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Hooked on Books: Julia Starr Keddle and Martyn Hobbs on bringing literature into the language class

December 03, 2015 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

In this series of interviews we talk to teachers, ELT writers, researchers, 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.

Julia Portrait 2015
Julia Starr Keddle

This month we talk to Julia Starr Keddle and Martyn Hobbs, authors of many ELT course books, resource books, video activities and readers.

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you been teaching and writing?

We’ve been teaching and writing ever since we left university. After graduating we trained to be teachers, and in the early 1980s we went to Italy. Luckily we were taken on by a very dynamic school with fantastic in-service training. During this time Martyn was writing plays which were staged in the UK. We became teachers at the University of Florence where we taught English language, translation studies and literature for six years – we are still friends with some of the students we taught there!

Martyn 2015 portrait
Martyn Hobbs

Teaching for us always involved creating and writing our own materials – either complete specialist courses, or extra resources. Taking our own lessons into our own classrooms, and also teaching from a very wide range of published materials, has given us a background that nourishes all the writing we do now. Our first question is always ‘Is this lesson teacher-friendly and student-centred?’.

After many years of teaching and teacher-training abroad and in the UK to adults, teenagers and children, we both got jobs in ELT publishing in Oxford. Martyn’s job was developing ELT videos and Julia researched, developed and edited ELT school books. We then moved on to writing as a natural next step and we’ve now been writing together for over 10 years. Our teaching experience, our years in ELT publishing, our writing skills, and particularly a desire to be creative were a springboard to our decision to become full-time writers.

After studying together, teaching together, working in publishing together, and of course sharing our lives, the transition to writing together wasn’t difficult. People often ask, ‘What’s it like working with your partner?’ – it’s a difficult question to answer, because to us it just feels right.

HRB: How did your love for literature begin?

Both of us have always loved literature, studying it at school and then going on to study English Literature at university, where we met. In our private lives, we are bookaholics and have a home crammed with books! And e-books now allow us to carry a library of books with us at all times – it’s so comforting to always have the classics at your fingertips.

Julia: I was brought up in a home full of the classics with a mother who adored literature so I was very lucky. I loved writing stories and poetry at primary school, and in a rather formal secondary school I moved on to appreciation of the classics. We studied the literary canon, such as Shakespeare, but also modern writers such as William Golding. Going to the theatre and watching drama and BBC dramatizations of the classics also filled me with a love for literature in all its forms. The result? A decision to study literature at university, and a life-long love of reading.

Martyn: It started with a tale of adventure, R. L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and science fiction. When I was a child, we didn’t have many books at home, so I would save my pocket money and then, when I had accumulated enough, go to bookshops and spend (literally) hours looking at book after book until I made that oh-so-difficult decision of what to buy. Books and writers soon became an obsession. When I discovered writers I fell in love with, I wanted to read everything by them. And with that love of reading came the desire to write.

HRB: What do you think of using literary texts and illustrated stories in the English class?

In our own teaching, we always incorporated literature teaching in our lessons. We loved team-teaching and often brought our classes together to run drama workshops – it was such fun for us and the students. We passionately believe that literature enriches language learning for all types of language learner. From adults to children the addition of literature and reading to teaching programs improves results and increases students’ enjoyment and motivation. Teaching at Florence University allowed us the freedom to incorporate even more literature into our lessons, including short stories, poetry, and literary translation.

JuIia: I will never forget a lesson I gave near Christmas using the poem The Journey of the Magi by T. S. Eliot. After getting the class to creatively engage with the language and themes of the poem with a range of activities, at the end of the lesson I read it aloud to them. There were tears in all our eyes and they applauded! It was a memorable moment for all of us because they had arrived at an authentic response to the beauty and profundity of the poem. That experience remains my talisman for the value of teaching literature.

HRB: What benefits do we get from using literature in class?

Literature engages the whole person. It provides authentic and meaningful material offering a direct and emotional response to language not available in any other text type. It is universal in its appeal, holding a high status in most cultures, and it gives students a feeling of achievement when they get to grips with a text.

Apart from expanding language awareness, literature is rich in levels of meaning, communicates emotions and ideas, and allows students to have a personal response. As long as the literary texts are chosen to be appropriate for the level of the students, they can explore the story, the messages and themes, and the reasons for the linguistic choices made by the writer. Literature is also a fantastic springboard for discussion and more extended projects. What’s more, through studying literature students inevitably learn more about the world, and English speaking cultures and learn about the background to the literary texts.

Martin: All stories appeal to the imagination, emotions and intellect. They take us out of our own reality, allowing us to empathize with characters whose lives either reflect our own, or show us new contexts and cultural experiences.

HRB: How do you think the place of literature in the classroom has transformed over the years of your teaching?

In some ways, our full time teaching happened in the heyday of literature teaching. In the 1980s exciting new materials and ideas being published by inspiring teacher trainers and writers such as Alan Maley, Roger Gower, Henry Widdowson, Mario Rinvolucri and Penny Ur had a profound impact on our teaching and we were enthusiastic adopters of their techniques and philosophy. We were able to combine the use of literature for specific language-learning goals with our own ideas about using literature for drama and personal responses such as poetry writing, story completion, performances, etc.

Nowadays, with a much greater emphasis on the meeting of targets and taking of exams, and a focus on more pragmatic communicative functions, it sometimes seems there is less room for the spontaneity of literature in the language classroom. But it would be a great loss and impoverishment if this were to be the case –apart from anything else, literature helps to support and improve the meeting of these targets!

In terms of ease of preparation for the teacher however, there is no doubt that the internet provides a resource that was not available to us when we were young teachers. It would have been unimaginable that you could be presented with extensive collections of literary texts, poems and quotes related to a topic with the click of a mouse. We had to make do with the texts we knew or came across and the resource books we had to hand. The resources at teachers’ and writers’ fingertips now are awesome.

Another area that has changed beyond recognition in the past 20 years is the availability of readers for language learners which range from adaptations of classics to wonderful original fiction, all within the word count and language level of the students. There is something for every interest and age group – no student can say that they can’t find something suited to them! Studies have shown that extensive reading in a foreign language is one of the best ways to improve vocabulary. There’s something about seeing the best words used in the best way which allows students to acquire language more easily.

Martyn: On a personal level, I don’t find writing ELT readers very different from writing stories for native speakers because they both need the same character development, narrative structures and attention to themes. In a successful simplified story you don’t notice the restricted language, instead it becomes a strength, a parameter that stimulates creativity. I try to capture interest from the first line, to get readers guessing. I once met a teacher-trainer who told me that she used my stories in her training sessions. She mentioned that she had used an elementary level short story about an immigrant student and her first day at school to show teachers how even with just the present simple, you could deal with important issues such as integration, prejudice, compassion and friendship and give students an authentic reading experience. Needless to say, I was also very flattered by her enthusiasm for my writing!

HRB: Do you think illustrations are important? How do you use them?

Julia: Illustrations for me have always been fantastically important. Obviously as an experienced reader I don’t feel daunted by books without illustrations, but I still love (and collect) illustrated books. In particular, modern graphic novels take literature into a new and exciting domain in the way they combine image and word. For the language student, good illustrations provide another dimension to the reading experience and are especially important for the visual learner or for students with learning or motivational difficulties. Pictures can be the deciding factor on whether a student is involved or disappointed by an encounter with reading.

Martyn: I have written a lot of readers and also write many stories for our course books. I love briefing for the illustrations, integrating them with the narrative, working with the illustrator to get the most exciting viewpoints. Pictures are a perfect way to support the reading process, helping readers through the story, and taking the pressure off reading comprehension. This interweaving of words and images makes reading fun and gives students a sense of achievement.

HRB: How do you select texts for your students? What kind of genres work well?

It can be challenging to get teens to ‘read’ in their own language, let alone in a foreign language! But as educators, we tend to think reading happens in a book. In fact, teens are reading all the time but it’s online and on their mobiles! In ways that we may not approve of, they are in fact very literate. We need to tap into that desire to read, explore students’ reading experiences in their own language, and find ways to get them doing the same in English! It might be reading about their favourite celebrities, playing a computer game or just sharing news on social media. The key to reading is getting students to read something that genuinely interests them in English.

Julia: Once students have got the reading bug and overcome any resistance, then I think it is the moment to ‘strike while the iron is hot’ with more extended reading relevant to students’ interests and concerns. Genre choice depends on the individual learner and it is impossible to generalize, though, to generalize wildly, different age groups and genders tend to find certain topics and themes particularly appealing. On the other hand, having a free choice allows students to avoid being stereotyped or pigeon holed and they often select books that can be surprising for the teacher.

HRB: Which authors would you use to work with teenagers?

Julia: That’s a very interesting question, and depends on so many factors. What age is the teenager? What is the classroom context? How much time is there? For classroom use I do like extracts, because they allow you to explore the background and plot with students while not scaring them with a long book! A well-chosen extract can address many of the themes in a book and allow you to focus with the class on an impactful moment in the story. An extract also allows you to select a section that is comprehensible for your students.

It is different when you are getting students to choose extensive reading from an ELT reader collection. There I would encourage them to experiment and read a range of stories, from those set in a teenage context, to classics and genres such as sci fi and fantasy.

The growing young adult literature genre written for native speakers is a rich source for more advanced teenage students. But as a lot of their themes are ‘challenging’, as a teacher you need to be aware of the content of any books you put on a reading list. I would highly recommend that you set yourself a personal reading list of top teen fiction (such as Malorie Blackman, John Green, Patrick Ness, etc.) and update your knowledge of the range of exciting new writers. You’ll soon forget it is written for a teen audience as it is fantastically exciting literature in its own right. However, there are classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird or the Lord of the Rings which transcend generational boundaries.

Martyn: There are so many authors to choose from! Just to add same names: Neil Gaiman, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, James Joyce, Charles Dickens, Angela Carter, Ray Bradbury, George Orwell, John Keats, Oscar Wilde ...

HRB: Thank you for the interview!