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Hooked on Books: Christina Klein Wolf on bringing literature into the language class

July 24, 2018 by cymaster

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, visual artists and researchers about the importance of using literature in the language classroom. Together they have over a hundred years of experience in teaching and writing so they can definitely give us plenty of advice and insight into the best practices. We talk about the importance and transformation of literary texts in education, we ask for genre and title recommendations as well as personal stories.

Chris Lima
Christina Klein Wolf

This month we talk to Christina Klein Wolf. We posted one of her inspiring articles on our blog last week.

Chris is one of the most active figures in ELT and Literature programs, being a lecturer, researcher and teacher educator. She has also acted as co-ordinator ofthe  IATEFL Literature, Media and Cultural Studies SIG as wekk as the ELT Online Reading Group and served on the Advisory Board at Extensive Reading Foundation.

We invite you to learn more about Chris Lima’s activities on her blog.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): You are one of the most active figures in the world of English language and literature teaching. How did your passion for literature begin?

A long time ago! If I can remember a decisive moment I think it was when I was about 11 and my literature teacher asked us to do some project work that eventually forced us to go to the local library because the school library did not have all the books we needed. It was my first time among shelves and shelves of properly bound books. I can still remember the smell. It was like falling under a spell. I started to look around and I stumbled upon Dickens’ Great Expectations. I kept coming back and I spent uncountable afternoons of my teenage years there. I think my personal story shows how essential local libraries are and how important it is to give kids the chance to go to the library. It is a real shame that more and more public libraries are closing down almost everywhere.

HRB: Through your online and IATEFL Literature Media and Cultural Studies SIG work you try to bring together language teachers and create an opportunity for them to share ideas from all over the world. How do you see the place of literature in the classroom across the globe right now?

I am quite optimistic. I think we are in a much better position at the moment than some decades ago when English language teaching focused solely on functional language. Literature has no boundaries. Historically, books have been the vehicles for ideas to travel around the world and the fact that English is now so spread around the globe facilitates this exchange. It happens with literature written in English by writers whose first language is English, but also to literature in English written by writers from other linguistic backgrounds as well as literature in translation. As Richard Kearny once said, ‘Stories are what makes us humans.’ I truly believe most teachers from around the world are well aware that we need to explore the immensely rich linguistic resources that literature gives us.

I think we are seeing a renewed enthusiasm for literature and the arts in ELT. This is not happening as a miracle but as the result of a lot of effort, enthusiasm and hard work by people and organizations in the profession. The British Council have been, for a number of years now, developing projects around writers such as Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Dylan Thomas and, this year, William Shakespeare. The British Library, the theatre companies, literature organizations, and publishers have been developing incredible online resources to teach English using literature. Teachers have been working together to promote literature and the arts among the teaching community and good examples are the work developed by the Creativity Group (C Group) and the Extensive Reading Foundation (ERF). The Literature & Media SIG is also trying to give its humble contribution to this process.

HRB: I imagine that your blogs and online projects are supported by classroom and reading group work with ‘real’ students. What age and interest groups have you taught? How do your students respond to literary texts in a world where the focus is often more on business studies and exam-centred knowledge?

Indeed, I do teach! My students are undergraduate international students that come to the University of Leicester for two terms and attend credit bearing modules in the Erasmus and Study Abroad programmes. They come from all over Europe, especially Spain and France, and from China and South Korea. My students are young adults usually in their early 20s and they are typically studying TESOL, Literature or Translation Studies in their own home countries. However, I also teach  some students doing Management, Psychology, Computer Sciences and Maths. I also teach in our International Summer School programme that focuses on Shakespeare, Literature, History and Film. These students are +18 and come from a number of countries.

This may sound a bold thing to say, but I think this idea that students in other disciplines cannot be interested in literature is a fallacy that comes more from tutors’ perceptions of the disciplines than from real experience with students’ engagement with literature. My experience has taught me that students can see connections that sometimes may escape teachers. For example, I had a Management student from China writing a very interesting and insightful essay on Henry V and the power of rhetoric on team motivation. I had a Psychology student from Italy writing an extremely interesting essay on Othello and cases of split personality. If you look around the internet you will find TED talks and published material on how Shakespeare, for example, have been used in training professionals in a wide range of fields.

Above all, I think it is a misconception to think that just because you are studying Banking and Finance, for instance, you cease to be interested in other reading outside your field of knowledge. There is little doubt that when faced with assignment deadlines, students in other disciplines will prioritize their reading around their own discipline; however, it does not mean that given the change and opportunity to meaningfully engage with literature, fiction will fail to attract these students’ interests. You don’t cease to be a complex human being with a wide range of life interests just because you are studying to become a layer, physicist, or computer developer. On the contrary, the most successful students, professionals, and researchers are those who are able to draw knowledge from a wide range of disciplines and knowledge pools.

As for tests, I don’t do them. My students are assessed by essay writing where they can bring together the knowledge they acquired through their reading of the literary texts, criticism in the field, and their own ideas and interpretations. This is a more demanding form of assessment both for the student, who also needs to learn how to write a proper essay, and for me, since I have to read and mark them all. However, the results can be really rewarding and many of my students have now had some of their essays edited and published.

HRB: What is the key to a successful literature program?

Contextualization, balance and engagement. First of all, it is important that students realize that the issues and topics in the literary work they are studying are not dead on the page. On the contrary, these are issues and topics that are relevant to their own lives now in the world in which we live. Secondly, teachers need to find a balance between reading and the other skills, between input and output, and between working with the text and other media. Last, but not least, students need to engage with the language and the ideas in the texts and critically explore how they are connected – you need to challenge your students to think for themselves. At the beginning it can be a real challenge but once they get the taste of it, you cannot stop them; and this is exactly what a teacher wants.

HRB: What principles do you follow when you choose texts for your students? What kind of genres work well?

In the Shakespeare courses I try to give students a taster of different play genres. Although the concept of genre in Shakespeare is highly fluid and a bit problematic, I basically stick with the Folio and include in each term a tragedy, a comedy and a history play. I choose plays that are quite popular so students come to them with at least some general information about the plot and characters and are, therefore, less likely to feel completely at loss. I also select plays that have film adaptations and recorded stage performances available so students can watch them.

In the English literature courses, time constraints force me to focus on particular periods so I go for the ‘classic’ Romantics & Victorians. However, in the lessons, we connect classic works with contemporary literature. For example, when studying Pride and Prejudice, we talk about Bridget Jones and the Bollywood-style film, Bride & Prejudice. Jane Eyre is explored in conjunction with Wide Sargasso Sea. Victorian Arthurian poetry is paired with Simon Armitage’s The Death of King Arthur and the work of Tolkien.

HRB: How do you feel about using illustrated and picture books in the classroom?

There isn’t much space in the kind of course I teach to use them in the classroom but when it is possible I do establish connections between the texts and graphic novels and other forms of illustrated literature. For instance, there is whole series called Manga Shakespeare and a number of characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest appear in Neil Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman.

I think picture books for adult learners are starting to be more explored. Sandie Mourao has been doing a great job for a couple of years now on promoting them in ELT and there is already some classroom research on the field.

HRB: Can you recommend three authors all English teachers should carry in their schoolbag?

Shakespeare, Austen and Tolkien.

It may sound incredibly biased since these are also my favourite writers. However, I do think if you have these three authors in your bag, you have stories that: cover over 400 years in the history of English literature; have been translated in almost every language on the planet; give you the possibility of exploring the texts in performance, film, and video games; are incredibly appealing to a wide range of readers all over the world; and, above all, are cognitively stimulating, emotionally engaging, and masterly written.

Thank you for the interview, Chris!