Literature in the Language Class: Part 2

We love literature, so why do we shy away from using it in the classroom? In our new series we take a look at literature in language education, demystify some of the jargon and look at practical ways of implementing your ideas with your students. In Literature in the Language Class: Part 1, we looked at some historical background and approaches to using literary texts in the classroom. This time we will explore the terms language and cultural awareness.

Have you ever noticed that your students seem confused about why we should use a certain grammar structure or why one word carries deeper semantic values to describe a feeling or a situation than another? Have they taken one of your polite requests as a simple question, answering ‘No.’ to a request such as ‘Would you like to read the exercise?’ How can you explain why a certain expression is better in a situation than another and how can you discuss humorous examples of language use? How early in the language learning process should we introduce texts which present word plays, cultural references and non-referential uses of the language?

Langauge Awareness, Cultural Awareness

The Association of Language Awareness defines language awareness (LA) as follows: ‘explicit knowledge about language, and conscious perception and sensitivity in language learning, language teaching and language use’. (Source:

Cultural awareness (CA) can be understood as ‘a significant part of conceptualizing the cultural dimension to language teaching. That is, L2 users need to understand L2 communication as a cultural process and to be aware of their own culturally based communicative behaviour and that of others’. (Baker 2011)

As John McRae reminds us in his book Literature with a small ‘l’ (1991), when we communicate in English either in speaking or writing, we very rarely if never use the language in isolation, without a situational or cultural context. Most of our communication requires deeper thinking than creating a sentence such as, ‘I’m a teacher.’ or ‘Your book is on the table.’ Also, when we talk about the weather for example, we don’t just talk about the weather, it’s a cultural element in a discussion. Similarly, when people ask ‘How are you?’, they don’t always expect a report on our well-being.

How can you teach this type of language use in the classroom and build language and cultural awareness so that your students become more confident users of the English language?

As we rarely have the opportunity to go on field trips and listen to natives of different backgrounds in real conversations, one way to start is by implementing elements of a text-based syllabus into your language programme. We think it is important to make literary texts part of your weekly teaching routine as only by discussion and reflection can you help your students start thinking about the language they read, hear and then want to recreate.

Understanding the theory of text-based syllabus design can help you with this.

‘Text-based syllabus design draws on the systemic functional model of language. The main concepts of this model of language are:

  • language is a resource for making meaning;
  • the resource of language consists of a set of interrelated systems;
  • language users draw on this resource each time they use language;
  • language users create texts to make meaning;
  • texts are shaped by the social context in which they are used;
  • the social context is shaped by people using language.

The functional model of language is concerned with two contexts in which we use language. These are the context of situation and the context of culture.’ (Feez 1998)

Using classics, original readers, cartoons and films

An easy way to start exploring these two contexts is building lessons around literary texts, cartoons and films. Discussion and study of the language of the texts, the social and cultural situations is just as important as other classroom activities. Look at the examples of dialogues from various Helbling Readers, and try to answer the following questions with your students:

  • Who is speaking?
  • What is his/her job?
  • How does he/she feel?
  • Who does he/she talking to?
  • Why is the dialogue funny?
  • Why is there a misunderstanding?
  • How well do the speakers know each other?

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These discussion points take us to our next topic, referential/representational language, word play and register. Next week we are going to take a look at these concepts and see some texts and activities that can help us become familiar with them.


  • Baker, Will. From cultural awareness to intercultural awareness: culture in ELT. ELT J first published online April 28, 2011. OUP.
  • Feez, Susan. Text-based syllabus design. Macquarie University, 1998.
  • McRae, John. Literature with a small ‘l’. Macmillan: London, 1991.

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