Literature in ELT: Who’s Afraid of Literature?

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.

I admit it—I’m passionate about using literature, especially short stories, for language learning. As I result, I take every opportunity to talk about this to teachers of intermediate to advanced-level ELLs. In a nutshell, I think literature is a great teaching tool for these reasons:

  • It’s an opportunity to teach language skills in an authentic context.
  • It’s a chance to practice critical thinking skills.
  • It introduces a diverse array of social and cross-cultural topics.
  • It gives rise to energetic class discussions.

The Hemingway excerpt and exercise at the end of this blog are an indication of what you can do with even a few lines of literature. However, I first want to speak to those of you who’ve shared the following concerns with me:

  1. Literature is too hard for my students!

Don’t underestimate your students when it comes to literature. If they’re engaged by the subject matter, they usually relish the challenge of literary analysis.

More important, as the teacher, you can control how much you probe a text. Depending on the needs and level of your class, you can decide to skim the surface for plot details, or you can go deeper and discuss the themes and writing style. Whatever you do, you’ll be giving your students a rich context for honing language and critical thinking skills. And, you’ll offer them a chance to compare cultural responses.

  1. Literature is too hard for me!

Some teachers worry that they need a degree in literature to teach it. That’s really not the case. What’s important is to have a framework for looking at a story. So, I get my students to read the story at least twice before coming to class—first to understand the plot, and then to uncover the themes. I give them a prereading question that usually involves some sort of visceral response to a character’s actions. I teach them how to figure out key words in context. Then, we’re ready to discuss the story in greater depth.

Don’t be deterred by the number of literary terms involved in analysis. At the very least, you need to know plot, theme, and character.  If you want to delve deeper, I would suggest concentrating on irony, symbol, inference, metaphor, simile, and point of view. Luckily, it’s easy to find clear explanations of all these terms online or in a textbook.

  1. I’m skeptical about the relevance of literature to language studies.

My career-long experience suggests that literature offers a solid foundation on which to build all language skills, something I’ll be talking about in a future blog.

  1. My students are skeptical about the value of literature.

Some students wonder how literature will help them with their language studies. However, I’ve found that when it comes time to evaluate the course, my students are pleased and surprised by how much they’ve learned:

I couldn’t imagine how much vocabulary and grammar I would learn. It will help my TOEFL score!  -Tawfiq

Reading, discussing within a small group, dialog with the teacher, idiom work. All kinds of interesting activities, very useful for improving my English.  -Aza

What I’ve liked most about this class is that the stories made us think about them outside the class. They made me think about life and people.  -Christina

Suggested Classroom Exercise

I often draw students into the rich world of literature through only a few lines of writing. Below is the first paragraph of “A Very Short Story” by Ernest Hemingway. This snippet tests students’ ability to draw inferences while sparking their curiosity:

One hot evening in Padua they carried him up onto the roof and he could look out over the top of the town. There were chimney swifts in the sky. After a while it got dark and the searchlights came out. The others went down and took the bottles with them. He and Luz could hear them below on the balcony. Luz sat on the bed. She was cool and fresh in the hot night. (Hemingway, 1925/1996)

  1. Get your students to read the lines a couple of times. The vocabulary and syntax are mostly straightforward—searchlights can be puzzled out from the context, but chimney swifts needs explanation.
  2. Put students into groups and ask them to figure out as much as they can about these lines. Not a lot is spelled out, so it will require critical thinking. Students should say who the characters are, when and where the story takes place, and what they infer is happening. This activity seamlessly combines reading and discussion skills. Best of all, my students are always intrigued to know how much they got right and what happens next. So, I give them the complete, one-page story, which is readily available online. It never disappoints.

What’s Next?

In future blogs, I’ll be covering specific topics to help you incorporate literature into your curriculum:

  • Navigating the choice of stories
  • Integrating literature into language learning
  • Investigating social issues through literature
  • Using literature to explore conflict resolution

In the meantime, I’d love to know: Have you used literature in your classroom? If so, please share your experiences in the comments section.


Hemingway, E. (1996). A very short story. In In Our Time. New York, NY: Scribner. (Original work published 1925)

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12 Responses to Literature in ELT: Who’s Afraid of Literature?

  1. Maria says:

    I am currently teaching learning English through children’s literature to Teacher training freshmen students. We have only had a couple of weeks of classes. As this is a methodology course, we facilitate simple activities which are friendly for high-school teachers to conduct (considering lack of time for material preparation, amount of unmotivaded high schools students and the lack of critical thinking and active learning that highschool classrooms in my country embed). So, one simple activity that has came up really well is my students asking questions about a story before even knowing the title. They do manage basic concepts such as problem-resolution pattern and elements of stories. They choose one of these, e.g. Problem, and create question(s) such as why do the characters act in that way? Or If I had that problem, how would I act. The instruction also involves that they make their question as personal as possible. In the end, it’s not me as a teacher making questions for students, but facilitating them find their own meaningful enquirements in order to actively engage to their reading and extend it for autonomous learning.

    Thank you Sybil and teachers for the blog and comments, all of them have been very useful!
    Best regards!

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Thank you for your excellent suggestions, Maria. In fact, the Hemingway excerpt I gave at the end of the blog begs for this kind of approach. Questions such as: Why are there searchlights? Why did he need to be carried up onto the roof? Why is there a bed? help students to think critically and come up with plausible answers. I always urge them to justify their answers, so it isn’t a matter of fanciful or lucky guessing, but rather a reasoned response that arises from the text itself.

      I was also interested in your comment about unmotivated students. In my view, literature can often be a way to engage such students. However, the choice of story is crucial (something I deal with in the next blog). If your students identify with characters and situations, and if a good story catches their interest, like all of us, they will want to know what happens next and have plenty to say on the subject.

  2. Janifer says:

    I have been teaching English and reading skills via a book club for ESL adults and it has been super successful. I present the reading skill, then we read aloud, focusing on fluency, grammar, vocabulary, etc, followed by discussion to gauge comprehension. Students read assigned pages at home to practice the skill and respond in writing to questions or a journal prompt that we then discuss the following week. I am hoping to publish my lesson plans in book format soon for others.

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      As someone who can’t wait to participate in my own monthly book club discussions, Janifer, I love your idea of a book club. What a wonderful way to engage your adult students whose language skills probably aren’t commensurate with their life experience. I’m sure the discussions around the books’ themes are lively and insightful.

      I am going to devote my third blog to how you can teach all language skills via literature. I hope to give you some new ideas and in turn I hope you will share some of yours.

  3. Tom McNichol says:

    I have always used literature in my college ESL classes–Sybil’s book as well as other readers — and have found the students to be very receptive. Short stories such as “Eveline” by Joyce and “The Filipino and the Drunkard” by Saroyan have worked particularly well. The students are eager to discuss plot and characters and the stories provide excellent writing topics at any high-intermediate to advanced level. One of my favorite exercises to do is to then have students find another short story by the same author and write about that story. A fringe benefit is that I get to read lots of other stories by authors featured in the book I am using.

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Tom, I love your idea to get students to find another story by the same author. Anything that gets students reading more helps them in language acquisition. I’m always delighted when students ask me for reading recommendations. I feel I’ve succeeded in more than just language teaching.

      Actually, many of my students have told me that after experiencing the rewards of learning to analyze literature in English, they are eager to apply these same skills when reading in their native tongue.

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Tom, I want to thank you for your two suggested stories “Eveline” and “The Filipino and the Drunkard.” I’ve used the first in class often and as a result of your recommendation can’t wait to use the second. Thank you for putting me on to it.

      Incidentally, you have anticipated my next blog, which deals with criteria for putting together a successful literature course. I will be asking teachers to share stories that have worked well for them in class.

  4. Margi says:

    Thanks for posting! We were excited in our summer program when your new edition of A World of Fiction (Pearson ELT) came out. Even lower level students can probe deeply into themes — we just need to help students more with the vocabulary and structures they need to articulate their thoughts. The perfect example of the use of literature to expand language skills. We just have to “do a little more with less” than we would in an advanced class. I hope you’ll post another entry soon!

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Margi. Yes, there will be 4 more blogs that will, I hope, expand teachers’ horizons on what it’s possible to do through literature. It’s really exciting for me to reach out to teachers in this way.

      • Sybil Marcus says:

        I should have added, Margi, that you are absolutely right about the need for more scaffolding at lower levels. As you suggest, the goals are the same, but more time needs to be devoted to comprehension, syntax, and vocabulary, so that students can then proceed to critical thinking. My third blog will deal with just how to integrate literature into a language skills course.

  5. Sandi says:

    I’m looking forward to reading your next posts on this topic! I am in China, teaching 2nd year university students who have English as their minor. I have never taught literature, and truth be told, I think I’d rather have a root canal than teach lit!! However, I’m assigned a course entitled “Appreciation of English Prose and Poetry” this semester. Don’t let the ‘English’ define the geographics… just means the literature is written in English. Because I feel so ill-equipped to do this, I am looking forward to your helpful information! Will your blog posts come up on the TESOL blog?

    • Sybil Marcus says:

      Oh Sandi, I very much hope that you will find your experiences more akin to a trip through a rich landscape!

      Yes, I will be posting blogs over the next four months via this site. I hope you will find them helpful. I’d love to hear about your experiences once you actually start the course.

      May I suggest you use the Hemingway excerpt in class as a first step. I’ve had many Chinese students in my classes at Berkeley these past summers. I’ve been thrilled by how sophisticated they are and by the enthusiasm with which they’ve embraced literature. They tell me that they wish they had had more back home. So, I’m sure you are in for a most pleasant surprise.

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