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Using authentic literary text with advanced learners
Katherine Byrne
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Approaches & Methods

Three distinct approaches can be taken when using literature in the classroom; literature as content, literature for language analysis and literature for personal enrichment. The first is the most traditional treatment, looking at the history and characteristics of literary movements. In this approach, the social, historical and political background to text is considered and material is selected for the way in which it exemplifies certain movements or traditions. This approach has a broad educational focus but its use in the general language classroom may be limited. The linguistic difficulty of texts selected on this basis may prove to be in excess of the proficiency of even advanced learners and it offers restricted scope for learners' own interpretation of text.

My feeling is that a combination of the other two approaches works best in the general classroom. The language-based approach uses detailed analysis of text to guide students towards meaningful, and personal interpretation. Texts can be selected for the stylistic features they highlight and the learners can use their systemic knowledge to form aesthetic judgements. A beneficial by-product of this is that it raises the learners' general awareness of the language. A caution to be noted here though is that over-analysis can circumscribe the amount of personal response that learners can make. Gower (1986:130) states that analysis should be, "a gesture towards greater understanding, towards better reading."

The inherent danger in the language-based approach can be averted by awareness on the part of the teacher of the importance of using texts in the ways that native-speakers do, which is where the personal enrichment approach comes in. Materials should not simply be chosen for their stylistic features but also for the fact that they reflect the learners' interests, and allow them to draw on their personal experiences in their interpretation. The only drawback of such an approach is that not all learners may want to offer personal reactions and feelings in the classroom. By combining both of the approaches, the teacher can cater for different learner styles and personality types, with the advantages of each approach going some way to compensate for the disadvantages of the other.

The first step for the teacher is to select appropriate texts, that is, those that feature interesting language and are relevant to the learners' needs and interests. The material must be such that the learners will want to engage with it and indeed, will be able to. Having selected the text, the teacher should then allow it determine the tasks and activities to be used in the lesson. Grellet (1981) points out that, in real life, the purpose of reading varies, so in designing tasks for use in the reading class, the teacher should be aware of the purposes for which a native-speaker would read such a text.

Another important point, made by Grellet and many others, is that meaning is not inherent in text. Each reader will contribute their own meaning, depending on their expectations and previous experience. It is this, which makes the testing of comprehension in reading such a difficult task. It is too easy for the teacher to impose his or her own interpretation as the single, correct one. We should now look at some methods of overcoming this area of difficulty.

In "real" reading, the reader projects expectations and makes predictions, which are then measured, confirmed and modified by reading on. We do not normally expect to have to answer a series of questions after reading something. In the classroom though, too often reading is followed by teacher-led questions with pre-determined answers. Davies (1982:330) makes the following comment on this type of procedure in the reading class;

"Pupil response to the text is closely circumscribed: it involves the more-or-less accurate answering of a set of questions."

The problem remains that we do need some measure of learners' comprehension of the text, if only for the teacher to assess the validity of the materials chosen. Widdowson has addressed the question of comprehension checking and comes down firmly in favour of True or False questions as being the most accurate gauge of understanding. As these are susceptible to lucky guesswork though, he suggests supplementing them with additional questions which test the "why" of the answers.

Another solution is that proposed by Whitaker (1983:332/3) in which the learners themselves set questions for their peers and he lists three advantages for this;

1) learners have asked themselves questions at a level and of a kind which have proved significant to them;
2) they will observe how their own questions are received by their peers, and compare the answers offered;
3) the teacher will be able to observe, adjudicate, advise, inform.

On the surface, this seems an ideal solution but there are hidden problems. Firstly, this would be a very difficult task for learners, even at advanced levels; they would need training in the exercise and, secondly, it would be very time-consuming in the classroom. In spite of this, the benefits are obvious and it is not an option that should be dismissed. Learner generated questions would reflect their comprehension of, and response to the text.

As has been stated previously, it is essential, if the reading is to have authenticity, that classroom procedure reflects the purposes of "real" reading. Reading is an interactive process, with the reader actively engaged in the reconstruction of meaning - questioning, predicting and testing hypotheses - and this interaction can be fostered in the classroom through the use of pair and group work, involving inter-learner discussion of text and tasks. Discussion gives learners feedback on their interpretation of the text and provides the teacher with valuable information on the learners' understanding of, and reaction to what they have read.

The difficulty of the L2 code in literary texts, involving unconventional schemata and figurative language is off-putting for many learners. As a way of overcoming the difficulties that genuine, and particularly literary materials, pose, Widdowson suggests that instead of limiting input, the teacher should limit intake. By this he means that, with careful task design, we can emphasise only particular aspects of the text. Another possibility is to control the contribution the learner needs to make in the completion of tasks, by giving some information to assist them, for example. The teacher, he argues, should try to set up the conditions necessary for an authentic response from the learner.

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