Literature in the Language Class: Part 3

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. In Part 2 we explored  language and cultural awareness, and studied the features of a text-based syllabus.

This time we would like to look at some of the different types of language we use in our everyday life and in the language class. Our main focus points today are referential and representational texts and language use as introduced by John McRae in his book, Literature with a small ‘l’.

What is referential language?

Referential language, and therefore referential materials refer to a thing and define it descriptively. As McRae explains, ‘reductively speaking, one word has one meaning, one grammatical construction is right and another wrong, the words mean what they say, no more or no less.’ (Language, Literature and the Learner, 17)

McRae explains this function of language in Literature with a small ‘l’: ‘In very simple terms, referential language is language which communicates on only one level, usually in terms of information being sought or given, or of a social situation being handled. … It states (“I am a visitor. I have no money.”); it shows (“This is a table; this a chair.”), which is the deictic, or indicating, kind of language use.’ (3)

However, our first and second language usage does not work only on this level. At a very early age in our life and at an early stage in our language learner life, we start reading and creating texts which point beyond their referential function. When we reach this level of language usage, we engage our imagination and creativity to play with language.

What is representational language?

‘By representational language, I mean language which, in order that its meaning potential be decoded by a receiver, engages the imagination of that receiver. There is, therefore, in representational language, something of the conative function (appealing to or influencing the addressees) and perhaps more of the metalingual and poetic functions, as Jakobson described them.’ (McRae, 3)

What are the most evident examples of representational texts in our everyday language use?

We could say that that the simplest example is wordplay, or as McRae points it out, jokes. ‘An ability to make a joke already indicates a capacity to move away from the purely referential frame and to use a different range of linguistic, emotional and cultural references, and social attitudes. It indicates that there is for the speaker who makes the joke a representation, in a different key, so to speak, of a basic, referentially-closed situation.’ (McRae, 3)

Knowing this, we can conclude an important characteristic of referential and representational texts. Referential language may exist in isolation, but the nature of representational texts is rooted in their difference from referential texts.

When we go beyond teaching only referential language we start focussing on “shades of meaning, understanding of point of view, and noting of where language is coming from”. We also make our students aware that texts contain elements of intentionality and elements of uncertainty.  (Language, Literature and the Learner, 20).

How early in our language learning should we start implementing examples of representational texts?

When our students learn and understand the first rules of language and construct phrases, they can start playing with these rules. We can demonstrate to them that creativity and language ownership means being aware of the structures of language in order to create meaningful texts. These texts will become playful, entertaining, and in time even philosophical only if we aim at diverting language use from the purely referential level. However, without some knowledge of referential language use, we cannot see any difference, and we cannot understand the playfulness or the gravity of the representational.

Think about an everyday conversation in your first language. How many times do you think about various synonyms, make wordplays or say ambiguous phrases? How often do you make comparisons and create similies? And how often do you use metaphors?

What is the easiest way to introduce representational texts into your teaching?

First, you can turn to storytelling, which lets you introduce representational texts implicitly. Use rhymes, poems, short stories, tales, novels. A literary text will combine the context of situation, the context of culture, and it will often offer various registers in use, recycle its own vocabulary, and play with language often in a self-aware way, reflecting on its existence as literature, a place where everything is possible with language. Often these representational texts (just like referential ones) are different from our traditional concept of a ‘text’ i.e. words on a page. Illustrations, photos, paintings, buildings, plays, songs, films are also texts that we ‘read’ and use to make meaning. Even a word in a context in which it gains an ambiguous meaning can be seen as a representational text as it gives space to wordplay and multiple interpretations.

Let’s look at examples of representational language in stories aimed at different language levels.

The Sun is Broken written by Andrés Pi Andreu, illustrated by Catty Flores – level c Young Reader

Representational thinking points:

  • Can the sun really fall into the sea?
  • Can it make a big splash?
  • Can colours melt?
Pages 22 and 23 from The Sun is Broken, Helbling Young Reader. © Helbling Languages

Pages 22 and 23 from The Sun is Broken, Helbling Young Reader. © Helbling Languages

The Thirsty Tree written by Adrián N. Bravi, illustrated by Valentina Russello – level c Young Reader

Representational thinking points:

  • Do you know birds which are called Cloudbreak?
  • Does the wind rest?
  • Do trees really drink?
Pages 12 and 13 from The Thirsty Tree, Helbling Young Reader. © Helbling Languages

Pages 12 and 13 from The Thirsty Tree, Helbling Young Reader. © Helbling Languages

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne, illustrated by Roberto Tomei – level 2 Red Reader

Representational thinking points:

  • Why is it funny that Alice says ‘curiouser and curiouser’?
Page 19 from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, © Helbling Languages

Page 19 from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, © Helbling Languages

  • What is strange about treacle wells? Do they exist?
Page 49 from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Helbling Red Reader. © Helbling Languages

Page 49 from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Helbling Red Reader. © Helbling Languages

Wuthering Heights written by Emily Brontë, adapted by Jennifer Gascoigne, illustrated by Valentina Russello – level 4 Blue Reader

Representational thinking points:

  • What do you think the name of the place, Wuthering Heights represents?
  • Read the sentence ‘Best not to touch her”  growled Mr Heathcliff. ‘She’s not a pet.’
  • Why is it interesting to use ‘growl’ in this sentence?
Page 14 from Wuthering Heights, Helbling Blue Reader. © Helbling Languages

Page 14 from Wuthering Heights, Helbling Blue Reader. © Helbling Languages

The Kingdom of the Snow Leopard written by Elspeth Rawstron, illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni –

Representational thinking points:

  • Think about language use, and focus on the phrases ‘felt a cold chill’, ‘shiver ran down his spine’.
  • How could you describe these feelings in a simple way?
Page 32 from The Kingdom of the Snow Leopard, Helbling Blue Reader. © Helbling Languages

Page 32 from The Kingdom of the Snow Leopard, Helbling Blue Reader. © Helbling Languages


Read these articles for more ideas on teaching poetic language and practising visual storytelling.


  • Cook, Guy.  Discourse and Literature. Oxford: OUP, 1994.
  • McRae, John. Literature with a small ‘l’. London: Macmillan, 1991.
  • McRae, John: “Representational language learning from language awareness to text awareness.” Language, Literature and the Learner. Ed. Roland Carter and John McRae. London: Routledge, 2014.

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