II. The process of reception
III. Checking textual comprehension
IV. Attempts at textual analysis
V. Options for discussion
VI. Creative tasks
Apart from linguistic difficulties there are also psychological problems to be observed in the foreign language classroom. Every experienced teacher is familiar with the situation in which he wants to motivate his/her students by using open questions, and though the questions are interesting in themselves, nobody really wants to participate in an active way. Such difficulties are not caused by linguistic problems, but possibly by personality factors of the learners: e.g. there may be inhibitions to overcome the one-sentence-barrier, there may be the fear of losing face, and additionally there may be pressure of time in the specific situation of the foreign language classroom.
If the general approach to teaching literature is to be student-based, the atmosphere in the course is of major importance: this concerns the relationship of the participants among themselves, but also the respective roles of teachers and pupils. Some degree of mutual confidence will be indispensable if lively or even controversial discussions are to come about in class. There are, then, individual and interpersonal psychological problems in dealing with a novel in class, apart from the problems of understanding the text and memorizing essential insights of its analysis and discussion.
The use of translations has always been very attractive to pupils, and they are often used secretly by them. However, it is easy to prove that there is no translation without interpretations and mistakes. To quote two examples only: a German translation of Brave New World , which is available as a Fischer pocket book, is located in Berlin rather than in London, and Dr. Foster becomes Herr Päppler ...). The title of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird becomes in the German translation: Wer die Nachtigall stört. In order to realise the substantial extent of this latter mistake you have to know that the mockingbird of Lee's title metaphorically refers to two major characters in the novel who both lose their lives. Of course, if pupils buy a translation, the danger will be they use it permanently, and in that case they miss all the advantages of extensive reading for foreign language learning.
Watching a film, very often a video film in English, normally is very popular with students since the visual dimension offers many helps for understanding. However, it means that the pupils are handed over to the perspective of the director or/and the producer, i.e. to somebody else's interpretation of a literary text. Although there can be no doubt that film analysis is a legitimate means in itself, the students' imaginative power is influenced since they are confronted with a visual manipulation rather than with the author's text, which means that the intrinsic value of reading is lost. Very often people feel disappointed if they watch a film after reading the book. This is understandable because the reader's imagination will differ from that of a producer: literature made into a film follows different laws. If you are really interested in the author's intention, there is no substitute for reading the original text.
Still the didactic problem remains how the pupils are to learn about this. Somehow, a dialogue should take place between reader and text. It is a highly controversial question whether this dialogue should occur before the discussion of the first chapter in class. This could mean that the students have got two or three (or more) weeks in order to read the whole novel before the first teaching unit takes place (long-term homework task). An alternative would be to have the students read the novel chapter by chapter. Therefore the question should be raised now: which solution is preferable?
For successive reading three arguments have been put forward:
(1) The pupils are no experienced readers in the foreign language. Therefore they are unable to read a comprehensive narrative text all by themselves (1).
(2) If the students read the text successively, their distance towards the text is rather small, which might lead to a better active cooperation in class (2).
(3) As long as the pupils do not know the outcome, they are willing to advance reasonable hypotheses concerning their expectations. This means that the potential for discussion is higher (3).
No argument for a successive reading of the novel is convincing. The third argument possesses little weight since it cannot mean that after reading the whole text, there is no potential for discussion anymore. Many modern texts have got an open ending, so follow-up tasks may still be discussed in class. In addition there are always gaps in the text to be filled in, imaginative extensions and creative tasks are not rendered impossible by a sound textual knowledge of the whole novel.
As to the second argument, successive reading also has got disadvantages since the novel is split up into many small elements; successive reading of the novel bears the risk of its being fragmented, which may detract from the pleasure of the reading process. Besides, it may contain the risk of slowing down the work in class too much and therefore may keep motivated pupils from going on reading. And if some of them have got knowledge of different parts of the text than others, this will lead to communication problems in class. Moreover, building up critical distance towards the novel is a valuable teaching aim rather than an undesirable state of affairs.
As to the first argument it must be looked upon as a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy: if the teacher gives hints as to this conviction, the pupils will not hesitate to confirm this. Education should be just the opposite: it is for the teacher to withdraw where pupils or children can become active. Whoever is too much afraid of putting demands on his students will soon not teach them anything because such an educator will not be taken seriously any longer. Therefore no teacher should argue that pre-reading is not practicable. In a recent article it has been shown that even a comprehensive and complex novel like Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale may be pre-read by the pupils at home (4).
I think that pre-reading should be desirable for a variety of reasons. First of all, it also means pre-teaching for the sequence as a whole. If you want to interpret any part of the novel, for example the first chapter to begin with, you have to know the context of the whole. This is true of thematic as well as of formal aspects, e.g. in interpreting examples of foreshadowings. In the case of Huxley's Brave New World, this insight may be applied to the interpretation of the world state's motto: only from the context of the novel does its irony become transparent. In the case of Richard Wright's novel Native Son it is necessary to know its outcome in order to be able to realise that the first chapter contains the whole novel in a nutshell. Thus a sound textual knowledge is necessary for a contextualised approach to the text: it is necessary from the viewpoint of literary scholarship.
Second, pre-reading is also desirable from a didactic point of view since, for example, this procedure makes it possible to use a large variety of written tasks for homework (e.g. attempts at analysis), which calls for additional activities by the students that could help to prepare the individual lessons: therefore homework tasks do not only follow the individual lessons, they also become an integral part of the next. This means: the teacher possesses more methodical possibilities; there are more duties for the students, but there is also more independent work for them.
Third, the students should be experienced readers in the foreign language, who should have practised a lot of extensive reading, for example in dealing with long stories, dramas, shorter novels or full-length examples of fiction. In addition, in reading a novel on their own, the pupils should be encouraged to read for gist, not for detail. Moreover, in many didactic editions of the Langenscheidt-Longman publishing house, the use of a reading log (5) is recommended. This means that from time to time, the students are encouraged to stop their reading of the novel in order to reflect on what the text has been about so far and to form predictions or hypotheses of how the text may go on.
So they develop some kind of critical distance, which makes reading more attractive. They may try to find aspects which may be combined to previous knowledge, which is in accordance with recent learning psychology. They could record parallels with films or TV plays, with their own experiences, their knowledge of the world. They try to imagine things, to identify with persons, to pass value judgements on characters and patterns of behaviour.
All this is undoubtedly helpful in order to facilitate reading comprehension. However, it cannot be practised with every piece of literature or with every text in order to prevent the reading log from becoming an unbearable burden. It would be ideal if it could be done on a voluntary basis since the pupils' attention should neither be influenced nor even be manipulated. They should choose their own aspects of emphasis, their own focuses of attention, in order to achieve the highest possible degree of independent learner-activity.
using the question-and-answer technique (closed questions);
fill-in-exercise (e.g. a gapped summary of an episode which does not refer to lexical or grammatical problems but where relevant items of information have to be filled in);
putting one/some sentence(s) in the wrong place; the students find and correct it/them;
scrambled sentences: put in five sentences which are irrelevant;
scrambled sentences: have them put in the correct order by practising listening comprehension only;
mixing up two different summaries: have the students correct them;
using lie-detecting exercises;
locating and contextualising quotations;
completing defective dialogues;
matching quotations and literary figures;
matching parts of sentences/main and subordinate clauses;
matching paragraphs and headings;
adding redundant sentences: have the students cross them out;
having the students write one sentence for each paragraph;
having the students make suggestions how to illustrate some paragraphs.
Probably the time-honoured question-and-answer technique and the production of summaries (both oral and written) are the most frequently used possibilities of checking textual comprehension in class. Some exercises are regularly offered in textbooks/coursebooks of English and seem to be more appropriate for younger learners, such as fill-in-exercises, multiple-choice-tests or true-false statements, where the students have to find out the false statements and to make the necessary corrections. However, if the gaps which have to be filled in, refer to substantial details of the text under consideration, gap-filling is not forcibly too easy for more advanced learners, and the same is true of lie-detecting in a summary.
If scrambled sentences have to be put in the correct order by listening to the different statements, this task may become very demanding. The same is true of the different matching exercises mentioned above and of the task to locate and to contextualise quotations; this latter procedure is to be recommended, as it provides a smooth transition from textual comprehension to text analysis. As to more advanced pupils, there exists no ideal possibility. The most important aim is to check textual comprehension in a way as varied as possible, and there exist many possibilities of putting this principle into practice.
It is also sensible to allow the learners some minutes to take a few notes, which may be used in the subsequent open classroom discussion: this reduces the psychological stress for the learners and could be seen as a phase of pre-teaching, which renders possible inductive classroom procedure: new interpretative insights and inferences are to be achieved by the pupils, the teacher should take their opinions seriously, and text analysis is directed at productive aims. The teacher should neither let any question go unanswered nor answer it himself/herself.
There is one possibility of variation. If the students are asked to find their own questions, their own points of emphasis, this will be a means of counterbalancing methodical routine in general and the teacher's dominance in particular, since it implies a change of roles and may lead to more learner independence eventually. It could be a demanding and fascinating task for the learners to edit their own text: apart from providing it with linguistic annotations, they could develop a systematic set of questions, which will be in accordance with their own interests and desires.
What is also often neglected is the recitation of kernel passages by the pupils. A team of two or three of them could be asked to read out a relevant paragraph, and their classmates may be asked to comment on their reading. Any possible critical remarks should not refer to phonetic inaccuracies, but to the readers' intonation and interpretation of the text. This would be an unusual way of having the students develop a public discussion in the foreign language lessons.
Another possibility is to change the interpersonal situation in class. If the teacher uses pair work or group work, s/he will be able to encourage interactions among the learners. Of course, the different forms of interpersonal arrangements may be combined: individual work may be transformed into pair work, then several different pairs of learners may exchange their ideas, then two new pairs enter into contact with each other, and this is finally supplemented by an open teacher-students-dialogue so that something like a pyramid discussion is realised (9).
Generally speaking, a large variety of student-centred activities is desirable (10): changing the members of different groups may reduce the amount of psychosocial stress to which the course participants are exposed. It may also help to overcome possible students' inhibitions, increase their self-confidence, and thus may pave the way for an open classroom discussion since the fear of disgracing oneself becomes less dominant.
When using group work there often occurs the problem that the students use their mother tongue rather than the target language. In order to prevent this, Nathalie Hess, in a recently published book entitled Headstarts (11), suggests the following organisation. In every group there should be
- a chairperson who is responsible for the work of the group;
- a secretary who makes notes to be used by the speaker;
- a dictionary keeper who looks up all the missing words;
- a monitor who is to make sure that every group member makes use of the target language;
- a spokesperson who explains the results achieved by the work of the group.
It is the teacher's task to encourage the groups until they get accustomed to using the target language. I think that this methodical variation has to be tried out in practice, and it may take some time to realise this, but I feel sure that in this context very much depends on the linguistic behaviour of the teacher.
2. Whenever open questions or open tasks are used in interpreting a literary work, three steps are very likely to take place: first the learners have to collect textual evidence, then they have to find out about possible links as well as about similarities and differences of the individual contributions, i.e. they have to structure and to categorize their material somehow, and finally they have to form an opinion concerning their findings, i.e. they come to a conclusion and/or an evaluation.
Very often a brainstorming session may be helpful at the beginning of a lesson, the results of which are presented like a spidergram, which not only reflects the mental processes (cf. mindmaps), but also may call for further elaboration and therefore pave the way for textual analysis. On the other hand, classroom work may start at the text itself since it is also possible to concentrate on the categorization of the textual evidence right from the beginning. In dealing with literary characters for example, the class could be asked to collect all the statements concerning their outward appearance, their practical behaviour, and their values and prepare a column for each of them on the blackboard or on a transparency. This means that grids or diagrams are used in order to organize textual analysis. (An alternative would be that the students work out files or flow charts for the development of round characters.)
The necessary categories could also partly be found or completed by the students. When discussing a utopian novel like Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 for example, the students could be asked which aspects of the text they are interested in. Thus it may be asked what the author says about the role of education, of the mass media, of private life, of work, of politics ... and what kind of criticism concerning our world or possible future developments in it may be implied (12). Or in dealing with a postmodern novel like Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 narrative technique could be described both in an affirmative and a negative way by using two columns. On the one hand, the novel is characterised by
- a lack of characters in a traditional sense;
- a lack of rising and falling action;
- a lack of tension;
- a lack of chronological order;
- a lack of causality ...
On the other hand, narrative structure in this novel is dominated by
- the principle of association;
- a technique of collage;
- a technique of allusions/references permanently repeated and slightly varied;
- a combination of facts and fiction;
- a cyclical presentation of episodes ...
Such an approach, in which textual evidence is collected for the individual categories, is not only motivating, but also extremely flexible. The systematic arrangement and the written formulation are comparable to visualization techniques, and certainly both mindmaps and diagrams will facilitate memorization.
3. The didactic sequence of collecting, classifying and evaluating textual evidence may even be changed in a different way. Curious as it may sound at first, it is possible to start with the third step and to confront the students with a collage of value judgements or with material where different standpoints are expressed, and then the students are asked to say which statements they share/which value judgements they reject and for what reasons. This may also be used in connection with character analysis, namely by using word portraits (13), where the learners are confronted with a list of adjectives from which they are expected to choose a limited number and which should be arranged as to their increasing importance (this technique has become known as ranking).
Another example would be to give some information concerning Landeskunde problems, and the students are asked which statements they think are more relevant for the text under consideration than others. Generally speaking, quotations, proverbs, aphorisms, clichés ... could be used as additional material in order to practise comparative analysis, sometimes even in the pre-reading phase. Whenever this approach is used, there will arise genuine questions which call for more than one answer. Therefore communication in the foreign language class may become well-nigh authentic.
4. It is also possible to use additional material of a different kind, namely visual media. On the one hand, the teacher may use photos and slides to illustrate aspects of the novel, and it is with good reason that filmed versions of novels are very popular. On the other hand, the teacher may make use of visual techniques in order to explain certain characteristics of the text. It is high time that the relationship between comprehensive literary texts and illustration techniques should be studied systematically. In this context, some examples may be quoted:
- In discussing Bernard Malamud's The Assistant the element of place could be illustrated by using a system of concentric circles (14). Similarly, in dealing with Lord of the Flies a map may be used which shows all the relevant elements of William Golding's fictitious island which may be completely derived from the text (15).
- In reading Carson McCullers's The Ballad of the Sad Café the chronology of events, i.e. the structure of narrated time, may be suitably illustrated with the help of a diagram (16).
- When using James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain in class the structure of the plot may be compared to that of the drama (17).
Generally speaking, the constellation of characters in a novel (whether it resembles a triangle or a tragic chain) may be illustrated by blackboard work or by a transparency for the OHP. If it follows a more complicated pattern, it may be visualized in a sociogram. Very often this is a good means of first orientation and subsequent approach to the novel when textual analysis is started. Obviously, all the constituent elements of fiction and even of literary texts in general may be illustrated somehow or other. On the whole, there are many options in order to realise methodical variation in textual analysis.
Therefore it may be a demanding as well as a motivating task for teachers and learners to state their own answers, on which points they agree or disagree, and what the textual evidence is like if no consensus can be achieved. It is possible to arrange a formal debate, to form groups who prepare themselves for maintaining different standpoints (collecting pros and cons), which implies that the members of the same team are seated together and at the same time have to face the opposite party. Consequently the seating arrangement will have to reflect conflicting or opposing standpoints.
It is also possible to arrange different social forms, for example to apply the so-called "hot chair" principle, where one student has to undergo something like a cross examination on a subject he has sufficiently prepared. Or the classroom situation could resemble a panel discussion, which means that four to six people at most are on the panel and have to answer the questions the other class members may fire at them (19).
It is highly desirable that, in the initial stage, the teacher practises active withdrawal rather than more or less regular intervention (in order to correct mistakes and to contradict the pupils) so that he plays the part of the chairman rather than that of a (dominant) contributor to the discussion: this may encourage the learners to express their own reactions, feelings, attitudes, interests and standpoints. This may also add to their self-confidence, and thus linguistic interaction among the learners will help to improve their communicative competence.
It goes without saying that such interpersonal discussions have to be carefully prepared in class: this could take place by reading texts and taking notes in individual work, to be followed by pair work and a first trial run, again to be followed by a discussion with a different partner before finally a 'public' classroom discussion takes place (cf. above; cf. (20).
Instances concerning practical classroom procedure in this respect are legion. It may be discussed for example, whether the plot of a novel is psychologically convincing or whether its theme is socially relevant, or the learners may choose from a collage of value judgements on its literary quality and give reasons for their opinion. Thus it may be discussed in class whether Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird is still topical/may be applied to the U.S.A. only/whether it is a successful/well-written novel, what the students think of the literary point-of-view (the events being told from the perspective of a child, but told with the words of an adult and mature narrator), what they think of the comparative quality of the film and the book, etc. To conclude: textual aspects which may be problematized may serve many practical purposes for improving the learners' command of the foreign language.
First of all, creative writing tasks may be used whenever there occur gaps in the text. In chapter 6 of Bernard Malamud's The Assistant Helen Bober gets a phone call from Frank Alpine and the two agree to have a rendez-vous. In the novel the reader does not learn anything concerning Helen's emotional response. Therefore it may be a motivating task for both the teacher and the pupils to imagine what Helen's feelings, expectations, hopes, dreams ... may be like in this particular situation. The learners, then, could be asked to write a diary entry by Helen on that day.
If an event is briefly stated in the text and the learners are asked to be more specific about it, the task will be a similar one. Thus in the text of the same novel the reader learns that Ward Minogue made Frank Alpine take part in the hold-up of the Jewish merchant Morris Bober by appealing to his accomplice's anti-Semitic attitude. Again it may be a motivating task for the pupils to write down what the dialogue between the two may have looked like. When in Huxley's Brave New World the importance of hypnopaedia for the education of the people is mentioned, the pupils may be asked to invent slogans for a hypnopaedic tape, which could serve instructional purposes, e.g. concerning elementary class consciousness, consumerism and love of the expensive country sports, which could be combined with gentle and suggestive musical elements in order to enhance their effectiveness. When dealing with Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 the pupils may imagine that the protagonist Montag and his ally Faber want to write a political pamphlet in order to overthrow the government and to reform society. It can be seen already that creative tasks do not only mean a lot of imaginative freedom, but include different types of text as well.
Besides, follow-up tasks have become very popular in class. Many modern novels have got an open ending, so that the question arises: how may the text go on? Therefore, in order to refer to The Assistant again, the pupils may be asked whether they think that Frank Alpine and Helen Bober will get married one day, or whether it will be possible for Helen to realize her dream of an academic education, or what Ida Bober's attitude towards Frank Alpine will eventually be like. Concerning Brave New World the pupils may be asked to develop a picture of this utopian state in the year 832 A. F., i.e. a world which would exist two centuries later than Huxley's. Or concerning any utopian novel the pupils may be asked to produce a guide for tourists who visit this society for the first time (this could include texts, photos, cartoons as well as an attractive lay-out). Concerning John Fowles's The Collector the learners may be asked to imagine that the protagonist is arrested in the end and to report to the public about his trial. By using such creative activities the pupils have to be careful to develop ideas which are in accordance with the original texts or which at least do not contradict them.
Moreover, every work of fiction is determined by a particular point of view. Therefore it is possible to have a part of a novel re-written from a different perspective. Rather than using an omniscient point of view, the pupils may be asked to use first-person narration for example, which will help them to realize the crucial role of perspective: it always means a particular, possibly subjective view of things, which, as a rule, implies an invitation to identification. If this is changed, it practically calls for a different text. To Kill a Mockingbird for instance is written from the point of view of the young girl Scout; perhaps parts of the events may be re-written from the point of view of her brother Jem, of their father Atticus or of the black cook Calpurnia. Such tasks could help the students to gain insights for interpretation, i.e. to realize what must have been the author's original intention in employing a particular point of view. Thus, no doubt, there is a correlation between the choice of perspective and the text, but also one between creative writing and interpretation generally speaking.
Whether the pupils fill in gaps, write variations of or alternatives to the original text, transform a passage into a different type of text, invent new situations (develop possible dreams of the protagonist or interviews with fictitious characters): the tasks should appeal to the personal interests of the pupils from the very beginning. Therefore it may be a good idea not to use obligatory creative tasks exclusively, but to offer some alternatives from which the students are allowed to choose. Therefore I would support the idea of the so-called "homework restaurant" (24). All the examples mentioned so far refer to the text itself.
There are others which refer to the publication of a literary work as a social event: the publishing houses as well as the author naturally want a book to sell. If it is to be a successful bestseller or even a longseller, advertising is important, the mass media are influential, i.e. the role of the catalysts has to be considered; therefore a different set of creative tasks will be taken into consideration now, which refers to the co-text of a literary work. When a book is published, it is normally reviewed; there may be public lectures by the author; there may be interviews with him; letters to the author (if still alive) or to the editor may be written (and some classes may manage to do so by e-mail); controversial discussions may take place in public; the pupils may want to recommend the reading of a book recently published to friends - or warn them against it; newspaper reports about public debates may come out; they will also become the subject of talk shows on TV, a film version may be prepared for which a script will be needed.
In this context two examples of school novels such as The Wave or The Day They Came to Arrest the Book may be mentioned: they are based on facts which started as a local affair, but which became a matter of national concern, in which mass media played a crucial role. The learners, then, may be asked to write a collection of texts about such events; these could be discussed in pairs, in groups or in class, finally corrected by the teacher and edited for a limited number of interested people. This has recently been recommended concerning John Fowles's novel The Collector (25) and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (26); it also resembles project work as it was practised concerning Huxley's Brave New World which was transformed into a sequence of dramatic scenes and then publicly performed several times and also videotaped (27).
There exist, then, two possibilities of categorizing creative development activities. First they may refer to the constituent elements of a work of fiction, such as narrative perspective, plot and character as well as time and place. Moreover, they may refer to the real-life factors which do justice to the fact that a book is meant to reach an audience as large as possible, that a literary work has to be understood as a social event. Ambitious
as all these tasks may be, their success seems to depend on the motivation of the class members or the course participants; they may be encouraged to experience the almost unlimited joy of imaginative freedom. And there is a psychological and practical distance of a thousand miles between bookish English and such a practical (authentic) use of the target language. Taken together, these methodical considerations allow for a large variety of teaching about literature in the foreign language classroom.
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