The Complementary Roles of Literature and Creative Writing in Foreign Language Learning
Peter Lutzker, Germany
Peter Lutzker is a professor at the Freie Hochschule (Waldorf Teachers College) in Stuttgart, Germany, and has long been active in teacher training for Steiner Schools throughout Europe. He was also a high school EFL teacher in Steiner Schools for 25 years. He is the author of various articles and books on language and foreign language teaching including The Art of Foreign Language Teaching: Improvisation and Drama in Teacher Development and Language Learning (Tübingen: Francke Verlag, 2007). E-mail: email@example.com
On reading literature in foreign language lessons
The art of teaching literature in a foreign language
Training and practising
There are numerous arguments for emphasizing both literature and creative writing in foreign language teaching. Many of these arguments are common to both, for instance, with respect to providing rich possibilities of affective engagement and as potential sources of awakening intrinsic motivation. Hardly anyone would disagree that reading a short story or a play will be more engaging and motivating than working with a course book, or that writing poetry or fiction will lead to a more meaningful and memorable experience than filling in the blanks of an exercise. Of course, one of the standard paradigms of much traditional language teaching has been that before one is able to/allowed to read literature or write creatively, one has to go through the slog of dutifully learning the vocabulary and grammar of the target language. What is striking is that despite the existence of a broad range of creative approaches addressing all stages of language learning, one still encounters this standpoint. In this article I will not go through these familiar arguments again, but will first focus on processes involved in reading works of literature in a foreign language and then examine the complementary relations of some of those processes to the practice of creative writing.
One of the characteristics of reading in a foreign language is that it normally takes significantly more time and effort than reading in one's mother tongue. This is true at almost every stage of language learning and is particularly the case when one aspires to read authentic literature which depending on the age group and language level can range from fairy tales to Shakespeare. At the same time, the extra time and effort spent in reading a work of literature in a foreign language can become time well-invested, as both the reader and work will be well-served by a receptive process which takes the time to perceive and to appreciate what can be discovered.
Harald Weinrich addressed this issue in his classic and still timely essay "Literatur im Fremdsprachenunterricht – ja, aber mit Phantasie”[Literature in Foreign Language Lessons – Yes, but with Fantasy] He argues that literature should play a central role at all levels of foreign language learning precisely because it is the only form of text that can possibly justify and reward the extra time and attention required. He writes:
Foreign language lessons cannot avoid the complexities of life. Literary texts, spoken or written, offer the best opportunity to approach the complexities of language and meaning, and to do this in a methodical manner. (...) The slow, sometimes very slow, study of texts at the beginning of foreign language learning is only psychologically bearable if the texts through an interesting relation between language and content, make possible, or even require, an intense treatment. This stipulation can only be fulfilled by artistically formed, and, in this sense, poetic texts. (Weinrich, 1985, 252) [my translation]
He shares this conviction with Hans Hunfeld who views the issue of whether literature or course books are at the core of the learner's encounter with a foreign language as a decisive factor shaping the entire experience of language learning (Hunfeld 1990). Hunfeld draws illuminating distinctions between the questions which a work of literature invariably raises in comparison to the questions which can be found at the end of the chapter in a course book:
A course book example makes clear to the learner how the question is to be answered. It teaches neither a realistic, nor a personal use of language, but rather what is required. It elicits a reproduction of a reality which it contextually and stylistically determines. Like fiction, the world within a course book is distanced from reality. However, a fictional text offers its reader many possibilities of seeing and expressing reality; a course book text reduces this reality in both content and grammar to the simplest patterns possible. (Hunfeld 1990, 38) [my translation]
It lies in the very nature of a literary work that it can evoke questions worthy of reflection and discussion. However, these questions do not arise automatically. It is the pupil and/or the teacher who will actively pose them and it is the nature and quality of those questions and the resonances they generate which will often prove decisive in a classroom, particularly with respect to facilitating that leap of 'entering into' the imaginary world which an author has created. In the end, it will be a pupil's entire affective, intellectual and embodied experience of engaging with a work of literature that will determine her responses to it. In his Lectures on Literature (1980) Vladimir Nabokov addresses the question of how students and teachers can enhance the richness of that encounter. He argues that reading a work of literature necessarily calls for attentive rereadings, for it is only through rereading that the finest dimensions of a literary work can become visible. For this to occur not only the mind but the "top of the tingling spine" are the "instruments" called upon (Nabokov 1980, 2). He writes:
What should be established, I think, is an artistic harmonious balance between the reader's mind and the author's mind. We ought to remain a little aloof and take pleasure in aloofness while at the same time we keenly enjoy – passionately enjoy, enjoy with tears and shivers – the inner weave of a given masterpiece. To be quite objective in these matters is of course impossible. Everything that is worthwhile is to some extent subjective. (...) But what I mean is that the reader must know when and where to curb his imagination and this he does by trying to get clear the specific world the author places at his disposal. We must see things and hear things, we must visualise the rooms, the clothes, the manners of an author's people. (Nabokov, 3)
It is this kind of perceptual attentiveness that Susan Sontag in her classic essay "Against Interpretation" views as the most compelling artistic task of our times. As opposed to previous ages in which interpreting a literary work was an appropriate response to it, she now considers the awakening and sharpening of our perceptive and affective faculties to be paramount:
Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capabilities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed.
What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more. (...)
The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means. (Sontag 1964/2009 13-14). italics in original
Both Nabokov and Sontag are calling for a manner of approaching a literary work which in crucial respects seems particularly well suited to reading literature in a foreign language, which, as we have noted, invariably requires more attention and elucidation than reading in one's mother tongue. At the same time, the array of challenges which are implicit in such processes taking place in a foreign language classroom are certainly not to be underestimated and thus finding ways to address them must be seen as a crucial task of teacher education.
The decisive role of the teacher in facilitating her pupils' encounter with a work of literature, in creating the appropriate atmosphere in the classroom, in raising timely and fruitful questions, in formulating meaningful assignments, is all inextricably tied to her entire creative artistry as a teacher. This is undoubtedly also the case in teaching literature in the mother tongue, but the unique challenges involved in doing this in a foreign language bear closer examination.
In studying literature in a foreign language, the issue of 'timing' or 'pacing' must be seen as crucial, particularly in fiction and drama. The short story, the novel, the play, move forward in time and in a specific rhythm and tempo. No one wants to read a story or play in 'slow-motion'. An exciting book is aptly called a 'page turner' because this is what one wants to do. This wish to move forward creates an inevitable tension in addressing the difficulties presented by reading in a foreign language. Clarifications of meaning will be inevitable, yet only insofar as they remain within the atmosphere, and the timing that a situation calls for at any point, will the reading and discussion be enriched by such close attention. These challenges will be potentially magnified when a work is then to be subjected to the kind of precise, detailed rereading that Nabokov is calling for. Adding to these difficulties are the normal time and attention constraints of language lessons. How is it possible to reconcile all these conflicting demands?
It is evident that the degree of artistry required in balancing these elements is considerable. There are also limits to what can be planned ahead of time: many of the decisions that will be made will be based on what occurs in the course of a particular lesson, requiring a highly developed sense of what is appropriate at any given moment, a form of pedagogical intuition. It is this array of challenges and the range of capabilities required to address them that led Elliot Eisner to conclude that teaching must be considered as an art:
First, it is an art in the sense that teaching can be performed with such skill and grace that, for the student as for the teacher, the experience can be justifiably characterized as aesthetic. (…)
Second, teaching, is an art in the sense that teachers, like painters, composers, actresses, and dancers, make judgements based on qualities that unfold during the course of action. (…)
Third, teaching is an art in the sense that the teacher’s activity is not dominated by prescriptions or routines but is influenced by qualities and contingencies that are unpredicted. (…)
Fourth, teaching is an art in the sense that the ends it achieves are often created in process. (…)
(Eisner 1985, 175-177)
Such artistic skills in teaching appear to be predicated on those embodied forms of knowledge which Max von Manen has called "knowledge in action". He writes:
The ultimate success of teaching actually may rely importantly on the "knowledge" forms that inhere in practical actions, in an embodied thoughtfulness, and in the personal space, mood and relational atmosphere in which teachers find themselves with their students. The curricular thoughtfulness that good teachers learn to display towards children may depend precisely upon the internalized values, embodied qualities, thoughtful habits that constitute virtues of teaching. (von Manen, 1995, 48)
What von Manen has referred to here as “embodied thoughtfulness” is not so much a methodological technique, as a reflection of an inner attitude. Thus, acquiring those most practical forms of knowledge exemplified in the teacher’s actions, will require the internalization of what he terms the “virtues of teaching”. Realising such goals clearly calls for a fundamentally different approach to pre-service and in-service teacher education than what is offered in traditional programmes. The question of how foreign language teachers can be taught such forms of embodied knowledge has been concretely addressed in the last two decades in the pre-service and in-service training for Steiner School EFL teachers in Europe. Intensive courses in drama, storytelling and theatre clowning have proven to have significant and long-term effects in helping foreign language teachers develop such skills (Lutzker 2007).
The deeply human need to listen to and to tell stories lies at the heart of most creative writing assignments. Both within the phylogenetic context of human development and the ontogenetic development of a single individual, stories appear to be an intrinsic and essential part of what it means to be human. Hence the presence, or absence, of stories in childhood and youth will not only have a decisive effect in shaping the imaginative and emotional life of a child and young person, but will exert long-term consequences on her later life as an adult. George Steiner writes:
To starve a child of the spell of the story, of the canter of the poem, oral or written, is a kind of living burial. It is to immure him in emptiness. Mythology, the voyages through Scylla and Charybdis, down rabbit holes, the turbulent logic of the biblical, the 'gardens of verse', are the great summoners. (...) If the child is left empty of texts, in the fullest sense of that term, he will suffer an early death of the heart and of the imagination. (Steiner 1991, 191)
In the course of learning to understand, speak and feel 'at home' in one's mother tongue, the listening to and later telling of stories must be viewed as a crucial element. The presence of stories will thus shape not only the imaginative and emotional life of a child, but also the individual experience of the acquisition of language and the development of thought and self. In her seminal work on the role of stories in childhood Susan Engel writes:
...stories are not merely a nice or fun decoration added to the real stuff of mental development. They are, in many respects, the real stuff of mental development. The construction, telling and retelling of stories allow children to learn about their world and reflect on their knowledge. The making of stories also allows them to know themselves; through stories children construct a self and communicate that self to others. (…) ...it is an essential aspect of what it means to be a human being. (Engel 1999, 206) (italics in original)
It is these same deep formative dimensions which listening to and telling stories call upon that also lead her to also emphasize the importance of later encouraging children and young people to write them:
The purpose of encouraging kids to write is not just to get them to write more happily or to become better writers. These experiences have a profound and formative effect on the child's developing narrative voice, and through this, his developing sense of self. The narratives created in writing have a deep connection with the ones created in play and in conversation... (…) They all contribute to the development of the self and to the development of the second world – the one that allows us to live in the past, the future, the impossible, the world of narrative that allows us to share ourselves with others. (Engel 221)
One of the precepts underlying the use of creative writing in foreign language learning is that these processes of storytelling and story-encouraging can also have wide-ranging implications in learning a foreign language. In contrast to the constraints of much expository writing, such creative writing encourages a sense of playfulness, as well as a degree of affective engagement which is intrinsically motivating and can be highly satisfying. In these respects it also comes to resemble crucial aspects of first language acquisition, in stark contrast to many other language learning activities. At the same time, as Alan Maley has argued, creative writing imposes its own set of demands on the writer which, in many respects, are no less rigorous than those imposed by expository writing:
Contrary to what many believe, creative writing is not about licence. It is a highly disciplined activity. However, the discipline is self-imposed: 'the fascination of what's difficult'. In this it stands in contrast to expository writing, which imposes constraints from without. (…) Creative writing is a personal activity, involving feeling. This does not mean that thought is absent – far from it. The ingenuity of a plot or the intricate structure of a poem are not the products of unthinking minds. (Maley 2006, 35)
Maley adds that it is precisely because the degree of affective and cognitive engagement in aesthetic activity and creation is so much higher than in an impersonal 'neutral' task, that it also fosters significant improvement in a broad range of language capabilities:
Creative writing aids language development at all levels: grammar, vocabulary, phonology and discourse. As learners manipulate the language in interesting and demanding ways in their attempt to express uniquely personal meanings (as they do in creative writing), they necessarily engage with the language at a deeper level of processing than with expository texts. The gains in grammatical accuracy, appropriacy and originality of lexical choice, and sensitivity to rhythm, rhyme, stress and intonation are significant. (Ibid.)
In the meantime, there exists a rich and extensive body of literature in the field of creative writing, oriented both towards pupils working in their mother tongues, as well as specifically for foreign language learning. It has been my experience that those books and exercises that have proved most fruitful are those in which the creative and imaginative aspects are clearly paramount and in which specifically targeted language learning goals play little or no role. Pupils generally realise when a supposedly 'creative' task is actually directing them to a specific target. In such cases that crucial sense of playfulness and 'imagining' which is an intrinsic part of creative work can quickly degenerate into fulfilling the aims of a specific task. Accepting and respecting the deeper value of the creative process itself is thus very much a part of an approach in which creative writing is neither an excuse to practice a grammatical structure, nor simply 'fun and games on Friday afternoon', but instead part of an approach to foreign language learning based on tapping into the creative potentials of each student.
It has been my experience in teaching high school students that it is extremely helpful to place individual creative writing assignments within the broader framework of a larger-scale writing project. Individual exercises done over days or weeks are thus viewed as a form of practising designed to enable pupils, for instance, to write their own short stories, or their own collection of poems. To give an example: after extensive preparation which involves both reading short stories and weeks of lessons devoted to creative writing tasks in class, I have generally given my 11th grade pupils the homework task of writing full-length short stories within a period of 6 weeks. The final products were almost without exception the most extensive and finest writing that each pupil had ever done up until that point. After getting back the corrected versions of their stories and reworking them in light of the corrections and feedback, the final versions of their short stories invariably became the crowning element of their individual language portfolios.
Two further aspects of this work deserve consideration. A highly significant 'side-effect' of creative writing is the quality of listening and responding to others which creative assignments can generate in a classroom. Whether in listening to other students' different responses to a creative task, or in reading and responding to each other's stories or poems, the degree of interest and engagement with the work of others is striking. What is learned through giving and receiving this kind of oral and written feedback is very much a part of the entire process and pupils are often quite astounded with what their fellow pupils have come up with and respond accordingly.
Finally, the underlying connections between creative writing and reading literature become very apparent through this work. It is the pupil as a 'creative writer' who most deeply appreciates what great writers have achieved and who is also most receptive to learning from them. Maley writes:
...creative writing feeds into more creative reading. It is as if by getting inside the process of creating the text, learners come to intuitively understand how such texts work, and this makes them easier to read. Likewise, the development of aesthetic reading skills provides the learner with a better understanding of textual construction, and this feeds into their writing (Maley 2006, 36).
Developing the skills called for in both reading literature and creative writing invariably hinges on having enough opportunities to practise both creative writing and the reading of literature. The distinction in this context between practising and training is crucial. The word ´practise` is often used interchangeably with the word ´training’, but they have very different meanings. When training for something, one has clear goals and attaining those goals becomes the focus of the work; the way one reaches them becomes, at most, a secondary consideration. A familiar example would be muscle-building in a fitness studio.
Traditional language learning relies heavily on the training of language skills, particularly with respect to vocabulary and grammar. Such training implies focussing on clearly defined, short-term, testable goals. Practising is fundamentally different and involves a longer and subtler process. The carpenter and violinist have in common that they have practised for years and through their practise have been gradually transformed. Their practise sits deeply in their bodies and movements and also shapes the way they feel and think. It is not reaching the goal that transforms a practitioner - she may not even reach a goal - but the nature of the practise itself. It is this crucial distinction between training and practising in language learning that is highly significant in this context. Course books are carefully designed to train specific skills within clearly defined and limited frameworks. When creative writing and reading literature are considered as long-term, sustained processes of developing perceptual, imaginative and expressive capabilities, then this calls for practising in the sense that all creative artists continually practise in order to improve. And it is within this larger and richer context which practising creative processes offer, that heightened and transformative learning experiences in a foreign language become most possible.
In light of curricular demands and course book constraints, not to mention personal concerns and doubts, the arguments that have been made here for the teaching of literature and creative writing may seem highly unrealistic, if not wholly utopian. At the same time, I do not believe that the static qualities of official curricula and regulations, and more personally of one's view of oneself, have to be simply taken for granted and accepted. It is, as Stephen Bachelor writes, precisely this static view of one's possibilities that most effectively hinders any potential new developments:
The notion of a static self is the primary obstruction to the realization of our unique potential as an individual being. By dissolving this fiction through a centered vision of the transiency, ambiguity and contingency of experience, we are freed to create ourself anew. The notion of the world as an alien reality composed of stubborn, discrete things is likewise the primary obstruction to world-creation. In dissolving this view through a vision of the world as a dynamic and interrelated whole of which we are an integral part, we are likewise freed to engage with the world afresh. To realize such visions requires acts of imagination. (Bachelor 1997, 104)
Attempting to make language teaching and language learning more creative and more meaningful, implies a willingness to take risks and to explore unknown territories. This invariably involves a leap of imagination and a readiness to proceed in new and perhaps unforeseen ways. Bachelor continues:
Self-creation entails imagining oneself in other ways. (…) Life becomes less of a defensive stance to preserve an immutable self and more of an ongoing task to complete an unfinished tale. (...) Grounded in awareness of transiency, ambiguity, and contingency, such a person values lightness of touch, flexibility and adaptability, a sense of humor and adventure, appreciation of other viewpoints, a celebration of difference. (Ibid.)
These are goals worth striving for. For such developments to occur in the context of learning a foreign language, pupils will need to be provided with ample opportunities to practise imagining themselves in those varied, imaginary worlds which both literature and creative writing can offer them. It is the richness of the arts which enables its active practise to become such a powerful catalyst for the transformation of thinking, feeling and being. Such forms of learning can provide a paradigm for all learning. Maxine Greene writes:
I believe that the learning provoked by what we call aesthetic education is paradigmatic for the learning many of us would like to see. Learning stimulated by the desire to explore, to find out, to go in search. This is the learning that goes beyond teaching – the only significant learning, I believe. It is self-initiated at some point, permeated by wonder, studded by moments of questioning, always with the sense that there is something out there, something worthwhile beyond.” (Greene 2001, 46-47)
For pupils to be able to take such imaginative leaps into the unknown, their teachers will have to be willing to risk doing the same. For both, it is a risk well worth taking.
Bachelor, Stephen. 1997. Buddhism Without Beliefs. New York: Riverhead Books.
Eisner, Elliot. 1985. The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs. 2nd ed. New York: Macmillan.
Engel, Susan. 1999. The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Greene, Maxine. 2001. Variations on a Blue Guitar. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hunfeld, Hans. 1990. Literatur als Sprachlehre: Ansätze eines Hermeneutischen Orientierten Fremdsprachenunterrichts. Berlin: Langescheidt.
Maley, Alan. 2006. “Creative Writing/Reading” in Creative Writing in EFL/ESL Classrooms II. Ed.
Jayakaran Mukundan. Malaysia: Pearson.
Manen, Max von. 1995. “On the Epistemology of Reflective Practice” in Teachers and Teaching Theory and Practice. Vol 1. No. 1.
Lutzker, Peter. 2007. The Art of Foreign Language Teaching: Improvisation and Drama in Teacher Development and Language Learning. Tübingen: Francke Verlag.
Nabokov, Vladimir. 1982. Lectures on Literature. New York: Harvest Books.
Sontag, Susan. 1964/2009. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin.
Steiner, George. 1991. Real Presences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Weinrich, Harald. 1988. “Literatur im Fremdsprachenunterricht - ja aber mit Phantasie” in Wege der Sprachkultur. Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag.
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