Literature in Lower-Level Courses: Making Progress in Both Language and Reading Skills

By Weist, Vanisa D. | Foreign Language Annals, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Literature in Lower-Level Courses: Making Progress in Both Language and Reading Skills


Weist, Vanisa D., Foreign Language Annals


Abstract:

This research project investigated the role of the literary text in intermediate reading instruction in an attempt to address the question of how instructors can integrate literary selections into all levels of language instruction. Specifically, the study examined one particular classroom environment and explored its relationship to our present understanding of the teaching of literature and reading comprehension. Using a qualitative research approach, the study investigated: (1) the interplay between "reading" and "literature" in the second language (L2) classroom; (2) the underlying beliefs and assumptions that the instructor and students bring into the classroom regarding literature and reading comprehension; and (3) how these underlying assumptions affect what occurs in class. A presentation of course goals, classroom roles, and class activities and tasks elucidates how each of these issues is influenced by the students' and instructor's conceptualization of the reading process. Suggestions are made to help language teachers incorporate literature into classroom instruction. Attention is also given to the Standards for Foreign Language Learning and to their implications for incorporating literary texts into an intermediate reading course.

Introduction

"It's called Reading in Spanish, but it's a literature course." This is how one student characterized Spanish 120, an intermediate reading course offered during a recent spring semester at a large research university. The intended audience of Spanish 120 was the student in his or her fifth semester of language study; it was the first course that students could take after fulfilling the four-semester language requirement. The course catalog described Spanish 120 as follows: "Emphasis on rapid reading comprehension. Selected readings from contemporary Hispanic literature, social sciences, current events, etc." Even though literature was a stated component of this course, the student quoted above differentiated between a "reading" course and a "literature" course-a distinction reflected in the language/literature curricula in many foreign language departments.

Historically, teaching language has consistently been viewed as a less sophisticated, and therefore less difficult task than teaching literature (Barnett 1991; Kramsch, 1993). Hoffman and James (1986) commented on the prevalent framework underlying many foreign language departments: "The teaching of literature to undergraduates legitimizes our standing as professors and the teaching of language does not" (p. 29). Even today, when literary texts are chosen to teach reading, language teachers seem constrained to teach these texts primarily for their information value. The result is a dichotomy between language teaching and literary instruction. Lazar (1993) referred to this distinction as the difference between the study of literature and the use of literature as a resource. The study of literature makes literature itself the content or subject of a language course, while the use of literature as a resource draws on literature as one source among many different kinds of texts for promoting interesting language activities. Given this dichotomy, Kramsch (1993) called for the need to "reformulate their relation within the language teaching enterprise" (p. 8). She added that the pedagogical question is not whether language teachers should teach literature or not. Rather, instructors need to ask how they can help learners read literary texts.1

The development of linguistic skills and literary appreciation are common goals in many language programs. However, both researchers and instructors (Bernhardt, 1995; Scher, 1976; Schulz, 1981) have commented on the lack of articulation between courses in many foreign language departments. While lower level language classes may read literary works for language practice and reading comprehension, courses at the more advanced levels might use the literary selections for the development of knowledge of world literature, practice in reading and discussing creative work, and the understanding of literary concepts, genres, and terminologies (Mittman, 1999; Muyskens, 1983).

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