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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 from the prescribed list of the AQA examination board:

Molière Le Tartuffe
Voltaire Candide
Guy de Maupassant Boule de Suif et autres contes de la guerre
Albert Camus L'Etranger
Françoise Sagan Bonjour tristesse
Claire Etcherelli Elise ou la vraie vie
Joseph Joffo Un sac de billes
Faïza Guène Kiffe kiffe demain
Philippe Grimbert Un secret
Delphine de Vigan No et moi

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 A-level assessment of literature candidates have a choice of two essays, each of which require a critical and analytical response of around 300 words (many students will write more). Skill at essay writing is usually best built up gradually during the course.

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

Concluding comments

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.