Literature in ELT: Using Literature for Conflict Resolution

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.

Most fiction relies on conflict to propel plot forward. Like people in real life, fictional characters struggle with each other, sometimes succeeding in resolving their differences and sometimes failing.

In collaboration with Barrie Roberts—a lecturer, attorney, and mediator on the Berkeley campus—I’ve applied mediation techniques to fictional conflicts in the classroom. These techniques offer many opportunities for students to practice their language skills, and they’re a valuable tool for approaching the conflicts we all face in our daily lives.

What Is Mediation?

  • Mediation is based on a system called active listening in which both sides to a conflict are given equal time to tell their version of events to a neutral mediator, who listens and facilitates their discussion without judgment.
  • The job of the mediator is to ensure that each side hears and assimilates the other’s point of view. The mediator asks questions that help restate the conflict in less inflammatory ways. Each disputant repeats what the other has said until there’s little room for miscommunication.
  • The goal of mediation is to move the parties away from their emotional, entrenched positions toward an understanding of what they really need.
  • When this goal is reached, the mediator steps aside, leaving the disputants to work out a mutually satisfying solution on their own. Ideally both sides will compromise, leaving no outright victor.

Classroom Procedure

Barrie and I were intrigued by the overlap in our interests, so we decided to bring together our literature and mediation classes. In preparation, I had my students analyze the short story “Teenage Wasteland” by Anne Tyler. Short stories are well suited to conflict resolution work, because the plot often ends abruptly, with one or more conflicts left unresolved.

“Teenage Wasteland” covers a turbulent year in the life of Donnie, a troubled 15-year-old, as he fights with his family, his tutor, and his high school principal. My students excavated layer upon layer of what went wrong and worked to understand who bore responsibility and why.

Then we prepared for the mediation role-play. Students from my class volunteered to play the characters in the story, and their homework assignment was to think themselves into their role and consider how they could present their version of the events in the most convincing way.

Barrie’s class weren’t given the story in advance. They came armed only with pen and paper, ready to take notes and practice the mediation techniques they’d already learned. We divided the students into groups.

The results were electrifying. My students acted their hearts out. Barrie’s students took notes, reframed the conflict, and patiently maneuvered the parties into hearing each other and understanding their respective needs. My students then attempted to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. As in real life, there was no guarantee of success.

Postmediation Evaluations

Afterwards, both classes evaluated the experience in writing.  The response was overwhelmingly positive:

  • Barrie’s students considered questions like: What could they have done better as mediators? What was particularly successful? Were they satisfied with the results? What did they learn about the conflict and about themselves? It was clear from their answers that this had been an exciting and novel way to practice their techniques.
  • My students felt that mediation helped them better understand the complexities of their fictional character. Even the shyest students emphasized how enjoyable the role-playing had been and how much language they’d learned. They also loved meeting and interacting with students from Barrie’s class.

Practical Applications

  • The mediation process is a great teaching tool for language classes. It involves reading, listening, transcribing, speaking, and paraphrasing. I also found it to be a creative way to practice subject-verb agreement, question formation, modals, and idioms.
  • The advantage of looking first at a dispute through a literary lens is that you offer students the distance needed to practice conflict resolution techniques. By examining a fictional conflict in depth, you make it easier later to discuss and mediate a raw, real-life conflict. Barrie and I have gone on to present joint workshops on this topic. Language teachers from as far afield as Russia, the Cameroons, Colombia, and Israel have expressed eagerness to implement this literary approach as a start to tackling entrenched conflicts in their classrooms.

Suggested Classroom Activities

  1. Create scenarios involving common disputes, such as those between parents and children, siblings, neighbors, politicians, or strangers.  Divide the students into small groups and have them role-play the mediation session.
  1. Put students in pairs. While one student outlines a real-life conflict, the other student listens carefully, takes notes, and asks questions to help clarify the conflict. Then swap roles.
  1. Give students a story to mediate. I have had success with “Sunday in the Park” by Bel Kaufman, which contains three clearly delineated conflicts.  Another good option is “Mother” by Grace Paley, which explores two family conflicts.

As always, I’d love to hear about any experiences you’ve had with with classroom conflicts, as well as whether you might try some of the suggestions in this blog.

This is my final post in my series on using literature for language study. I want to thank all of you who have read the blogs, shared them, and added comments.  I have relished the chance to distill and share my thoughts on literature’s infinite potential for English language learning.


Kaufman, B. (1985). Sunday in the park. In A. Adams, The available press/PEN short story collection. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

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

Tyler, A. (2002). Teenage wasteland. In A. Bond, Tales of psychology: Short stories to make you wise (pp. 254–266). St. Paul, MN: Paragon House.

This entry was posted in TESOL Blog and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Literature in ELT: Using Literature for Conflict Resolution

  1. Mukhammad Muklas B says:

    That’s good idea, Sybil. I prefer to use your suggestion by using a story to mediate. I really agree that common students of today interested with this way. thank you for sharing this approach, Sybil.

  2. Gobinda Puri says:

    Thanks a lot to Sybil Marcus for this article. Meditation is wonderful way to incorporate literature into conflict resolution. I am pleased to read her best classroom practice.

  3. Nahida El Assi says:

    Thank you, Sybil, for sharing the article. The content as well as the approach are perfect for students of today. What could be more interesting than making students take on roles they would take in their future lives?!!

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      And thank you for your encouragement, Nahida. I hope that if you aren’t already trying some of this out in class, you might be stimulated to try it out in the future.

      • Nahida El Assi says:

        I will certainly do it. In fact, one of the things I do is program development. I am highly interested in topics like conflict resolution, ESP courses, to mention a few.

        I am wondering if you could give me a list of references that provide hands-on activities that facilitate teaching such topics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.