USING SHORT STORIES TO TEACH LANGUAGE SKILLS
Universitas Kristen Indonesia
The notion that the main objective of EFL teaching is to help students to communicate fluently in the target language cause most teachers still believe that an EFL class should focus on mastering linguistic elements only. However, recent trend in EFL teaching indicates the necessity of integrating literature because its rich potential to provide an authentic model of language use. Among literary genres, short stories seem to be the most suitable choice for this due to its potential to help students enhance the four skills—listening, speaking, reading and writing—more effectively because of the motivational benefit embedded in the stories. The purpose of this article is to familiarize EFL instructors with the effectiveness of using short stories in EFL instruction. After presenting criteria for selecting a short story, discussions are focused on how to exploit a short story for enhancing students’ language skills.
Key words: literature, short story, language skills
In the nineteenth century, the Grammar Translation Method predominated ESL/EFL teaching. In that era, translating literary texts from the second/foreign language to the students’ native language was one of the main learning activities. But when this method was replaced by the Structuralism Approach, during the 1960s to the end of 1970s, literature was no longer used. Structuralism Approach was concerned with correctness of grammatical form and not with content, interpretation of the written word or style. In other words, teaching a foreign language was regarded as a matter of linguistics. Then, when the Direct Method, the Audiolingual Method, Community Language Learning, Suggestopedia, the Silent Way, Total Physical Response, and the Natural Approach successively dominated ESL/EFL teaching, literature was not utilized. Later on and with the appearance of the Communicative Approach in the late 70`s and very early 80`s, literature was also ignored. The tendency in the EFL classrooms was to teach “usable, practical” contents. Thus, literary works had no place in the curriculum. During this period most EFL courses were mainly aimed to enable the students to communicate orally. Consequently, dialogues dominated the curriculum.
However, since the 1980s the situation changed quite radically and literature is undergoing an extensive reconsideration within the language teaching profession. The inclusion of literary works in ESL/EFL classes has attracted more interest among teachers, and more and more studies on how to use literature in EFL/ESL classes are conducted. This interest in using literature in language teaching lies in three interrelated elements: authenticity, culture and personal growth. First of all, literary texts can be more beneficial than informational materials in stimulating the acquisition process as they provide authentic contexts for processing new language. Since literary texts contain language intended for native speakers, literature stands as a model for language learners to become familiar with different forms and conventions (Collie and Slater, 1991, 4; Ur, 1996, 201). Containing real examples of grammatical structures and vocabulary items, the literary texts raise learners’ awareness of the range of the target language and advance their competence in all language skills (Povey, 1967). Second, using literature in language teaching has the advantage of providing cultural information about the target language. Literary texts increase foreign language learners’ insight into the country and the people whose language is being learnt (Collie and Slater, 1991), which fosters learners’ ability to interpret discourse in different social and cultural target language contexts (Savvidou, 2004). Finally, since literature enables students to understand and appreciate other cultures, societies and ideologies different from their own, it encourages personal growth and intellectual development (Carter and Long, 1991, 2-4).
In line with these ideas, Littlewood (2000: 179) emphasizes the importance of the use of literature in EFL classes by showing the fact that a major problem of language teaching in the classroom is the creation of an authentic situation for language. All language classrooms, especially those outside the community of native speakers, are isolated from the context of events and situations which produce natural language. Literature can overcome this problem because, in literary works, language creates its own context. The actual situation of the reader becomes immaterial as he or she looks on the events created by language. These events create, in turn, a context of situation for the language of the book and enable it to transcend the artificial classroom situation. In short, literary works undoubtedly enable students to understand the language better by providing the students with real world experiences, relationships between society and people where the target language is spoken, even if they are fictions.
Why Short Stories?
Despite its benefits for students, some objections are always raised against the use of literature in public schools due to overcrowded classes, overloaded syllabus and limited time—some problems commonly met in elementary to high public schools in almost all developing countries. First, the deviated and figurative language of poetry necessitates very long time to grasp. Second, the length of novel will make it difficult for such classes to finish. Finally, drama can be used in classes, but it will be difficult to act out a play in crowded classes within limited course hours. Considering these objections, it is obvious that among literary forms, short-story which is defined by Poe (in Abrams, 1970: 158) “as a narrative that can be read at one sitting of from one-half hour to two hours, and that is limited to ‘a certain unique or single effect,’ to which every detail is subordinate” seems to be the most suitable one to use in public schools. Since it is short, and aims at giving a ‘single effect’, there is usually one plot, a few characters; there is no detailed description of setting. So, it is easy for the students to follow the story line of the work.
This reason, that short stories are the most suitable literary genre to use in English teaching due to its shortness, is supported by Collie and Slater (1991: 196) when they list four advantages of using short stories for language teachers. First, short stories are practical as their length is long enough to cover entirely in one or two class sessions. Second, short stories are not complicated for students to work with on their own. Third, short stories have a variety of choice for different interests and tastes. Finally, short stories can be used with all levels (beginner to advance), all ages (young learners to adults) and all classes. Pardede’s (2011) study at Christian University of Indonesia revealed that the majority of English teachers training students basically found short stories interesting to use both as materials for self-enjoyment and of as components language skill classes. The findings denoted that only 0.37% of the responses went into “Disagree” criterion; and 18.4%, “Neutral”. The other 81.5% went into the criteria of “Agree” and “Strongly Agree”.
Choosing the Text
The use of short-story in English teaching should be aimed to encourage the students to use what they have previously learnt. By doing this, the learning process will be student-centered. However, the teacher plays a great role. She/he must choose a suitable text to use in class, and should help her/his students understand the story with various activities.
In using short stories to teach English, story selection is indeed one of the most important roles of the teacher. Since the lengths of short-stories quite vary, choose a story short enough to handle within course hours. The shortness of the text is important for the students because they will see that they can read, understand and finish something in English, and it will give the students a feeling of achievement and self-confidence. Besides the length of the text, Hill (1994: 15) points out three other basic criteria of choosing the text: (1) the needs and abilities of the students; (2) the linguistic and stylistic level of the text; (3) the amount of background information required for a true appreciation of the material.
The importance of considering these criteria could be perceived by realizing that the vocabulary and sentence structure of the short-story to be studied must be suitable to the level of the students. The short-stories with archaic, slang, foreign words, and allusions, having sentences imitating the speech of a particular locality or ignorant people or foreigners should be avoided if the text is intended for students below intermediate level. Similarly, very long sentences are difficult for students to understand. As students will not understand these sentences and words, they will get bored and not read the work. Therefore, before giving the short-story, the teacher should decide the readability of the text.
In order to meet that readability criterion, using graded or simplified stories is possibly the most practical way. According to Ur (1996: 150), “… the use of ‘authentic’ text with less proficient learners is often frustrating and counter-productive”. Therefore, the use of simplified text with less proficient readers is highly suggested for the sake of suiting the texts with the level of students.
In addition to the previous criteria, Spack (1985) suggests the aspect of interest to be considered. According to him, it is important for the teacher to choose stories that would interest students that he/she most likes to read and teach, and that have been made into film to provide visual interpretation. McKay (2001: 322) and Rivers (1968: 230) point out that students read and enjoy a text if the subject-matter of the text is relevant to their life experience and interests.
Short Stories and Language Skills Development
Short stories allow teachers to teach the four skills to all levels of language proficiency. Murdoch (2002: 9) indicates that “short stories can, if selected and exploited appropriately, provide quality text content which will greatly enhance ELT courses for learners at intermediate levels of proficiency”. According to him, short stories could be very beneficial materials in ELT reinforcement by using them in learning activities such as, discussion, writing and acting out dialogues.
Short stories are very useful in the trials to improve students’ vocabulary and reading. The results of Lao and Krashen’s (2000) study which compared the reading achievement between a group of students that read literary texts and a second group that read non-literary texts at a university in Hong Kong revealed that the group who read literary texts made better improvement in vocabulary and reading. Using “Bill” (see the appendix), three activities can be conducted to help students to acquire more vocabulary. These activities are related to form, meaning, and use respectively.
1. Complete the word form chart below. The first word has been done for you. Remember that some words do not have all forms.
There can be as many words as the teacher thinks necessary. However there should not too many words included in a short story so as not to make students lose interest in the activity. This activity helps students to learn more vocabulary, and it also teaches them how to use a dictionary.
2. Write the letter of the definition/synonym in column B that most closely matches each word/phrase in column A.
|a. lonely||1. a tiresome person|
|b. get well||2. provide an apology|
|c. make an excuse||3. recover, healed|
|d. a tired person||4. without friends or companions|
|e. …||5. …|
In this activity, the words/phrases in column A come from the story students are reading. The definitions and/or synonyms provided in column B must match the meaning of the words/phrases in the context of the story to help students to understand how a different word/phrase can be used in the same context.
3. Choose the word/phrase from column A in the previous activity that best fits each of the following sentences. You may need to add -s to a plural word or to a third person singular of a verb in the present tense, -ed to the past tense of regular verbs, -ing for present participle, etc.
a) She (not) __________ for being late for the meeting yesterday.
b) The doctor said that his great optimism helped him ______ soon.
c) After his wife’s death he always feels _______.
d) Almost nobody likes Ms Brown because she is a _______.
In activity 3, students practice using the words they already understand the meanings of. Since “Bill” does not include a list of unknown words/phrases in bold and the words/phrases do not have explanation and/or synonyms on the footnote, teachers should add both. To motivate students do such activity, teacher may explain: “The list of words helps you go on reading without troubling yourself stopping for too long to look them up in a dictionary or thesaurus.”
High-intermediate and advanced students also profit from literary texts. What they read gives them the opportunity to come up with their own insights and helps them speak the language in a more imaginative way. They become more creative since they are faced with their own point of view, that/those of the main character(s) of the story and those of their peers. According to Oster (1989: 85), this process leads to critical thinking. He confirms, “Focusing on point of view in literature enlarges students’ vision and fosters critical thinking by dramatizing the various ways a situation can be seen”. This could happen because when students read, they interact with the text. By interacting with the text, they interpret what they read. By interpreting what they read, they can work toward speaking English more creatively.
Short story can be a powerful and motivating source for writing in ESL/EFL, both as a model and as subject matter. Short story as a model occurs when students’ writing becomes closely similar to the original work or clearly imitates its content, theme, organization, and /or style. However, when student writing exhibits original thinking like interpretation or analysis, or when it emerges from, or is creatively stimulated by, the reading, literature serves as subject matter. In accordance with this, Oster (1989: 85) affirms that literature helps students to write more creatively.
Teachers can create a variety of writing activities to help students to develop their writing skills. They can ask students to write dialogues or more complex writing activities if students have reached a high level of language proficiency. For example, if teachers bring to class “Bill,” they can assign the following writing activities:
- Write a dialogue between Bill and Minna at the evening when he says that he must never kiss her beginning from that night.
- Paraphrase paragraph seven of the short story.
- Write a book report or summarize the story in five to seven sentences, including the main character, setting, conflict, climax, and resolution.
- Write one sentence on the theme of the story.
- Write a paragraph to explain why Bill chooses the couple instead of the wealthy lady.
- Write a book review on the story.
- Write an essay on what makes a great father.
Activities 1 and 2 are suitable for middle intermediate levels; activities 3, 4, for upper intermediate levels; and activities 5, 6, 7 for advanced levels.
C. Speaking and Listening
Short story can also be a powerful and motivating source for teaching both speaking and listening. Oral reading, dramatization, improvisation, role-playing, reenactment, and discussion are some effective learning activities which center on a short story EFL classes can use for enhancing these two skills. Asking students to read story aloud can develop their speaking as well as listening skills. Moreover, it also leads to improving pronunciation.
The followings are some activities teachers can assign to develop students speaking skills by using short stories.
- The students read the story aloud as a chain activity. The first student reads the first sentence. The second student takes the second sentence, the third student, third sentence, and so forth. Such activity will enhance students’ pronunciation and fluency in an interesting way. It is suitable for elementary class.
- In an upper intermediate class, the students retell the story as a chain activity in small groups. Each student will have a lot of opportunities to practice the relevant connectors or other discourse markers in a meaningful context. (They certainly should have been given a list of the connectors and discourse markers beforehand.)
- In an advanced class, the students are grouped into two groups. Using “Bill”, the first group is assigned to prepare arguments that Bill’s decision to find adoptive parents for Minna is correct. Another group should prepare arguments that the decision is not correct.
- An extending activity useful to develop students’ speaking skill and to make students more involved in the story is role-play. This can be carried out by asking students to play the role of several characters, i.e. by instructing them the followings:
- Imagine you are the doctor who diagnoses that Bill has only six more months to live. Tell Bill what he is suffering from. Make sure you are convincing.
- Suppose you are the editor of the newspaper in which Bill publish his advertisement. Tell Bill what you think of the content of the advertisement
To develop listening skill using a short story, teachers can do the followings:
- Read the story out loud so students have the opportunity to listen to a native speaker of English (if at all possible); or
- Play the story if a recording is available.
The activity can be carried out for fun or for students to find answers to questions given and explained to them before the listening activity starts. For students to understand the story when they listen to it for the first time, the questions can be based on literary structures, such as:
- Who is the main character of “Bill”?
- Where/when does the story take place?
- What is the problem (conflict) in the story?
- How is the conflict resolved?
Since the objective of EFL teaching is to help students to communicate fluently in the target language, teachers should provide an authentic model of language use. To do it, she/he should focus not only on linguistic but also on literary and cultural elements. Since short stories offer these elements, they are highly beneficial to use in ESL/EFL teaching programs. However, the selection of short stories should be done in reference to the course objective, the learners’ profile, and the story content in order to make the best of it. Since every teaching situation is unique, the use of one single piece of literature varies from classroom to classroom and from teacher to teacher. Like what the discussion in this paper shows, short stories can be used to provide different activities for reading, listening, writing and speaking classes. Short story creates a meaningful context to teach different language focuses and to improve the students’ interpretative strategies. Last but not least, the same story may also serve for some other language focuses or skills such as vocabulary development.
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Note: This paper is published in Journal of English Teaching. Vol. 1 No.1 2011 pp. 14-27. Available at: http://jetuki.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/2-using-short-stories-to-teach-language-skills-pp-14-27.pdf
Bill was thirty when his wife died, and little Minna was four. Bill’s carpenter shop was in the yard of his house, so he thought that he could keep his home for Minna and himself. All day while he worked at his bench, she played in the yard, and when he was obliged to be absent for a few hours, the woman next door looked after her. Bill could cook a little, coffee and bacon and fried potatoes and flapjacks, and he found bananas and sardines and crackers useful. When the woman next door said it was not the diet for four-year-olds, he asked her to teach him to cook oatmeal and vegetables, and though he was always burned the dishes in which he cooked these things, he cooked them everyday. He swept, all but corners, and he dusted, dabbing at every object; and he complained that after he had cleaned the windows he could not see as well as he could before. He washed and patched Minna’s little garments and mended her doll. He found a kitten for her so that she wouldn’t be lonely. At night he heard her say her prayer, kneeling in the middle of the floor with her hands folded, and speaking like lightning. If she forgot the prayer, he either woke her up, or else he made her say it the first thing in the morning. He himself used to pray: “Lord, make me do right by her if you see me doing wrong.” On Sundays, he took her to church and listening with his head on one side, trying to understand, and giving Minna peppermints when she rustled. He stopped work for a day and took her to the Sunday-school picnic. “Her mother would of,” he explained. When Minna was old enough to go to kindergarten, Bill used to take her morning or afternoon, and he would call for her. Once he dressed himself in his best clothes and went to visit the school. “I think her mother would of,” he told the teacher, diffidently. But he could make little of the colored paper and the designs and the games, and he did not go again. “There’s something I can’t be any help to her with,” he thought.
Minna was six when Bill fell ill. On a May afternoon, he went to a doctor. When he came home, he sat in his shop for a long time and did nothing. The sun was beaming through the window in bright squares. He was not going to get well. It might be that he had six months. … He could hear Minna singing to her doll.
When she came to kiss him that night, he made an excuse, for he must never kiss her now. He held her arm’s length, looked in her eyes, said: Minna’s a big girl now. She doesn’t want Papa to kiss her.” But her lip curled and she turned away sorrowful, so the next day Bill went to another doctor to make sure. The other doctor made him sure.
He tried to think what to do. He had a sister in Nebraska, but she was a tired woman. His wife had a brother in the city, but he was a man of many words. And little Minna … there were things known to her which he himself did not know—matters of fairies and the words of songs. He wished that he could hear of somebody who would understand her. And he had only six month. …
Then the woman next door told him bluntly that he ought not to have the child there, and him coughing as he was; and he knew that his decision was already upon him.
One whole night he thought. Then he advertised in a city paper:
A man with a few months more to live would like nice people to adopt his little girl, six, blue eyes, curls. References required.
They came in limousine, as he had hoped that they would come. Their clothes were as he had hoped. They had with them a little girl who cried: “Is this my little sister?” On which the woman in the smart frock said sharply: “Now then, you do as Mama tells you and keep out of this or we’ll leave you here and take this darling little girl with us.”
So Bill looked at this woman and said steadily that he had now other plans for his little girl. He watched the great blue car roll away. “For the land sake!” said the woman next door when she heard. “You done her out of fortune. You hadn’t the right—a man in your health.” And then the other cars came, and he let them go, this woman told her husband that Bill ought to be reported to the authorities.
The man and woman who walked into Bill’s shop one morning were still mourning their own little girl. The woman was not sad—only sorrowful, and the man, who was tender of her, was a carpenter. In blooming of his hope and his dread, Bill said to them: “You’re the ones.” When they asked: “How long before we can have her?” Bill said: “One day more.”
That day he spent in the shop. It was summer and Minna was playing in the yard. He could hear the words of her songs. He cooked their supper and while she ate, he watched. When he had tucked her in her bed, he stood in the dark hearing her breathing. “I’m a little girl tonight—kiss me,” she had said, but he shook his head. “A big girl, a big girl,” he told her.
When they came for the next morning, he had her ready, washed and mended, and he had mended her doll. “Minna’s never been for a visit!” he told her buoyantly. And when she ran toward him, “A big girl, a big girl,” he reminded her.
He stood and watched the man and woman walking down the street with Minna between them. They had brought her a little blue parasol in case the parting should be hard. This parasol Minna held bobbing above her head, and she was so absorbed in looking up at the blue silk that she did not remember to turn and wave her hand. (1,052 words).