background, prior knowledge, motivation, attitude towards learning and unique experiences) and thus also learns differently. Therefore, teachers need to see each student as an individual (Gebhard 2006: 68) and accept that there is "no one-size-fits-all prescription to guarantee everyone’s success at the same rate" (Mitsutomi: 3).

The third factor for making a TEFL-classroom a communicative one is to provide "chances for students to express themselves in meaningful ways" (Gebhard 2006: 68). Negotiating meaning is, in fact, one key element to communicative language teaching. Finally, students need the freedom to have "choices, both in relation to what [they] say and how they say it" (ibid). This again relates to the call for “true negotiation of meaning” (ibid.) in the classroom.

2.2 Communicative Competence (CC) and Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC)

Taking into account all of these principles and factors described above reveals the primary goal of CLT in a TEFL context, which is “students’ development of communicative competence in English. [T]his in­cludes development of students' ability to comprehend and produce written and spoken English in communicatively proficient and accurate ways“ (ibid: 63; Richards 2006: 2). Other researchers of CLT define communicative competence by splitting it up into four major categories, which are “grammat­ical competence (i.e., mastery of the phonological, morphological, syntactic and lexico-semantic structure of a language), sociolinguistic competence (i.e., knowledge of the rules of language use), discourse competence (i.e. cohesiveness in form and coherence in meaning in both spoken and writ­ten domains), and finally strategic competence (verbal and non-verbal communication strategies em­ployed in order to compensate for gaps in knowledge or insufficient fluency)” (Kurtes 2012: 4).

Moreover, since publications by Byram in the late 1990ies and by the publication of the Com­mon European Framework of Reference (CEFR), which has become the standard reference for foreign language teaching, an “intercultural dimension” (Byram et al. 2002: 7) has been added to the EFL classroom. Intercultural communicative competence (ICC), which can be regarded as an extension to the concept of communicative competence, has become a central aim of foreign language teaching (Byram 1997: 3). This does not mean that the development of linguistic and communicative compet­ences have become less important. Byram, however, stresses that communication whether it is orally or in written form is “more than the exchange of information and the sending of messages” (ibid.). Since every communication is embedded in a social and cultural context, teachers of EFL should thus always aim at developing the students' intercultural competence. This competence can be defined as the learners' “ability to ensure a shared understanding by people of different social identities [and cultures], and their ability to interact with people as complex human beings with multiple identities and their own individuality” (Byram et al. 2002: 7). This also includes “intercultural awareness” (Council of Europe 2001: 103f), i.e. the learners' knowledge, understanding and critical awareness of their own identities and values as well as of those of the “target community” (ibid.; Byram et al. 2002: 7, 13). Intercultural competence emphasises the importance of interaction with a different culture or rather people of a different language and culture as well as “developing a human relationship” (ibid.) with such people by learning to accept them as “individuals with other distinctive perspectives, values and behaviours” (ibid: 10).

In his model of ICC Byram (1997: 34) points out three complementary components. These are knowledge, skills and attitudes. Yet simply knowing or learning some facts and figures about a coun­try and its culture in the sense of what is called Landeskunde (cf. Ahrens 2012: 183; Erdmenger 1996) does not suffice. By the term knowledge Byram rather refers to the knowledge “of social groups and their products and practices in one’s own and in one’s interlocutor’s country, and [knowledge] of the general processes of societal and individual interaction” (Byram et al. 2002: 12). The term attitude “include[s] curiosity and openness as well as readiness to see other cultures and the speaker’s own without being judgemental [and f]inally, the skills include those of interpreting and relating, discov­ery and interaction” (Lázár 2007: 9; cf. Byram 1997: 34).

2.3 Interactionism and Constructivism: Two learning theories that shape CLT

The previous chapter clearly illustrates the strong emphasis of modern foreign language teaching on so­cial interaction, on the learners' uniqueness as well as the focus on the learners' own activeness in using the target language, actively negotiating meaning in communication with others along with the overall shift to a student-centred teaching. This conveys the strong influence on contemporary TEFL, i.e. on CLT, of the two general learning theories briefly described in this chapter.

While the behaviourists ignored the role of social interaction for language learning (De­mirezen 1988: 139), Vygotsky's theory of social interactionism claims that learners' development and [all] learning take place in a social context, i.e. in a world full of other people, who interact with the [learner]” (Cameron 2001: 5f). Thus language learning is a result of interacting in a social environ­ment of other people that serve as a “mediator” helping the learner to make the world “accessible” (ibid.). In a classroom, these mediators can be the peers but also the “skilful teachers” (ibid.) who provide the students with not too easy and not too difficult but still challenging input – and if deman­ded temporary guidance[4] – so that they are able to reach the next step in their development (cf. Vy­gotsky's thoughts about the Zone of Proximal Development in: Vygotsky 1978: 79-91; Reyes/Vallone 2008: 34f). Another representative of this theory, Stephen Krashen, calls this kind of input that is only “slightly above the learner’s current level of mastery“ (Mitsutomi: 2) “comprehensible input” (Kra-shen 1982). This comprehensible input represents a key element of language learning for the student.

Another learning theory that focuses more on the learners' individuality and their activeness and less on social interaction is Constructivism. The social or material environment only indirectly helps the learner developing by providing useful external conditions and opportunities for the learner to actively take action and solve the problem he or she is confronted with (Cameron 2001: 3f). Hence, according to this theory, the “knowledge that results from such action […] is actively constructed by the child” (ibid.). Thus, learning is an active process of cognitive constructing meaning and knowledge by each individual (Bleyhl 2007: 174). Applied to teaching this means that the only thing the teacher can do to initiate learning is to create helpful conditions and assure that the stu­dents actively participate and engage in working on the content in question (Bach/Timm 2009: 1). Ul­timately, it remains up to the students' cognitive activity whether they 'digest' the information they are provided with by the teacher or not, I.e. whether they learn something or not. Finally, in order to cope with the heterogeneity of the class and countless individual presuppositions for a successful learning it is recommended to employ learner-centred methods in the EFL classroom (Rumlich: 7).

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[1] For definitions of the term canon see: Hall 2005: 43; Thaler 2008: 19.

[2] The author is aware of the fact that the thoughts and results elaborated on in this paper may lack a representative character. However, the narrow scope of this paper does not allow to focus on more than one piece of material.

[3] Bleyhl (2007: 174) about the complexity of foreign language learning: "Sprache ist die komplexeste Erfindung des Menschengeschlechts. Eine Sprache zu lernen, kann allein deswegen kein trivialer Prozess sein. Ein Sprachlernprozess involviert daher die gesamte Persönlichkeit des Lerners. Es ist deswegen auch kein Wunder, dass dabei praktisch alle verschiedenen Kompetenzen und Intelligenzen des Menschen mit im Spiel sind."

[4] This kind of temporary support by the teacher to the student is also commonly referred to as "scaffolding" (cf. Reyes/Vallone 2008: 34f).

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Title: The use of literature as a medium for language learning purposes in the EFL classroom