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Hooked on Books: Alan Pulverness on bringing literature into the language class

January 07, 2016 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

Alan Pulverness

This month we talk to Alan Pulverness, Assistant Academic Director at NILE and Course Leader for the NILE TEFL Delta Modules. He is the author of Reading Matters, The Helbling Guide to Using Graded Readers.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you been teaching and writing, Alan?

I started teaching as a full-time profession in the mid-70s, straight after university. The real starting point had been while I was still at school, when I did some private tuition, teaching Hebrew and Latin (which I couldn’t do today!) Then at university I studied Comparative Literature, French and Applied Linguistics, which involved a year abroad, and I got a job teaching English and writing language laboratory drills and collaborating on an in-house publication called English for Commerce at Bayer Pharmaceuticals in Leverkusen, near Cologne.

The writing really started in the mid-80s with FCE practice materials and a series of film reviews for Viewfinder an EFL learners’ newspaper, and then took off when I spent six months in Turin working for the Bell Overseas Division producing self-access materials in a bank.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How did your love for literature begin?

Coincidentally, with the same book that sparked a passion for literature in Martyn Hobbs, one of your previous interviewees – Treasure Island. Of course I must have read other books before that, but it’s the first book I remember reading. It was a birthday present, a small book with very thin pages and a dark blue faux-leather cover. Of course I totally identified with Jim Hawkins, but at the same time, like Jim, I was fascinated by Long John Silver, Ben Gunn and the rest of the pirates! I re-read it (on my Kindle) recently – a different book now because I’m a different reader, but it still transported me.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): What do you think of using literary texts and illustrated stories in the English class?

I can’t think of any reason not to use them! Given the right choice of text, literature can provide motivation, engagement and meaningful language input.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): What are the benefits of using them?

Echoing the old Heineken slogan, John McRae in Literature with a Small l describes representational texts (for example poems, stories, jokes, advertisements, newspaper headlines) as texts that reach the parts other texts don’t reach. And that’s the best justification for using literature and graphic novels in the English class. Literature gives learners intensely personal reading experiences, transports them to other times and places, gives them insights into other people’s lives and feelings, sensitises them to the expressive power of language, in short, all the things that textbooks, however good they are, frequently fail to do.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How do you think the place of literature in the classroom has transformed over the years of your teaching?

I gave a talk at the British Council e-Forum conference in Moscow a couple of years ago, when I described literature as ‘the ghost at the banquet’, a kind of uninvited guest in the communicative language classroom. I felt then, and I still feel, that despite the attempts of a handful of eloquent advocates for literature in ELT, such as John McRae, Alan Maley, Gillian Lazar, and periodic signs of a literary revival, literature continues to be neglected, even marginalised. I think this is partly an abiding reaction against the pre-1960s place of literary texts in the grammar-translation tradition and their use as ‘set books’ for examinations; but it’s also a side-effect of a strong communicative approach that takes a view of language as almost exclusively functional.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Do you think illustrations are important? How do you use them?

Illustrations can be useful – if the artist gets it right. And it’s often really tricky to get even a very gifted illustrator to realise the kind of visual imagery that will enhance the text and stimulate the reader, and not be literal visualisations of the text or merely decorative. Good illustrations should give teacher and students an additional dimension to enrich their reading. A fine recent example (not from an ELT reader, though a book that works with upper intermediate / advanced students) is Jim Kay's illustrations for A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness.

I want illustrations to add something to the text, to take students imaginatively beyond the words on the page, to allow their imagination to take flight, not close down the reader’s options. The best illustrations are slightly ambiguous, a source of speculation and even argument.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How do you select texts for your students? What kind genres work well?

Of course readability is a factor, and length – though at the height of Pottermania I met students in Hungary who were so impatient for the next book in the series that they were reading it in English rather than waiting for the Hungarian translation. Then there’s the idea of relevance, a belief that students will only be motivated by texts with which they feel some kind of connection, through first person narration, the age of the protagonist, cultural familiarity and so on. But this would exclude whole library shelves of fantasy, dystopian fables, historical narratives. I think the answer is to provide as much choice as possible and enable students to discover their own reading tastes.

So I’m not sure I’d nominate any particular genres – any genre can work when it finds its ideal reader. And you only have to browse through Christian Holzmann’s 101 Young Adult Novels to get an idea of how rich and varied writing for younger readers has become. And I’d say that there’s little, if anything, that adult novels do which in the right hands can’t be done in a YA novel. So I would always try to listen to my students and find out (and give them the opportunity to find out) what kind of writing excites them.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Which authors would you use to work with teenagers?

Malorie Blackman, Frank Cotterell Boyce, Elizabeth Laird, Anthony McGowan, Beverly Naidoo, Robert C O’Brien, Mal Peet, Bali Rai, Meg Rosoff, Robert Westall, Benjamin Zephaniah, to name just a few!

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): Can you recommend three authors all English teachers should carry in their schoolbag?

Roald Dahl, Michael Rosen, Jackie Kay (but ask me tomorrow and I might give you a completely different answer!)

Thank you for the interview!