Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms, Dr. Marielle Risse
English Scholars Beyond Borders International Conference, Dec. 4, 2021
Outline of ‘Bringing Language Teaching into Literature Classrooms’
1 – Introduction
2 – Choosing texts
3 – Teaching strategies
4 – Short lessons
5 – Assignments
6 – Examples: “July” by John Clare and Philoketes by Sophocles
The title of this conference is crossing borders and that is a good metaphor for discussing literature and language teaching because it’s easy for a language teacher to cross the border between disciplines and become a literature teacher. Language teachers read books, poems and dramas and understand the concepts of genre, narrator, metaphor, connotations, etc.
But for a literature teacher to cross the border in the opposite direction and become language teacher is much more difficult. I can tell you from first-hand experience that a literature teacher in a language classroom is a miserable and lost creature.
I studied German and French at university so I am well acquainted with the grammar of those two languages, but in English – explaining the difference between when to use the present simple and present continuous? Rules for doubling consonants when making a present participle? Forming nouns off of verbs by adding ‘y’? Conditional clauses? When I have to teach a grammar class and explain ‘count’ vs. ‘non-count’ nouns or the present perfect or when to use ‘for instance’ instead of ‘for example’ – painful!
But I need to do some language teaching in all my literature class. When I walked into my first Middle Eastern literature classroom at the American University of Sharjah more than 20 years ago, I had students from 15 countries with varying levels of English. I had to blend some language information into my discussion of texts so I made a series of changes in my teaching.
In this presentation I want to explain how I teach literature differently with English major students than with literature majors, concentrating on four main areas: choosing texts, teaching strategies, short lessons and assignments.
I have several publications on how to choose appropriate texts for literature classes and my main point is that it is vital to pick a text that students can connect to in some way as they are already fighting language and sometimes cultural difficulties and differences.
Dickens has written many classics, but his diction is difficult and the recurrent theme of a child cast out from the family, in novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, create hurdles for understanding and appreciation.
Whereas, my students have really enjoyed Beowulf’s and Sir Gawain’s lessons about protecting one’s leader and staying loyal to one’s family.
For Shakespeare, I choose the accessible plays such as Much Ado about Nothing, The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry V with selections from King Lear and Macbeth. Not Julius Caesar or Merchant of Venice.
As 99% of my students are female, for other dramas, I often pick ones with interesting heroines caught between conflicting duties such as:
- Alcestis, Euripides
- Deanira, Sophocles
- Antigone, Sophocles
- The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
- Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde
- Arms and the Man, Shaw
- Quality Street, J.M. Barrie
- Our Town, Thornton Wilder
- Princess Sunshine, Tawfiq Al Hakim
In terms of fiction, I use Jane Austen, Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence and Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier to spark class discussion.
Teaching strategies – using scaffolding to create a strong foundation
reading aloud – every class, every student reads to improve pronunciation and enunciation
- poem – one line
- fiction – one sentence
- drama – one character’s words
comparing narrative structures
For example, I give students the first page of an autobiography from an Omani writer and from an English writer and ask them to work in groups to figure out what is similar and what is different. English writers usually have exact dates, list full names of family members, give specific place names etc., while local writers give more general impressions. This leads to a discussion of how cultures tell stories and give opinions differently
comparisons with Arabic
- using the evocative O = ya
- starting sentences with verb, often used in Arabic but in English = command or question
word attack/ word meanings
- homonyms – prey / pray – bear / bare
- teach prefix/ suffix/ root – Latin and Greek – like: auto-bio-graphy
e’en – ‘Tis – apostrophe for missing letter
explicit teaching of archaic speech
- thou, thee, thy, thine
- ye, yon, yonder, yore
- -th ending for verbs like thinketh
explicit metaphor teaching
- color metaphors – I’m blue, he’s yellow, I’m green
- animals – monkey, positive and negative
- objects – the moon (positive in Arab cultures, negative in North America/ Europe)
helps with pronunciation, enunciation and emotion
helps students use the language in a natural way
with so many essays on the internet, make assignments which check for understanding and are personal
- compare character to someone you know
- have a conversation with a character
- explain the drama or novel with a friend, your mom, your husband and write a short paper explaining what you agree and disagree on – my mom thought…
supporting opinions with proof/ evidence to help get ready for IELTS and standardized English exams
‘Some people’ or ‘everyone’ vs. I think Alcestis made the right choice because I think…
1 -teaching grammar, vocabulary and literary terminology through poetry
“July” by John Clare
Loud is the Summer’s busy song,
The smallest breeze can find a tongue,
While insects of each tiny size
Grow teasing with their melodies,
Till noon burns with its blistering breath
Around, and day lies still as death
The cricket on its bank is dumb;
The very flies forget to hum;
And, save the wagon rocking round,
The landscape sleeps without a sound.
The breeze is stopped, the lazy bough
Hath not a leaf that danceth now;
- topic students can relate to – hot weather, sleeping in the middle of the day
- metaphors and simile – Summer’s busy song, day lies still as death
- alliterations – sleeps without a sound
- expand vocabulary – breeze, tiny, melodies
- double meanings – bank and dumb
- grammar – hath, danceth
2 – picking an interesting text so that students want to read and discuss
Philoketes by Sophocles
This drama is based on one of the stories from the siege of Troy. On the way to Troy, the soldier Philoketes is hurt and his wound does not heal, so he is left on a desert island by Odysseus. After ten years of fighting against Troy, Odysseus is told that the Greeks will never win Troy without Philoketes and his magic bow so Odysseus goes back to the island,
Odysseus tries to play a trick, he stays hidden and tells a young soldier, Neoptolemus, to find Philoketes, become friends with him, and then convince Philoketes to allow Neoptolemus to hold the bow – then Neoptolemus will run to the boat with the bow and they will sail away, leaving Philoketes stranded.
The play works well because:
1) a lot of suspense – Will Odysseus’ trick work? it seems to, but at the last minute, Neoptolemus tells Philoketes the truth
2) themes of forgiveness and trust – Should Philoketes forgive Odysseus for leaving him on the island for 10 years? Should he trust that Odysseus will bring him back to his country?
3) connection to Omani society – The dilemma is solved when Hercules appears and tells Philoketes to get on the boat, that he will be safe. This highlights the importance of mediators, a very important part of Omani cultures; when two people are at an impasse, they should look for someone older/ wiser to both give advice and guarantee correct behavior.
(photo by S. B.)
Risse, M. “Teaching Paired Middle Eastern and Western Literary Texts,” in Advancing English Language Education. Wafa Zoghbor and Thomaï Alexiou, eds.. Dubai: Zayed University Press, 2020. 221-223.
Risse, M. “Ok Kilito, I Won’t Speak Your Language: Reflections after Reading Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language,” in Octo-Emanations. Carter Kaplan, ed. Brookline, MA: International Authors, 2020: 233-236.
Risse, M. “Teaching Literature on the Arabian Peninsula,” Anthropology News website, October 7 2019. http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2019/10/07/teaching-literature-on-the-arabian-peninsula/
Risse, M. and Miriam Al Sabbah. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Novel: Austen for ESL Students,” Proceedings of the 16th Oman International ELT Conference. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2017: 28-35.
Risse, M. “Writing Prompts to Facilitate Creativity and Interesting Texts,” Proceedings of the 15th Oman International ELT Conferences. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2016: 46-52.
Risse, M. “Selecting the Right Literary Texts for Middle Eastern Students: Challenges and Reactions,” in Focusing on EFL Reading: Theory and Practice. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2014: 165-188.
Risse, M. “Frosty Cliffs, Frosty Aunt and Sandy Beaches: Teaching Aurora Leigh in Oman,” Ariel: A Review of International English Literature 43.4, 2013: 123-145.
Risse, M. “Who Are You Calling ‘Coddled’?: ‘Cloistered Virtue’ and Choosing Literary Texts in a Middle Eastern University,” Pedagogy 13.3, 2013: 415-427.
Risse, M. “Do You know a Creon?: Making Literature Relevant in an Omani University,” in Literature Teaching in EFL/ESL: New Perspectives. Rahma Al-Mahrooqi, ed. Muscat: Sultan Qaboos University Press, 2012: 302-314.
Risse, M. “Using Local Voices in Literature Classrooms,” Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Gulf Perspectives 9.1, 2012. http://lthe.zu.ac.ae/index.php/lthehome/article/view/71
Risse, M. “John Clare Looks Good in a Dishdash: Linking John Clare to Middle Eastern Poetry,” John Clare Society Journal 30, 2011: 53-63.
Risse, M. “An Open Letter to Alice Walker,” The Chronicle of Higher Education. Feb. 20, 2009: B11. http://chronicle.texterity.com/chronicle/20090220b/?pg=11#pg11
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