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Using literary texts at KS3

I have been reading a brand new book called Success Stories from Secondary Foreign Languages Classrooms (Models from London school partnerships with universities). It is edited by Colin Christie and Caroline Conlon and published by UCL/IoE Press. The book consists of eight chapters written by various academics and teacher trainers working on PGCE courses in the London area.

I'll blog a bit more about it in due course, but here I'll focus on one chapter written by Fotini Diamantidaki and entitled Using literature in the key stage 3 modern foreign languages classroom.

Fotini begins by putting the topic in context, referring to the latest DfE national curriculum for MFL and its inclusion of the directive that pupils should "read literary texts in the language... to stimulate ideas, develop creative expression andf expand understanding of the language and culture."

A general justification is then provided for teaching literature. Fotini says that literary texts

1. are authentic (another requirement of the national curriculum);
2. provide a more intimate insight into the lifestyle of the target language country by exploring characters' thoughts and feelings as well as the customs of the country);
3. provide a rich source of vocabulary;
4. motivate pupils by engaging imagination and creativity.

A project is then described of which the aim was for teachers to identify and use texts with KS3 classes in the London area. Feed back from teachers and pupils is referred to, along with a few examples of texts used mainly poems). the feedback was mixed, with more than one teacher reporting that the classes responded poorly, mainly because the texts were too hard.

This is not surprising, is it? One of the fundamental principles of language teaching, in my view, is that the language presented should not be too much higher than the level the pupils are working at. If your text contains too much new language (both grammar and vocabulary) it will be off-putting and inappropriate for target language interaction. It's not surprising that most teachers in the project described above went for poems. Let's look at one quoted in the chapter by Paul Eluard, used by a teacher in the context of the Dans ma chambre il y a... topic:

Dans Paris 

Dans Paris il y a une rue;
Dans cette rue il y a une maison;
Dans cette maison il y a un escalier;
Dans cet escalier il y a une chambre;
Dans cette chambre il y a une table;
Sur cette table il y a un tapis;
Sur ce tapis il y a une cage; 
Dans cette cage il y a un nid;
Dans ce nid il y a un œuf,
Dans cet œuf il y a un oiseau. 
L'oiseau renversa l'œuf;
L'œuf renversa le nid;
Le nid renversa la cage;
La cage renversa le tapis;
Le tapis renversa la table;
La table renversa la chambre;
La chambre renversa l'escalier;
L'escalier renversa la maison;
La maison renversa la rue;
La rue renversa la ville de Paris.

Now, I have to ask what the point is of using this text. If the aim is to practise grammar we have, as well as il y a,  the use of demonstrative adjectives and the past historic. The vocabulary includes a limited range of rather random words connected with house and home. Do we want to confuse pupils with the past historic at this stage? Are there better ways of introducing and practising demonstrative adjectives? (You could ignore it, or just deal with any questions from pupils about it.) Is the content stimulating for pupils? Does the fact that it is authentic make it more motivating? "Here's a real poem by the writer Paul Eluard". Pupils just love poetry, don't they?

If you take the view that the poem can lead to an interesting discussion about cause and effect and the humorous nature of the poem, I would suggest that this could be done in a minute and provide little of use in terms of communicative possibilities, practice or linguistic progress. Okay, no doubt you could do some phonics work, but you can do this with any text. You might argue that we have a duty to open pupils' minds by exposing them to poetry, but I would respond that our main aim is to teach a language in the most effective and interesting way possible. I'm not sure this is.

With any text I always ask: what can I do with this? To me the above looks like a classic case of shoehorning a text into the scheme of work just to tick and box and follow a DfE directive.

The chapter provides precious few examples of prose being used in classes. This is not surprising since it is too hard and brings into focus why the DfE requirement for literature at this level is misguided. One example from French is quoted - the oft-used Le Petit Nicolas. The lessons described revealed nothing new: teacher reading aloud, pupils reading, looking at drawings for support, discussing a summary of events in English with a partner (is this really useful?), a booklet of oral and written activities delving more into the detail of the language and translation of sentences.

I must say that, having taught from Le Petit Nicolas once, I never did so again. The humour of the text just does not get through to pupils, even quite able ones. Once you have to explain it, the point is lost. What's more, the content is out of date and deals in caricature and stereotype. Why would you use it?

This chapter left me no more convinced of the value of teaching literary texts at KS3 (or KS4 for that matter). If you work in an academy, independent or free school you could (bizarrely) choose to ignore the DfE instruction. However, you know that eventually, if your pupils take a GCSE they will have to deal with very short extracts of literature in the reading paper. This becomes, de facto, the national curriculum. Bear in mind that there are few marks for these bits of the GCSE and that the questions can be answered using generic linguistic skill. There are no marks for interpreting meanings beyond the purely linguistic. If I were still leading a department I would suggest to my team that they pay little attention at all to literature at KS3 and not much more at KS4.

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