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Teaching Novels in EFL/ESL Classes
By Scott Alkire
This article presents pedagogical reasons for teaching novels in EFL/ESL classes, basic criteria for choosing appropriate novels, and practical suggestions for teaching them. The article also cites significant research supporting this pedagogy.
If we accept that novels can contribute to our students’ knowledge of English, and if we agree that a novel requires a fair amount of time and effort to read but can also be engrossing and enjoyable, then it is important for us to choose carefully the novels we will teach. This article presents pedagogical reasons for teaching novels in EFL/ESL classes, basic criteria for choosing appropriate novels, and practical suggestions for teaching them.
Many scholars have presented compelling arguments for teaching novels in EFL/ESL classes. They argue that we should teach novels because
1. They are enjoyable to read.
2. They are authentic.
3. They help students understand another culture.
4. They are a stimulus for language acquisition.
5. They develop students’ interpretative abilities.
6. They expand students’ language awareness.
7. They encourage students to talk about their opinions and feelings.
8. They foster personal involvement in the language learning process.
Lists of “good” novels, in particular those
for EFL/ESL learners, vary. Scholars themselves offer various definitions of
what a good novel is. For example,
The work of these scholars as well as others can lead us to formulate a criteria for choosing novels. Most agree that a novel that is appropriate for second-language learners has
1. Linguistic accessibility (syntax, punctuation, vocabulary, etc. do not hinder reading)
2. Literary accessibility (e.g., a traditional narrative will more likely be successful than an overly descriptive, overlong, or experimental work)
3. Cultural accessibility (how bound is the novel to its culture?)
4. Storytelling quality (is the book a page-turner?)
Four novels that satisfy these criteria, from Intermediate to Advanced levels, are:
1. Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
2. Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann
3. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (classified as a “non-fiction novel”)
Web-based bookshop Amazon now features readability scores (Text Stats) for many of its titles. Although these scores are designed to reflect the readability of texts for native speakers, they can be used to estimate the readability of texts for non-native speakers as well. Kellermann, in her study on reading in a foreign language, notes that a foreign narrative’s readability largely depends on how free it is from “lexical and grammatical traps.” (1981, p. 88)
Amazon uses the Fog, Flesch, and Flesch-Kincaid indices, which produce scores linked to the absence of these lexical and grammatical “traps.” Each index gauges a text on its number of complex words, the average number of syllables per word, and the average number of words per sentence. Amazon also allows you to see the relative readability of texts in a given category (e.g., women’s literature, science fiction and fantasy, true crime, etc.).
For books not listed on Amazon, the teacher will need to determine readability manually. Kathy Shrock’s Guide for Educations (http://school.discoveryeducation.com/schrockguide/fry/fry.html) provides guidance on how to do this.
Once a novel has been selected, it must not simply be assigned to students as is sometimes done in mainstream literature courses. Rather, the instructor should do the following:
- Reread the novel and highlight and annotate important and potentially difficult passages before assigning it.
- Use a reading schedule.
- Have students lead class discussions (this will allow you to quickly assess how well they are comprehending the novel).
- Exploit the creative possibilities of each novel (bring in period music, historic photographs, film versions on DVD).
- Require the use of a high-quality dictionary.
- Promote careful, annotated reading of the text.
- Have students keep a reading journal. Berthoff (1981) suggests having students keep a double-entry notebook. Students select a quote from the reading and write it on the left-hand page. On the opposite page they write their response to it. The response may include an explanation of what the quote says and why the student chose it.
- As much as you can, select a novel that will be a pleasurable reading experience for your students.
- Do not pass out study sheets until students have finished reading the novel.
- Be enthusiastic about the novels you teach.
It may be best to close on how students feel about the reading of narrative texts (short stories, novels) in contrast to informational texts (articles, essays, histories, etc.). Aebersold and Field (1997, p. 158) report the following statements in their book on the teaching of reading in second language classes.
When reading a story the reader shares the writer’s thoughts and feelings as the reader thinks and tries to predict about the future or the conclusion while he is attracted, but reading informational texts wouldn’t attract the reader after he gets what’s needed from the information written. Besides, that information doesn’t move the reader’s feelings and emotions, and doesn’t motivate the reader toward thinking and predicting.
When I read a story, I will read it carefully. I want to know when and where the story happened. And I must understand the characteristics of every protagonist in the story. Then I can imagine the plot of this story and follow the development of this story. I think I will enjoy reading a story.
When I read an informational article, I will just read the main point of this informational article. I want to know what happened and what was the result. I just get some information from the article.
— Kuei-lan Lee,
It must finally be mentioned that students feel a special pride when they finish reading a novel. This feeling is not usually experienced with other texts (e.g., course books), and it can be a significant factor in motivating students to read more (learn more). If you have chosen your novel well, you will almost certainly get requests from your students for other good novels to read.
Aebersold, J. A. and Field, M. L. 1997. From reader to reading teacher: Issues and strategies for
second language classrooms.
Amazon. 10 January 2009. <www.amazon.com.>
Berthoff, A. E. 1981. Forming/thinking/writing:
The composing imagination.
Brumfit, C. J. and Carter, R. A. 1986. Literature and language teaching.
Collie, J. and Slater, S. 1987. Literature
in the language classroom.
Gardner, J. 1983. On becoming a
Kellermann, M. 1981. The
forgotten third skill: Reading a foreign language.
Lazar, G. 1990. Using novels in the language learning classroom. ELT Journal 44(3): 204–214.
_____. 1993. Literature and
Martino, M. and Block, E. 1992. Let them read books. College ESL 2(2): 12–20.
McKay, S. 2001. Literature as content for ESL/EFL. In M. Celce-Murcia (ed.), Teaching English as
a second or third language (3rd ed.).
 Extensive discussion of these points
can be found in Brumfit and Carter (1986), Lazar (1993),
2 The Fog index defines a complex word as having three or more syllables.
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