Students at the JSS level are more likely to develop a sustained interest in reading and writing if they enjoy the content and different activities of literature classes. In many literature classes today, teachers merely tell the stories in their own words or explain each sentence as they read. As a result, students do not get enough practice in reading and understanding for themselves. Also, they miss out on an opportunity to enhance their vocabulary and language skills. This is probably why our students do not want to read or write literary texts on their own. In this unit you will learn to help your students notice the special ways in which language is used in literary texts.
Upon completion of this unit you will be able to:
Teacher support information
The types of children’s literature that students at the JSS level enjoy are likely to vary. Therefore, you need to know how to select literature appropriate to their age, language level and areas of interest. You want them to identify with the characters, understand the viewpoints expressed and find the events and themes interesting — and this will not happen if the books you choose are beyond their level of interest, or have to be explained to them word by word. When students read for themselves, they become more familiar with new words, and gain confidence in sustained reading and writing.
Mrs Laitu Guga teaches English in JSS II of a Government girls’ secondary school. She observed the indifference of the girls to reading and writing stories in English. She remembered how in the good old days her teacher used to give them one book to read per week. She also remembered how she used to enjoy the stories in the books. She would never forget some of the drama nights organised by her college’s drama club and the stimulating debates organised by the debating society. She had even enjoyed participating in some of these activities, especially in choral readings of poems, turning some of them into songs, and analysing poems with her friends. She decided to experiment with some of these activities in her JSS II literature class. She noticed some change in the interest level of her students. They now wanted to read extensively. They also gained more confidence in reading and writing. They also read and wrote better.
Points to ponder
Activity 1: Exploring language patterns in poetry
In Activity 1 of Unit 1, you saw how we can make students notice, understand and analyse the ways in which words are used in poetry. We also discussed the special ways in which poets make up new words, or change familiar words to mean something special. Looking carefully at the words used in poetry is one way in which students’ vocabulary can improve.
In this activity, we will explore other ways in which poets play with language to bring out unique meanings or present a theme in a unique manner. Poets often use patterns, the repetition of sounds, words, structures or themes. Sometimes they twist accepted grammatical rules to say something in a new and interesting manner. This activity will try to build students’ critical awareness of poetic language so that their own language skills are enhanced.
For the activity, choose a poem (preferably a well-known poem that deals with themes familiar to your students). A sample poem is given in Resource 1. Put the students in groups and give each group a stanza from the poem to analyse as shown in Resource 1. You can move around the groups and help them discover the patterns. The groups should then present to the class a few words about the main idea of their stanza, along with some quotations from the poem to prove their point.
Before the activity, however, you will have to familiarise students with some poetic devices such as use of lexical sets, parallelism, inversions and run-on lines. Here are some suggestions on how to introduce these concepts to students with familiar examples.
clouds, anger, pink, jumping, river, grey, excitement, grief, birds, waterfall, chasing, jogging, envy, blue, riding, white
They should come up with the groups nature, colour, movement and emotions/feelings. Explain to the students that words belonging to a similar category make a lexical set, and when we can identify lexical sets in a passage, it usually helps us to understand the passage better.
Into the valley of Death rode the Light Brigade
Into the mouth of Hell rode the Light Brigade
What we notice in these lines is that the same lines are repeated throughout, but some of the words in the middle are changed (the valley of Death/the mouth of Hell). Ask the students why they think the poet has used this kind of repetition and what special idea the poet wanted to convey. Expected answers would be: The poet repeats the lines because he wants us to notice that the Light Brigade kept riding and did not stop doing their duty even when they knew they would die. He replaces the phrase the valley of Death by the mouth of Hell to make us focus on the seriousness of the situation, and to highlight the heroic decision of the soldiers. Explain to the students that this kind of repeated structure, with a significant change in one of the lines, is called parallelism, which is a special poetic device. Parallelism functions to highlight an important idea in the poem.
She left the room without a sound.
Without a sound, she left the room.
The room she left, without a sound.
The students should notice that the first sentence simply describes the action, without highlighting any aspect of it. In the second one, the focus changes to the fact that there was no noise when she left (or no one noticed that she had left). The third sentence focuses on what she left, rather than the act of leaving. By changing the groups of words in the initial position of a sentence we can find new meanings in sentences. This kind of inversion, very often used in poetry, may sometimes even be a little ungrammatical (The room she left, without a sound) but acceptable in the context.
After the preparatory discussion, have your students look at the poem “The Solitary Reaper,” by William Wordsworth (Resource 1) in groups and work through each stanza. The groups should look for all the interesting categories listed above and explain what special meaning is expressed through the patterns they notice, and how they contribute to the theme of the poem.
Activity 2: Exploring language patterns in plays
As the activities across the units in this module show, there are several ways in which we can help students explore the special language features in plays. In Unit 1, we had an activity for students to convert a prose text into a play, and this is one way of helping students notice the features of drama. In this activity, however, we will focus on the dialogue; that is, the characters’ conversations, because conversations tell us more about the characters’ relationships and help us understand the theme better.
Before students do the activity, they need to be aware of how our feelings are expressed in our conversations. Play the audio/video clip in Resource 2a or read out the transcript in a way that sounds like natural conversation. The students should watch/listen to the conversation clips in the audio/video carefully and then answer the following questions.
After collecting the answers and having a short discussion, alert the students to how people’s words, gestures and behaviour all help us learn more about their personalities and their state of mind (whether they are happy or sad, angry or anxious, and so on). In conversations, people who are more powerful tend to speak more, and take more turns in speaking (i.e., they speak at the same time as other people, interrupt other speakers, or just talk more often). People also do this when they are agitated (anxious, worried, angry, etc). When people are agitated, they also stammer, repeat words, start, stop halfway and start again. Another thing that students should notice about conversations is how people use indirectness: sometimes people give half information, or avoid giving direct answers or even tell a lie. All these things give us more insights into people’s personalities, feelings and relationships. In drama, playwrights use such strategies to tell us more about their characters and also to prepare us for the climax.
Once you have made the students aware of some such conversation features, give them an extract from a play from their curriculum. Divide them into groups and ask them to find out the theme of the scene by looking closely at the dialogue. They should also look at the stage directions to find more information about the characters and how they behave and think. A sample excerpt from a play is given in Resource 2b.
The students can do this same activity to analyse a prose text. Simply change the categories from stage directions to plot, setting and description. The dialogue can still form the basis of the analysis.
Activity 3: Writing a review of a literary text
Now that your students have had some practice in reading and analysing the language of literary texts, you can help them consolidate their experience by teaching them how to review a literary text.
Have the students imagine they have been asked by a reputable newspaper to review a new book. They will be given an excerpt from the book, and their task will be to evaluate it so that people can decide whether the book is worth buying. Tell them this is a task of great responsibility, as the writer’s popularity depends on their review.
Before the students begin writing, they need to understand what is required in a review. For a discussion on the language of reviews, bring in some sample reviews from English newspapers and magazines and distribute them amongst the groups. Draw the students’ attention to the writing style in a book review. In particular, they should note the factual details (name of the book, author, publisher, price, number of chapters, whether it has an introduction or preface, etc.), the summary of the theme, (including the characterisation, the feelings expressed), the language used (easy conversational style or more difficult to understand, use of words or humour, etc.) and finally, the reviewer’s own comments. (See Resource 3 for sample reviews.)
For the activity, divide the students into four or five groups and give each group a page from a literary text included in their English textbook or supplementary reader, or any book from the school library. Tell them to prepare a review in one paragraph, keeping in mind the guidelines they have already noticed in the sample reviews. The students should then read out their reviews, and vote for the best. The winning review could be displayed on the wall or included in the school magazine.
In this unit you learned how to engage students in tasks that help them notice and appreciate the special ways in which language is treated in literary texts. These activities, if executed with humour, can trigger a sustained interest in literature in the students. This habit will, in turn, not only help them become better readers, it will also make them more articulate users of English.
Resource 1: Sample poem: “The Solitary Reaper”
Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland lass!
Reaping and singing by herself;
Stop here, or gently pass!
Alone she cuts and binds the grain,
And sings a melancholy strain;
O listen! for the vale profound
Is overflowing with the sound.
No nightingale did ever chaunt
More welcome notes to weary bands
Of travellers in some shady haunt,
Among Arabian sands;
A voice so thrilling ne'er heard
In springtime from the cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.
Will no one tell me what she sings?—
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago;
Or is it some more humble lay,
Familiar matter of today?
Some natural sorrow, loss, or pain,
That has been, and may be again?
Whate’er the theme, the maiden sang
As if her song could have no ending;
I saw her singing at her work,
And o'er the sickle bending;
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill,
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
Resource 2a: The language of drama
Mother (angrily): Kathy, how many times have I told you not to use your cell phone when guests come to visit? It’s SUCH bad manners! I was so embarrassed when your Aunt Marcia was asking you something and you didn’t even notice!
Kathy (carelessly): Oh, I couldn’t care less! Aunt Marcia is so boring. Who wants to talk to her?
Mother (annoyed): DO you HAVE to be so rude? I just don’t understand this generation — you actually seem to take pride in being nasty! Whatever happened to good manners? And people will say I didn’t bring you up the right way!
Kathy (angrily): Why can’t you just leave me ALONE??!! God knows why people just don’t understand me…
Mother (cutting her off): Get out of the room, you nasty girl! You don’t help around the house, you live like a pig in that filthy room, and you have the guts to be rude! All right, I’ve had enough! You’ll get no pocket money, young lady, until you have called up your Aunt Marcia and said hello to her. And while you’re at it, clean up your room by tonight or else I’ll rent it out! God knows how much I need the money, you ungrateful creature!
Richard: Hey, guys, guess what… I’ve been selected for the squad! Got a call from none other than coach himself! He’s asked me to show for practice on Monday! I still can’t believe I’ve made the team!!
Zaffar: Wow, lucky guy! Imagine… We’ll watch you on television up with the greats! You better start behaving like a star right from now… How about making me your manager?
Richard: Okay, okay… Rib me all you like… but when I’m really there on the field scoring goals, you’ll have to line up for my autograph!
Celia: You’re right, Rick! I’m going to be your manager, and Zaff will be your valet… After all, you’ll need someone to press your clothes and polish your shoes. Ha ha!
Zaffar: Whoever heard of a woman manager for a football star?? You’ll be his secretary when I negotiate his price with Manchester United!
Richard: Okay, okay, guys, cut it out… You’re embarrassing me! Let me first prove my worth, and then watch where I land up! Right next to Beckham, Messi, Drogba, Eto’o….
Teacher Musa: Good morning, children! Are you all ready?
Students (in unison): We are, Sir!
Teacher: Is anyone scared?
Rabia (in a small voice, worried): I don’t think I’ll pass, Sir… I just don’t remember a word of what I read!
Ahmed: Me too, Sir! My mind has gone blank! My mum will skin me alive if I fail this time too! She’s threatened to take me out of school, marry me to a girl from her village and make me work in the fields!
All: Ha ha! That’ll be lovely, Ahmed! We’ll all come and visit you some time!
Teacher: That’s enough, everyone! Put your bags away… It’s almost time!
Teacher: Okay, ready? Let’s say a prayer first: Dear Lord, we are all gathered here today to begin our final exam. Please guide us on the path of success! Amen.
Robin: Sir, can I go out for a minute? I’ve forgotten my pencil box!
Teacher: It’s not allowed. Which one’s your bag? I’ll get it.
Principal (walking in): Everything under control, Musa?
Teacher (caught by surprise, stammering): Ye…yes, Sir! I… I was just going to begin distributing the papers…
Principal (cutting him off): You better do that, or there won’t be time later. You know we have a meeting at five. Be there!
Teacher: Yes, Sir! Sure, Sir!
See in the enclosed DVD a video recording of the activities:
Resource 2b: Extract from a play
Adapted from The Bishop’s Candlesticks
Bishop: Now I think you may let your prisoner go.
Sergeant: But he won’t show me his papers… he won’t tell me who he is…
Bishop: I’ve told you he’s my friend.
Sergeant: Yes, that’s all very well, but…
Bishop: He’s your bishop’s friend. Surely that’s enough?
Sergeant: Well, but…
Sergeant: I… I… Humph! (To his men) Loosen the prisoner. (They do so.) Right about turn, quick march!
(Exit Sergeant and Gendarmes. A long pause.)
Convict: (Very slowly, as if in a dream) You told them you had given me the candlesticks — given me them. By God!
Mrs Persome: Oh, you scoundrel, you pitiful scoundrel! You come here, you are fed, and warmed, and — and you thief, you steal from your host! Oh, you blackguard!
Bishop: Persome, you are tired. Go to your room.
Mrs Persome: What?! And leave you with him to be cheated again, perhaps murdered?
Bishop: Leave, Persome, and place those candlesticks on the table on your way out.
Mrs Persome: I won’t — I will not!
Bishop: I, your bishop, command you!
(Mrs Persome leaves with great reluctance.)
Convict: I… I… didn’t believe there was any good in this world; one doesn’t know when one has been in Hell; but somehow I… I… know you’re good, an — and it’s a queer thing to ask, but — could you, would you bless me before I go? I… I… think it would help me. I…
Bishop: Stay, my son… Sleep here tonight…
Bishop: …and leave very early tom…
Convict: Fa… What are you saying, Holy Father…!!
Bishop: There’s a path through the back… A very lonely path.
Convict: I… I… don’t know… what to say, Father Tha —Thank you!
Bishop: Always remember, my son, that this poor body is the Temple of the Living God.
Convict: I… I’ll remember, Father! Bless you, Father!
Resource 3: Sample book review
Teacher question and answer
Question: In one academic year, there is barely time to allow my students to read books at their leisure and then discuss them. Also, not all my students understand literary language, so they complain if I don’t explain or translate the story.
Answer: This is a valid problem faced by most teachers, but it can be partly solved by a little careful planning and time management. You could set aside one period every week for literature-based classroom activities, and have students read the text at home before coming to class. This will save time, and help sustain your efforts to keep them reading. As for students with poor reading skills who like to have you explain the text, you should wean them off such dependency by grading the books they have to read. You can start by giving them books in simpler language than the one other students are reading, and over a period of six months or so they will learn to read and understand on their own. Then they can join the rest, and read and analyse the same texts.