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Teaching literature

The Language Teacher Toolkit by Steve Smith and Gianfranco Conti is now available from Amazon.


lit1Literary texts, whether they be novels, short stories, plays or poetry, are worth incorporating in an A-level course for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are a route into the culture of the language. Secondly, they offer material for discussion and writing. Thirdly, they provide large amounts of linguistic input which will help develop language acquisition. Fourthly, if you think that some of your students may go on to study the language at university, this initial study of literature will give them some valuable preparation for that experience. Finally, studying a work of literature is an intellectual challenge which can be stimulating and rewarding.

Literature should be seen as an extension of language work, not as something set apart, to be read in the foreign language, but discussed and written about in English. Much of the work done on a literary text can be done in the target language, although there will be times when this is not appropriate.

Which texts?

Take into account a number of factors:

• Does the text offer suitable linguistic models? Is it of the right difficulty level?
• Is the subject matter likely to stimulate 17-18 year old students?
• Is the teacher enthusiastic about the text?
• Is the text of the right length – not too long, not too short?
• Are there support materials to help with the teaching of the text, for example study notes in books or from the internet?
• Is the text known to have been successful with other groups in the past? Has it been a prescribed text with an examination board?
• Will the text allow for enough discussion of issues, characters and themes?
• Does the text contain any themes which may be upsetting or inappropriate for this age group?
• Is the text supported by a film or live performance which may improve the appreciation of the text?
• Will the text suit the interests and ability level of the particular group you have in that year?

In general texts are likely to be fairly modern, but you should not dismiss pre- twentieth century texts. You can discuss choice of texts with a class and elicit their opinion.

Here is a list of popular French works taken form the prescribed list of the WJEC examination board:

Camus           L’Etranger
Ernaux          La Place
Pagnol           Manon des Sources
Sartre           Les Mains Sales
Vercors         Le Silence de la Mer
Colette          Le Blé en Herbe
Vailland        325 000 Francs
Maupassant Contes

Here are some others which have worked well for me and other colleagues in the past :

Camus         La Peste
Camus         L’Exil et le Royaume (short stories)
Camus         Les Justes
Rochefort    Les Petits Enfants du Siècle
Zola              Germinal
St Exupéry  Vol de Nuit
Joffo             Un Sac de Billes
Roché           Jules et Jim
Duras           Moderato Cantabile
Sabatier       Les Allumettes Suédoises
Clavel           Malataverne
Sagan           Bonjour Tristesse

How to approach the texts


You may find it a good idea to do some preparatory work to prepare students for the content of the texts. This could mean looking at the life of the author, studying briefly the setting of the book, if the setting is important, or the historical context.

You may do some vocabulary work if the text features a particular range of vocabulary. (For example, a study of Pagnol requires a fair bit of vocabulary knowledge to do with the natural world.)

You may wish to give students the opportunity to read the text for themselves if you think they can cope with it, but this may present a risk if they are likely to find it demoralising to read a major text on their own.

Studying the text

There are a whole range of oral, reading and writing tasks you can do with a literary text. Don’t forget that these texts are examples of written language and therefore you can employ the whole gamut of tasks you might use with any non-literary text. These include:

• Reading aloud by teacher or students
• Playing a recording of extracts of the text by the author (these are occasionally available online)
• Question and answer (oral and written)
• Gap fill
• True/false/not mentioned
• Correcting false sentences
• Making up questions or true/false statements
• Questions in English (for harder areas where lack of fluency may hinder discussion of complex issues)
• Vocabulary brainstorming
• Jigsaw reading
• Completing vocabulary glossaries
• Finding synonyms and antonyms
• Matching tasks (e.g. starts and ends of sentences)
• Translating into English
• Retranslating into the target language
• Multiple choice questions (oral or written)
• Summarising chapters orally or in writing
• Dictation and paired dictation
• Essay writing
• Watching videos of interviews with the author where they are available on Youtube, Dailymotion or the INA site (French archive of television extracts)
• Writing imaginary dialogues between characters
• Writing a book review
• Writing an obituary of a character
• Matching tasks along the lines: “Who would have said….?”
• Completing sentence starters
• Writing an imaginary interview with the author
• Summarising a biography of the author
• Individual online research into the author for a presentation
• Going through model essays from exam board sites, other students or written by the teacher

You would expect to take about a term to teach a text, devoting up to two hours a week.

Preparing for assessment

For some examination boards at A-level assessment of literature is an integral part of the examination. For AQA, for example, the most popular board for languages, the oral includes ten minutes devoted to discussion of two cultural topics, one of which may be the work of an author (usually one text). Questions are of a general nature and focus on the candidate’s personal reaction to the text, rather than a detailed knowledge of content.

The AQA A2 examination includes an essay which may be on the work of an author. Candidates are invited to write at least 250 words on questions of a general nature to do with characters, themes, the author himself or herself and personal reactions. Subject content cannot be assessed, but marks are awarded for answering relevantly, coherently, developing content points, showing a good level of personal evaluation and using complex language accurately.

The WJEC board offers a prescribed list of authors under the rubric The World of Literature with a choice of questions of a general nature, usually relating to characters and general themes.

The Edexcel board allows candidates to prepare a “research-based essay”. Titles in the examination are along the lines Examinez l’importance d’un personnage dans un livre/une pièce que vous avez étudié. There is no oral assessment of the literature.

The OCR examination board does not assess literature in their written paper, but it is possible to present literature for part of the oral examination. Teachers who wish to teach literature in detail may choose to avoid the OCR.

The SQA (Scottish Higher) examination allows for “extended reading” and suggests devoting up to 40 hours on this, with the ultimate aim to develop language skills generally. Any literature studied is not formally assessed, however.

Students need plenty of practice for their written essays, so the teacher needs to instruct them on effective essay technique and how to play to the mark scheme. It is a good idea to do timed essays, either in class, or at home.

Finally, students are often wary of studying long texts in a foreign language, but once you have prepared them thoroughly they often report that it was the aspect of A-level they enjoyed most. The teacher may also like to believe that, by teaching a text, they have helped their students appreciate literature in general, taught them how to read critically and helped them learn more about the foreign culture.