By Chris Lima

16 August 2013 - 17:10

'Some people argue that society has changed a lot since these works were written.' Photo (c) mischief mari, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Some people argue that society has changed a lot since these works were written.' Photo ©

mischief mari, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Have you ever tried teaching classic literature to language learners? Teacher trainer Chris Lima explains how 19th-century language and culture are less of a hindrance in relating literature – and Jane Austen specifically – to language students than one might assume.

I suppose most teachers’ first reaction towards working with Jane Austen in the English language classroom is not very different from the reactions we have when people mention Shakespeare or Dickens, or literature in general. There are concerns that the language is outdated and, therefore, too difficult for students to understand. Some people also argue that society has changed a lot since these works were written, and students cannot engage with the themes and characters any longer.

In my experience, nothing could be farther from the truth in both aspects.

The language – don’t underestimate your students

In terms of language, I don’t see Austen’s language being incredibly more challenging to language learners than the average daily newspaper when it comes to lexical items and grammar structures. For example, words such as ‘amiable’ can be treated as part of learners’ passive vocabulary as the topic language in a piece of news. Besides that, the cognitive processes of understanding and retaining language are not different at all.

Reading literature can also help students learn how to deal with unknown words they encounter every day.

Another aspect to consider is that language learners can be much more receptive and willing to acquire a wide range of vocabulary and written styles than what teachers might expect. If your students are at low levels, it is always possible to use one of the Graded Readers versions available in the market until they reach a linguistic level when they can read the original version.

Many aspects of the culture are still relevant

As for the cultural contextualisation, I think themes in Austen are still relevant because at the end of the day they are about social status and mobility, money, marriage and the position of women in society.

These are also stories about love and about how people relate to each other. Such things will never cease to resonate with human beings at any time anywhere.

Surely there are considerable differences between 19th century England and contemporary societies worldwide but some of the questions Austen poses to 21st century readers are still pertinent.

International students tend to respond quite well when I propose discussions in class because some of these issues are, in fact, very much part of their present-day reality. For instance, in some places around the world the rules and expectations towards marriage and women’s control over money and property are not entirely different from what female characters experience in the novels. Expectations towards male role models and what is considered proper manly behaviour can also prompt quite interesting debate in class.

How to use Jane Austen in the classroom

I teach literature and language to upper-intermediate international students at the University of Leicester. I work mostly with Pride and Prejudice and learners are usually very enthusiastic about it. The novel is so popular around the world that the vast majority are quite familiar with the story and the characters and by the end of the course I feel they have created a quite strong connection with the book.

I use some of the lesson plans and materials that are available at the Jane Austen page at TeachingEnglish.

I also work a lot with film to help with contextualisation. Seeing the scenes performed helps learners to grasp the humour and irony in some passages and better understand the characters’ reactions and emotions. I use the BBC 1995 production with Colin Firth and also the 2005 version with Keira Knightley.

Students respond extremely well to film in combination with reading the novel and some literary criticism. It helps them develop their reading, listening and speaking skills in class and I then combine it with essay- and blog-writing as homework.

I believe literature is an invaluable source of material because learners are more likely to engage with the texts both cognitively and affectively. It is also great fun and you can create memorable learning moments, especially if you explore literature through film and interactive online tools.

You can find videos, lesson plans, articles and more on the TeachingEnglish page for Jane Austen.

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