By Alison M. Youngblood, University of Central Florida
As an avid reader and lover of all literature (except “Moby Dick” and “Heart of Darkness” which are books I never learned to embrace), I was aware of my own biases before I dived into “Using Literacy Texts in L2 Reading Instruction” from Hedgcock and Ferris’ 2009 book entitled Teaching readers of English: Students, Texts, and Contexts.
First, I whole-heartedly agree with the author’s discussion of literature as a window into the target culture and the target language (Hedgcock & Ferris, 2009). Literature themes are timeless; however, the presentation and interpretation of these universal ideals vary greatly based on culture. In addition, Hedgcock and Ferris remind the reader that literature provides an avenue for second language students to have a “close-up look at the complexity and potential beauty of the language they are acquiring” (p. 249). On the other hand, these texts are granted such generous license in their use of the English language that syntactical structures, vocabulary collocations, and discourse in general can become almost idiosyncratic.
If literature has been selected for inclusion in the curriculum, regardless if the approach is language-based, content-based, or personal enrichment-based, the burden of careful selection is great. The authors and I both called upon Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as an example. This story offers adventure, friendship, and tests of morality that would certainly engage students, but the language input being provided is antiquated. Therefore, acquired expressions and grammatical patterns could inhibit successful communication if used in personal or academic discourse. The struggle between finding texts with engaging themes while providing modern, applicable language input cannot be understated for the L2 instructor.
I feel, because of the delicate balance between content and input, that graded readers may be the way to go. While this reduces the rich language input of the original text, the time constraints are proportionally relaxed which can free up class time to interact with the text. In addition, graded readers can open up a variety of texts with themes otherwise unapproachable because of complex syntax, vocabulary, or literary devices.
One last thing I want to comment on is my reaction to Hedgcock and Ferris’ discussion of Spack’s (1997, 2004) case study of Yuko. Yuko enjoyed reading books and continued reading for pleasure after completing her English courses but struggled with her college textbooks. I think this is the heart of the reading debate! The context of this book focuses on academic language training for students who ultimately wish to enter a university where English is the medium of instruction. While the introduction of pleasure reading helped Yuko achieve proficiency, it did not prepare her for the kind of reading she would need to do in order to be successful in a university setting. Yes, academic texts can be dry and dull. However, we are doing a great disservice to our students by not preparing them for the rigors of this reading material.
In the end, I think literature can be an important component to a language program, but should not be the only source of reading input provided. However, I can’t help but wonder if all of this analysis is a moot point. I think the quote that stuck with me most from the entire chapter is that “It is worth noting, however, that almost no empirical research has examined the hypothesized benefits (or drawbacks) of integrating literature into the academic curriculum” (p. 245) I was shocked by this statement and feel that this is certainly an area that warrants further research.
Hedgcock, J. & Ferris, D. (2009) Teaching readers of English: Students, texts, and context. New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis.