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Hooked on Books: Piergiorgio Trevisan on bringing literature into the language classroom

April 19, 2016 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

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.

This month we talk to Piergiorgio Trevisan, who has a PhD in linguistics and literature from the University of Udine (Italy). He has taught and written in the area of text analysis, including literary and multimodal texts. In 2014 he obtained a Marie Curie Grant from the European Commission in order to study reading difficulties and their correlation to visual attention. He has recently returned from the University of Sydney, Faculty of Education and Social Work where he worked as a visiting researcher.

Piergiorgio Trevisan
Piergiorgio Trevisan

Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you been teaching and doing research? What is your teaching background?

I became a teacher 15 years ago. Firstly in Italian Secondary Schools, then I lectured at University for some years.  I have always tried to combine teaching with research.

HRB: How did your love for teaching and literature begin?

It all goes back to when I was a secondary school student.  I was lucky enough to meet a really inspiring teacher who introduced us to English Literature, and to analytical tools which were totally unknown to me at the time. It was as if something had been ‘triggered’ inside me. After that I never stopped reading and I decided to do everything I could to make a living out of humanities. I therefore became a teacher and a researcher.

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

I am totally convinced that literary texts, with their illustrated, ‘multimodal’ counterparts, are crucial in the English class. We have all experienced true love and affection for literary characters and the stories in which they are embedded, therefore narratives can be incredibly powerful tools for motivating students in many different ways. Believe it or not, stories are still an important part of students’ worlds, so it can be very stimulating for them to talk about their favourite characters in a formal setting like a school. Multimodal narratives, in particular, with their integration of different semiotic modes, ‘multiply’ meaning and motivate students even more as today’s learners are constantly immersed in multimodal environments.

Sometimes it is important to complement traditional literary texts with their ‘more modern’ remakes: think of Romeo and Juliet, for instance. Nearly all of the students in a classroom have seen Baz Luhrmann's 1996 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet, but most of them wouldn’t know anything about Shakespeare’s tragedy. I have always been surprised by seeing how much easier it is to approach Shakespeare after students have been ‘motivated’ by DiCaprio.

HRB: What was the focus of your latest research?

Because I have been an avid reader for at least 25 years, I’ve recently started to ask myself how life would be without this ability. I therefore started to do some research about reading difficulties and, as often happens in life, I found myself doing something I would have never imagined, even two years earlier: a three-year thesis on reading difficulties, dyslexia in particular.

I knew very little at the outset, then I became more and more interested in the topic, especially the neurological dimension of it. I realized things are complicated and hotly debated, I discovered that there is a lot of research being conducted on remediation programs. All this aroused my curiosity even more. I have become particularly interested in the so-called ‘visual attention’ hypotheses, a line of research that correlates dyslexia to a visual attention impairment. It has been observed that a large number of children who experience this impairment as pre-readers, later become dyslexic. I was also very intrigued by some research studies that tried to improve visual attention by means of child-friendly activities like video games. An Italian study, for example, has demonstrated that after playing some particular types of video games for nine days, reading speed can be improved  in the same measure as a whole year of spontaneous development. I have tried to carry out the same type of study with English-speaking kids in Australia, and the results are looking quite promising.

I am also fascinated by a particular line of research that investigates how some verb patterns are rooted in brain areas that are not primarily responsible for language. For example, it is now commonly thought, that verbs of doing are processed by the areas of the brain which are responsible for body movement, and that people who experience body movement impairments (Parkinson's disease, for instance)  also experience difficulties in processing language related to action. I was so  intrigued by this that I decided to investigate the impact on language of action video game training using a Wii console (which involves a lot of body movements). Provisional results show an improvement in the processing of verbs of doing and not of other verb types!

HRB: What are the most common reading difficulties encountered in language learners?

The most common reading difficulty is dyslexia. About ten percent of the population is dyslexic, with some differences depending on the language spoken (in English, because of its irregularities, it is much more common than, say, in Italian, which is a very ‘transparent’, regular language).

HRB: How do teachers handle reading with dyslexic children in the foreign language classroom? Is the approach the same as for their first language?

Unfortunately, teachers are not always prepared for dealing with such a difficult deficit. It is not their fault. I have been a teacher and I really knew very little about how to cope with it. In the foreign language classroom, they usually allow more time for completing tests, or they decide not to test the children orally at all. Sometimes, depending on how they have been trained, they might decide to change the text font, or create more spacing among the letters or use materials that have been specifically developed for children with reading conditions. There are some common guidelines but it is very hard to find the ‘definitive’ approach. More importantly, very few teachers know that dyslexia has a number of different subtypes, and each subtype has features which make the impairment different. This makes things even more complicated.

Generally speaking, I think it is important to keep in mind that children with dyslexia tend to be more anxious than normal readers, with a series of important cascading effects (socialization, self-esteem, literacy). This should be always kept in mind while adopting the strategies used for dealing with learning.

HRB: What are the main approaches to improving dyslexic children’s reading abilities?

As I pointed out above, there is a lot going on ‘out there’. I think it is crucial to work a lot on phonics, because most dyslexic children (but not all of them) have poor phonological awareness. In order to be able to read, symbols (letters) have to be associated to sounds, which children already have in their brain. They are already familiar with the sound ‘mum’, they need to learn how to associate the string of symbols ‘m-u-m’ to the corresponding sound. In this sense, a training in phonics training is useful, and it may  prove more difficult to  learn reading without such knowledge. However, other cognitive components might concur, as mentioned above. Visual attention seems to play an important role, so phonics might be complemented by it. In order to train visual attention, some action video games have proven successful, besides being incredibly motivating for children.

HRB: What do you think of using visuals, graphic novels and interactive video games in the English class?

I am more and more convinced that in order to motivate students we need to use modes that are part of their everyday world. In this sense, anything that is primarily visual is important. ‘Visual literacy’ is recognized as one of the key literacies for the 21st century. This does not mean neglecting the traditional written code, which is of crucial importance. However, an integration of modes has proven widely successfully. Interactive videos are also ‘interpersonally’ very engaging, and we all know how important it is to become literate in the interpersonal, dialogical perspective as well as the ideational one.

HRB: How do you select texts for your students? Which genres work best?

In my experience, it depends on the age,  interests and gender of the students. I usually investigate their interests for a while and then try to choose something that is part of their world. When Lou Reed passed away, I thought it would have been a nice idea to listen and analyse ‘Perfect Day with them, but they had never heard the song, not to mention the singer. I therefore opted for Justin Bieber, which really saved my day.

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

I believe some classics, if appropriately introduced, can be very powerful. Moreover, some authors are too important to be neglected. I believe every student, at the end of high school, should have some knowledge of Shakespeare, Dickens, Wilde, Woolf and Joyce. I am aware that these authors might be perceived as difficult, but I still believe there can be strategic ways to introduce them. Taking students out of school to see a play at the theatre can be very motivating for the follow-up work in the classroom. Of course, as I said, this can be supplemented by choices from more contemporary authors that they might be more familiar with.

Comparing the concept of love, or revenge, or faith, in a contemporary narrative (novel, movie, poem or graphic novel) and in a more traditional one (let’s say Shakespeare, but a Greek tragedy would do perfectly) might be quite hard to organize, but if well presented it will be a lesson that students will remember for the rest of their lives.

For a number of years, on the last day of school I used to give my students the poem ‘Ithaca’. I am talking about students from vocational schools who sometimes had never heard of Ulysses or Penelope. They would all find it difficult, at the beginning, as they were also busy planning their summer activities. However, a significant number of students would come back to me, maybe five years later, thanking me for the message of the poem, that had remained buried in a drawer for years.

Being able to awaken curiosity, to open new worlds that will be explored later on their own: that, in my view, is the true satisfaction of doing what we do.

Learn more about reading difficulties and dyslexia here: