One of the most effective ways to teach a foreign language is by using literature. In this article you will get a few tips on how to do it.

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With the advancement of information technology, the teaching of a foreign language changes fast, not just for the tools we have at our disposal, but also for our perception of it.

Teaching English follows a more and more utilitarian path (people learn English mostly for job-related purposes) yet as educators, I think we should pursue a higher scope: teaching values to our students and help them to become better people, especially when we work with juniors.

Literature is full of good and bad examples that can help us to inspire our students while teaching English, and if you want to start digging this topic deeper, we produced a very interesting webinar about Getting Started with Teaching Literacy.

EFL Teachers mainly focus on the development of their students’ skills according to what society demands, and as a consequence, we are forgetting about literature. Yet if you think about the past, books are what inspired people: children used to play the 3 Mosqueteers and learned from a young age how to work in team, and Scientist started to work on inventing submarines and rockets to go to the Moon because they first read Jule Vernes’ novels.

Length of the text

It would be manageable for students as well as teachers to select text shorter length.

Literature can make the teaching of a language more fun. It helps us to talk about grammar and sentences with our students in an interactive way. We can talk about interesting topics, incourage our students to express their points of view and introduce controversial topics and more in depth topics, like Translations.

In this article, I am writing a small guide for you, on how to start introducing Literature to your classes.
There are several steps that I think every teacher should keep in mind before starting to teach literature in order to add a sparkle in their classes, otherwise, learning about literature could be an overwhelming experience and have the opposite effect.

Select the right text

Selecting the right text for the students is the most important, yet most overlooked step.

The text should be engaging for the students, and this depends more on our class than on the Author. What 10 years olds find interesting is very different than what is interesting for 17 years olds, and again, adults have a completely different sensitivity than teenagers.

There is not a text that fits all the purposes. We will have to choose the right one according to our students.

Length of the text

A text that is too short might fail to involve the students, but one that is too long could be boring or difficult to follow. Also, keep in mind that everyone has a different approach to reading and the topic selected makes a big difference.

For example (and I am simplifying) if boys are attracted by gruesome adventures and girls like love stories, that means that one part of our students will be more engaged while another part will be bored.

There is not much we can do about that, but if the text is not too long, even the ones who don’t like it won’t mind it, because they will pfeel that it will end soon.

That being said, I find that the novel Frankenstein – The Modern Prometheus is always a safe choice and of secure success, because it has components that both boys and girls like, and it can be appreciated at any age.

Culture friendly text

There is no need for the text chosen to be a classic written by a British author. We can use any text that we find appropriate and engaging for our students, and that means that it can come from anywhere in the world and translated, it can be written by a living Author or thousands year old.

The context, though, is important.

For example, one of my favourite choices is One Thousand and One Nights, because it is a collection of very different stories, and although it has been developed during many centuries, it continues suscitating high interests among students.

Yet it brings a series of difficulties for the students and the teacher as well. The topics of the stories are not always friendly, and I don’t mean just the fact that in the past, people had other sensitivity in perceiving things like death and sex, but there are elements (wizards, fairies, demons, jobs, aspects of life) of an ancient culture that might be more difficult to explain to students from certain countries, compared to others, and will require an extra effort for the teacher.

Selecting the right story to talk about during the class is something very important in order to have the focus the attention of the students on what they understand, rather than in what they are not understanding.

Previously, (I am talking for Pakistan, where I am originally from, but this applies to the most of the countries) the traditional method of teaching followed by teachers of foreign or second language was to focus only on vocabulary, grammar rules, and paragraph development.

This method was boring and based on cramming. Students had acquired knowledge of different grammar rules but they were not able to use these rules in real situation.

Now, this system has changed, teachers are now exploring different methods to teach students effectively.

There are different theories related to learning a language through literature. Here I focus on the Socio-cultural theory of learning, because I feel is the most effective. Its main focus is on the learning of language in the context of culture.

The socio-cultural theory suggests that learning is something social. According to this theory, people learn different skills and follow certain practices within the community. The same can be applied to language learning: students can only learn a language properly if they are involved with the target culture.

Using translations and reductions

Literature should be a positive experience for our students. For this reason, I think we shouldn’t use the original works when we are reading an Author who lived long time ago.

The language is alive, and that means that the English Shakespeare used is another language compared to what English is now.

Reading the original Amleth would just be a torture for our students and a missed opportunity for us, while reading it in modern English, and maybe a simplified version done for students can give us immense opportunities to talk about the story, the motivation of the characters how relevant for modern society this work still is.

Language and culture

Sometimes it is not possible for teachers to arrange meetings for their students with native speakers to learn their culture. Teaching literature can help them to partly solve this issue.

As language and culture are intertwined, learning any language implies also learning about a new culture.

Literature is the reflection of life. Writers write about their society and culture in different literary pieces. Any piece of literature can help students to learn the culture of that very language. This will help students to take interest in the target language and they will be able to communicate accordingly in different situations. This will be elaborated on through different examples.

An example of how to use literature in English classes

A piece of literature is very helpful for learning English. If we look at the work of 19TH century Novelist Thomas Hardy, in the novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, he has depicted the society of the 19th century.

By reading this novel, our students will know an interesting story and at the same time learn about different aspects of society, the differences with the modern world and the problems that we still have.

The depiction of different characters like Michael Hencherd, Donald Farfrea and the character of a Lady Lucetta Templeman, can guide students in using the English language eloquently, as, these characters are designed to represent a specific class of people.

In a similar way, students find unexpected terminology and sentence structure that is more complex than the expressly made texts for English students. Students feel challenged and have a personal interest in understanding, therefore, they will commit more.

Learning idiomatic expressions through literature

Literature helps fixing vocabulary through the use of figurative images, and helps students to understand the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

For example, let’s take the Iliad an epic work supposedly composed by Greek poet Homer and translated in English in the 17TH century by the poet-critic, John Dryden.

From that work comes the expression Achilles Heel, that means Weakness or Weak point in many languages.

Without knowing the story behind this expression, it would be difficult to remember it and use it correctly, and it would be soon forgotten.

Learning proverbs with literature

Proverbs are an interesting and fun way to learn a language and discover the culture behind it.

Most of the proverbs in a language come from popular wisdom or pieces of literature (dialogues and monologues) that became so popular that reached another level.

Through learning these proverbs, students can make their language more effective.


Christopher Marlowe

  1. Hell is just a frame of mind
  2. Fools that will laugh on earth, most weep in hell
  3. What nourishes me destroys me

Charles Dickens

  1. It was the best of time, it was the worse of time
  2. What greater gift than the love of a cat