Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 9 : 6 June 2009
ISSN 1930-2940

Managing Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.
         A. R. Fatihi, Ph.D.
         Lakhan Gusain, Ph.D.
         K. Karunakaran, Ph.D.
         Jennifer Marie Bayer, Ph.D.



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Copyright © 2008
M. S. Thirumalai


Teaching Language through Literary Texts
in the ESL Classroom

Sujata Rana, Ph.D.

Introduction - Push against Teaching Literature in the ESL Classroom

The primary objective of teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) in India should be communicative competence, that is, mastering the use of English in a variety of situations, social contexts and professional areas. Unfortunately, the communicative competence of the learners is limited to their ability to produce formal, curriculum-confined literary discourse, that too having its basis in their cramming powers. They never get to know how to exploit and particularly use in their day to day life situations what they have learnt through their knowledge of formal grammar and exposure to literature.

That is why teaching literature in the ESL classroom has been discouraged by many. There is no denying the fact that improvement of communicative skills in English should be part and parcel of any teaching of English as a second language. But for that one cannot do away with literary texts in an ESL classroom.

Rich Linguistic Input through Literary Texts

The literary texts, as many linguists have come to accept, provide rich linguistic input, effective stimuli for students to express themselves in other language and are a potential source of learner motivation.

If the student remains communicatively incompetent after completing a course in English language/literature the literary texts in any ESL classroom are seen as something redundant rather than useful.

This observation tends to discourage and disregard the use of literary discourse in the ESL classroom. Such tendency also gives strength to the historically strong dichotomy between language and literature.

But any attempt to separate language teaching from literature teaching, either in human mind or in the practice is fraught with danger. Widowson's claim that 'study of literature is fundamentally a study of language in operation' is based on the realization that literature is an example of language in use and is a context for language use. Thus studying the language of literary texts as language in operation is seen as enhancing the learners' appreciation of aspects of different systems of language organization.

Complementary Nature of Literature and Language

Language and literature are inseparable and their teachings should be complementary to each other. Michael Short's comment in this regard is worth mentioning: "Literature and language teaching should be linked and made mutually reinforcing" (Short and Candlin 1986). Literature studied for aesthetic enjoyment only and language studied without literary texts both are insufficient and far from yielding satisfying results.

The Challenges and Difficulties Faced by Teachers/Learners

Some language learners find literature study difficult as literature has an emotive and figurative use of language. The literary discourse, no doubt, is a poetic one, different from expressive (letter, diaries, essays etc.) and transactional (advertising, business letters, editorials, instructions etc.) one.

Another barrier is the uninhibited treading into the world of imagination on the part of the literary writers which makes it difficult to invest the literary content with a uniformly accepted meaning. Yet another difficulty is bridging the cultural gap and comprehending a discourse totally alien to the learner's socio-cultural background.

But it is up to the teacher how to excite the imagination of learners and how to make his or her teaching most effective, rewarding and refreshing. However, literary texts remain an unavoidable tool in the hands of language teacher. It is in the teacher's domain as what to teach and how to teach and how to use poetry, drama, prose, short stories or novel for language teaching.

Use of Non-canonical Literature from Non-native Writers in English

In recent years, the role of literature as a basic component and source of authentic texts of the language curriculum rather than an ultimate aim of English teaching has been reassessed and gaining momentum.

The literature used in ESL classroom today is no longer restricted to canonical texts from certain countries, e.g., the UK, the USA but includes the works of writers from a diverse range of countries and cultures using different discourses of English. The works of non-native writers in English are unique in the way in which the English language has been extended, modified and elaborated to serve the purposes of revealing local, national individual sensibilities.

The Focus of This Paper

This paper proposes to explore why a language teacher should use literature in the ESL classroom, what sort of literary texts language teacher should use with language learners and how different genres of literature benefit language teaching.

An attempt has also been made to look at the problems faced by the teacher which sometimes makes teaching language through literature a futile exercise and to suggest some humble solutions regarding the methodology and designing course contents for literary items.

Why Teach Literature

There are many reasons which lead a language teacher to use literature in the classroom.

a) The use of literary texts aims to improve language skills like reading, writing, listening and speaking.

b) It also improves language areas such as vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation etc. They learn about the syntax and discourse functions of sentences, the variety of possible structures, and the different ways of connecting ideas.

c) Literature provides authentic material. Many authentic samples of language in real life contexts (i.e. travel timetables, brochures, city plans, diet charts, forms, pamphlets, cartoons, leaflets, advertisements, magazine articles) are included within recently developed course materials. The learners are exposed to actual language samples from real life and literature acts as a beneficial complement to such materials.

d) The use of literature in teaching English also acts as a means of cultural enrichment. Any literary piece is sufficient to acquaint the learner with understanding how communication takes place in that particular country. The learners get to know the socio-political backgrounds of foreign lands against which the narrative is set. This widens their horizon of understanding the human nature and world in general. When the learners confront the difference in the other culture and their own they tend to develop tolerance and understanding. Simultaneously the literary texts can deal with universal themes such as love, war and loss which makes the learner feel him a part of the whole humanity.

e) Being representational rather than referential literature supplements language teaching process. This feature fosters the personal involvement of the readers. The learners/readers tend to inhabit the text mentally and are drawn to it personally. They become enthusiastic to find out what happens next and feel close to certain characters and situations. That makes language learning more interesting and exciting.

f) The sociolinguistic richness of literature also facilitates language learning. A person speaks differently in different social contexts like school, hospital, police station, court, theatre etc. (i.e. formal, informal, causal, frozen, intimate). The language used changes from one profession to another. The literature provides students with a wide range of language varieties used in different situations. The most important contribution of literature to the ELT is to display the variety, the subtlety and imaginative force of the language and to encourage the scrupulous use of words.

g) Literary texts provide opportunity for multi-sensorial classroom experiences and can appeal to learners with different literary styles. Texts can be supplemented by audio-texts, music CDs, film clips, documentaries, all of which tend to enhance richness of students' sensory inputs.

This is only the beginning part of the article. PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ THE ARTICLE IN PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION.

Crosstalk and Communication Breakdown in Professional Interactions in English | Phonological, Grammatical and Lexical Interference in Adult Multilingual Speakers | Politeness Strategies in Yemeni Arabic Requests | Unravelling Urdu Idioms | The Roots of Linguistic Reorganization of Indian States - The Experience of Orissa as a Linguistic Province in the British Raj | Characteristic Indian Attitudes in Nissim Ezekiel's Poetry | Teaching Language through Literary Texts in the ESL Classroom | The Semantics of Haroti Postpositional-Interrogating Simple Sentences | The Politics of Survival in the Novels of Margaret Atwood - A Doctoral Dissertation | Teaching Technical Jargon through Word Formation to the Students of Engineering and Technology | Indian Spirituality and Twice-Born Nature - A Study of Eliot's Approach to World | Discourse Choices in Pluralistic Nations - A Review of Maya Khemlani David-edited Language Choices and Discourse of Malaysian Families | Exploring the Effectiveness of World Wide Web
to Improve the Communication Skills of Management Students - A Pilot Study

Sujata Rana, Ph.D.
Department of English
CRM Jat College
Haryana, India

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