As a receptive skill, reading – together with listening, is an integral part of language learning. Whether it be for pleasure or for practical purposes, you read every day several times a day, often without even realising it. However, the way in which you read changes depending on what you want to achieve from it. 

Before reading a book, for example, you would probably look at the front cover first and then read the blurb on the back. If that seems interesting, you are likely to read it, paying attention to every word. When reading a newspaper, you would probably give a quick glance at the headlines and read only what grabs your attention. You might decide to skip some of the articles, or to read just enough to achieve a general understanding of the story. You might read a medical record in detail, perhaps looking for specific information. You would probably scan all the information on a timetable, to find the specific information you are looking for (e.g. time, gate/platform number).

Understanding written texts is a strong motivator for those wanting to learn and improve their language skills. Therefore, excluding literature from English language teaching in favour of more ‘technical’ aspects of the language, like grammatical structures, can be detrimental to the  learning process.

Reading as a Teaching Tool

Recently, the importance of literature and authentic texts as a means to teach the English language has been increasingly recognised. However, there is an ongoing debate among educators regarding how, when, and where literature should be included in the TEFL curriculum. This has generated interesting theories and useful ideas on exploiting reading texts to teach English. 

One of the most popular ways of using literature in the TEFL industry is to set the context in which language skills (reading, listening, writing, and speaking) and aspects of the language (vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation) are taught. Furthermore, in specific courses, like translation training, short stories, poetry, and plays are the ideal texts to be translated into students’ own language, giving them the opportunity to apply their stylistic, pragmatic, syntactic, and lexical knowledge.

There are several advantages to using authentic literature as a teaching tool. These texts have been written with an English native-speaking audience in mind, which exposes the language  learners to natural and unaffected language. However, the benefits of authentic texts goes beyond language learning. They allow cultural enrichment, exposing the learners to customs and non-verbal conventions of a different country. Furthermore, they provide an engaging setting where characters and their actions are described.

If you are interested in developing your teaching skills, or you wish to become a teacher of English as a foreign language, there are many useful articles available online to get you started.

Extensive and Intensive Reading

In order to develop their receptive skills, English language learners should be involved in extensive and intensive reading. With extensive reading, students are encouraged to choose what to read or listen to, while with intensive reading, it is usually the teacher who makes the choice and decides what sub-skills should be practised and how.

Extensive reading

The term ‘extensive’ reading describes longer reading texts, such as novels. Teachers often tell students to read long texts, but this advice is seldom followed. Despite students’ best intentions, reading books that include a large proportion of unknown language is demotivating.

Instead, teachers should guide students on what to read extensively and make a plan that allows students to do so. The reading materials suggested and/or introduced should be authentic, enjoyable/useful, engaging. 

Of course, it is difficult to find authentic reading materials that students can easily understand. However, there are some books, called ‘readers’, that are specially written for EFL learners. They are a simplified version of well-known fiction and non-fiction books. The need for suitable texts for learners has propelled many teachers into the world of writing, an interest that can be pursued not only to improve your students’ learning experience but also as a career in its own right.

One way to promote extensive reading is to set up school or classroom libraries, where the books have been specially organised into levels. However, extensive reading can be challenging despite the choice of suitable materials. For this reason, students require support and encouragement to persevere in this. 

Reading circles are an effective way to promote extensive reading. During a reading circle session, the students could read a passage out loud or quietly and then discuss the main points of what they read. They could ask questions to clarify meaning and the teacher could provide tasks to check understanding.

Intensive reading

When it comes to intensive reading, especially when it is authentic, the advantage is to expose students to texts that they might come across in their everyday life. On the other hand, students are more likely to encounter unknown vocabulary in authentic texts than in graded ones. This can be a problem for students who might lose motivation and give up reading altogether. Extremely motivated learners, however, might take it upon themselves to interrupt their reading to look up every unfamiliar piece of vocabulary, therefore losing the general meaning of the text. 

Reading sub-skills

There are two ways of processing information: top-down or bottom-up, either by having a general overview or by connecting details to understand the meaning.

Learners need to develop different sub-skills depending on what they are reading and why, but these skills aren’t acquired naturally and they need to be taught:

  • General understanding. Also known as ‘gist’ reading, this sub-skill allows students to apply a top-down approach. The reader or the listener chooses to have an overview of the topic before deciding whether to analyse it or not.
  • Skimming. Teachers often ask students to read a text quickly to get only the main points. However, the meaning of ‘read quickly’ can be misinterpreted. Students should be directed to just run their eyes through the text, without focusing on every word. Many learners are often tempted to try to understand every single word they read, which is not required at this stage. For successful skimming and prior to reading, students should be provided with one or two general questions to focus on about the text, e.g. ‘Look at the text without reading. Can you recognise its genre by its layout?’ (menu, article etc), ‘What is the text about?’ Learners should also be informed about the time limit given for this stage (10 or 20 seconds, depending on students’ level and text length).
  • Specific information. In real-life scenarios we switch from reading for gist to reading to specific information. For example, if we want to book a table at a restaurant, we might skim through all the information given on a leaflet or website, to focus only on the opening hours. In reading, this is called ‘scanning’ – as opposed to ‘skimming’.

  • For detailed information. When studying, following instructions or analysing documents we might need to take in every piece of information provided. This is when we are required to pay attention to and understand every word we read. Therefore, not only do we have to understand the message, but also the argument, the conclusions and the evidence.

  • Interpretation. There is more to reading than just the literal meaning of the words. Our pre-existing knowledge (life experience, cultural background etc) can be useful to guide us in ‘reading between the lines’ and understand the meaning behind the message. 

The Role of Literature in Understanding Cultural Context

Literature provides a gateway into the rich tapestry of cultural context, immersing readers in the social, historical, and political nuances of the English language. Works of literature reflect the societies in which they were written, offering insight into cultural norms, societal structures, and important historical events. For instance, reading novels set in Victorian England can help learners grasp the formalities of the English language during that period, while understanding the social etiquette and class system of the era. By engaging with such texts, learners can deepen their comprehension of English within a broader cultural and historical framework.

Exploring Different Genres: Broadening Vocabulary and Understanding

Each literary genre offers a unique approach to language and storytelling, aiding in the expansion of vocabulary and understanding of diverse narrative structures. For instance, science fiction often introduces technical or futuristic terms, while historical fiction provides language pertinent to a specific time period. Poetry, with its rich use of metaphors and similes, encourages a more abstract understanding of language. Meanwhile, playscripts offer insight into dialogue and conversational English. By exploring a variety of genres, learners are exposed to a broad spectrum of vocabulary and narrative forms, enriching their overall grasp of the English language.

Contemporary Literature: A Lens into Modern English Usage

While classic literature offers insight into historical usage, contemporary literature reflects the evolution of the English language in its current context. Modern novels, plays, and poetry often incorporate slang, colloquialisms, and recent developments in English, such as new terms related to technology or societal changes. These texts provide a valuable reference for learners seeking to understand how English is used in everyday conversation and writing today. From the condensed language in tweets to the longer prose in modern novels, contemporary literature offers an up-to-date perspective on English usage.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, literature serves as a remarkable tool for enhancing English proficiency. It provides a multifaceted approach to learning, blending vocabulary expansion, cultural insight, and exposure to diverse narrative structures. By bridging the gap between language and culture, literature allows learners to grasp English in a comprehensive, contextual manner. Whether it’s the timeless eloquence of classic literature, the vivid storytelling of different genres, or the modern expressions found in contemporary works, literature remains a potent ally in the quest to master the English language. Through its unique capacity to immerse learners in varied linguistic experiences, literature doesn’t just teach English—it brings it to life.