Literature in ELT: Integrating Literature into Language Learning

Sybil MarcusA Guest Post by Sybil Marcus
Sybil Marcus has lived and worked on four continents.  She taught ESL at the University of California at Berkeley Extension and at the Summer English Language Studies on the Berkeley campus.  She has presented at conferences in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. For 15 years, she ran a PCI workshop for TESOL on integrating literature into language studies. She has also run workshops internationally for the U.S. State Department on Using Literature for Critical Thinking and Using Literature for Conflict Resolution. She is a coauthor with Daniel Berman of the A World of Fiction series, which uses literature to teach integrated language and critical thinking skills to ESL/EFL students at the high-intermediate to advanced levels.

We’re all wired to enjoy a good story with intriguing plotlines and an individual prose style. So, it’s a pity that many teachers either ignore or are unaware of the creative possibilities that literature offers for language learning.

In this post, I’ll talk about some of the ways I use stories to teach critical thinking; encourage animated discussion; and hone vocabulary, grammar, and writing practice.

Reading Comprehension

My goal here is to teach my students to read critically. This requires carefully reading each story twice. The first reading helps students figure out the plot and deal with unfamiliar vocabulary and difficult syntax. The second reading gives them a chance to go deeper into themes and elements of style.

To jumpstart their critical thinking, I give my my students an open-ended question to consider after they’ve completed the first reading. They must come to class ready to explain their answer with reference to the text. The question could be:

  • Did you sympathize with a certain character’s actions?
  • Did your feelings toward a character change as you read the story?
  • Could you predict the ending?

After we’ve explored their answers, we move on to the plot, theme, and style questions that are needed to understand and appreciate the story.

Oral Communication

Speaking is an area where literature really shines. When a story resonates with students, they can’t stop talking about it. I especially like the cross-cultural exchanges that are often inspired by students’ diverse nationalities and backgrounds. Here are some ideas for getting a conversation going:

  • Discuss the warmup question.
  • Talk about the themes raised by the story.
  • Take a side on an issue and debate it with a partner.
  • Reenact a scene from the story—a favorite activity of many students.


Grammar comes alive for students when they see it in action in an authentic context. Over the years, I’ve covered most major grammar points by using examples from literary texts. I find that literature works particularly well as an opportunity for students to practice what they’ve previously learned.

Look at the first paragraph of “Mother,” by Grace Paley. These lines are perfect for reinforcing past tenses, as the author uses four of them in quick succession. The subject matter is engaging, the distinctions clear.


Stories will expand your students’ vocabulary by introducing words in a memorable context.  However, nothing destroys a love of reading faster than over-reliance on dictionaries. Therefore, I teach strategies for guessing the meanings of words, like breaking compounds into parts, working with prefixes and suffixes, and taking note of the context.

Stories offer many opportunities for vocabulary practice when we look at the idioms, phrasal verbs, synonyms, antonyms and polysemous words that stud them.  They are also an excellent vehicle for work with denotation and connotation.


Some of the best student writing I’ve seen has been in literature classes. I like to have students keep a running journal in which they record their reactions to the stories, and I encourage them to be both personal and analytical.

Using the story as a launching pad—and sometimes as a model—we’ve practiced many writing skills:

  • Expository writing
  • Comparison and contrast
  • Imaginative writing such as keeping a diary in the life of a character; composing a new ending; writing a character profile, or even writing an original short story
  • Short dialogues
  • Descriptive writing
  • Editorials on an issue covered in the story
  • Interviews

Classroom Suggestions

For a first lesson, one recommendation is “Sleeping,” by Katharine Weber. It’s very short and packed with teaching possibilities. Here are some ideas for how your students can practice language skills after reading the story:

  • Examine the possible motives behind the couple’s actions.
  • Explain parts of the story that have to be inferred through close reading.
  • Discuss privacy issues.
  • Debate whether it’s always better to face the truth.
  • Teach adverbial clauses (there are many of them in the story).
  • Create an exercise with polysemous words.
  • Write a diary entry where the main character talks about what happened, or write a report on a film or book featuring a babysitter.

What’s Next?

In next month’s blog, I’ll talk about the unique opportunities as well as the potential challenges of using literature to teach social issues.

Have you used literature in any of your classes? If so, I’d love to hear what’s worked and what hasn’t in the comments section below.


Paley, G. (1985). Mother. In Later the same day. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Weber, K. (2003). Sleeping. Vestal Review. Retrieved  from

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4 Responses to Literature in ELT: Integrating Literature into Language Learning

  1. Sybil Marcus says:

    I have just pulled up “Oliver’s Education”, Nathan. I was most intrigued by it. Even at first reading, a number of teaching possibilities flow from it. Thank you so much for sharing it. I’m eager to try it out in a classroom. I have taught Updike’s story “Man and Daughter in the Cold” with quite a bit of success in my advanced class. I’ve also used Updike’s blackly comic, satirical story “Pygmalion” with an advanced level. He isn’t an easy writer, but he’s really worth working through.

    The same goes for many of John Cheever’s stories that chronicle upper middle class life in Connecticut. One quite challenging Cheever story is “The Swimmer,” which has also been made into a film. One of my students turned me onto that story and I taught it a lot – also to advanced students.

  2. mihee woo says:

    I enjoyed your blog!
    I’m from Korea, and I’m studying in America now.
    I love to read this blog. It made me think what kind of skilled that I need.
    And also I need to remember those skills and tools to teach my future students.
    Thank you for great information.

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      I’m so pleased you find the blog useful, Mihee. I hope you will keep in mind the many possibilities that literature offers when you get in front of a classroom. You can always start slowly by introducing an interesting excerpt and arousing your students’ interest with it. Then get them to read the whole story.

      I’d love to hear from you if you do implement any of the ideas I’ve shared in the blogs.

  3. Nathan Hall Nathan Hall says:

    I had a lot of luck with “Oliver’s Education,” a poignant flash-fiction piece by Updike. The vocabulary is rather advanced, but it’s very economically written.

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