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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

Teaching and Evaluating the Literary Reader

Mariyatunnitha Shari English Language Department, Faculty of Languages, Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris, 35900 Tanjong Malim, Perak

Abstract: The issue underlying this study is whether or not teachers of literature lack a model for testing. Can literature teaching be compared with the language test whereby the target competence can be measured against that of the fully-operational native speaker. The aim of this paper is therefore to share the findings of a qualitative research study conducted to find out how part-time ESL secondary schoolteachers undergoing a Master in Education course assessed students who were taught the literature-based component in English. The researcher was a course instructor who had during the course discussed different ways of teaching literature based on different models of literary readers. A teacher who models the student as an appreciative reader would view literature teaching as developing enjoyment, appreciation and independence in reading, no matter what the text or target cultures, thereby regarding literature as an incentive to independent reading. This view of teaching is consonant with the aims of teaching the literature-based component in English in the Malaysian school context for aesthetic appreciation and concurs with the transactional theory of literary reading (Rosenblatt, 1985) to elicit readers’ responses. The outcome of the research based on field notes of lessons, interview transcripts, reflective teacher journals, and also documents in the form of students’ assignments indicate that growth in teaching and learning can be assessed when lessons focus on formative evaluation of aesthetic reading of literary texts.

Keywords: Literature, assessment, appreciative reader

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

BACKGROUND OF THE STUDY

The teaching and learning of English in Malaysia is largely determined by the national curriculum. This curriculum includes the teaching of literature. Schools have been instructed to carry out the literature component in the English language syllabus with forms one and four beginning in March 2000, forms two and five in 2001, and forms three in 2002 according to Professional Circular No. 4/2000 dated 18th February, 2000 (Ministry of Education, Curriculum Development Centre, 2000, February 18). According to the circular, form one students are to study a compilation of three short stories and three poems; while forms two, three, four, and five students are to select one out of three novels specified for each of the different forms. In addition, form four and five students are also required to read a compilation of five short stories and six poems. The Ministry of Education subsidizes the cost of certain books so that these literary texts are accessible to all students. Therefore compilations of short stories and poems are made accessible to students from underprivileged homes as the books can be borrowed under the Textbook Loan Scheme. Literature is important in both the teaching and learning of the English language as well as in formal examinations. However, with a standardized national curriculum, teaching has to be consonant with the aims of literature study as specified in the English language syllabus of the Integrated Curriculum for Secondary Schools:

The aesthetic purposes of language use involve the ability to enjoy literary texts at a level appropriate to learners’ ability. Learners are also expected to be able to express ideas, thoughts, beliefs and feelings creatively and imaginatively. The study of moral values is also given emphasis in this area of language (Kementerian Pendidikan, Pusat Perkembangan Kurikulum, 2000, p.9)

Such an aim for literature learning alludes to the need for tests that allow learners to explore the aesthetic use of language.

PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

The problem underlying this study is that teachers of literature lack a model for testing when compared to the language test whereby the target competence can be measured against that of the fully-

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

operational native speaker. The researcher was a course instructor for ESL secondary schoolteachers undergoing a Master in Education course for further professional development. Therefore it was deemed necessary to find out how course participants taught and assessed literary reading within rural or suburban school contexts. The researcher also desired to find out whether the methods used were consonant with the aims of literature learning in Malaysia. Finally, the research was aimed at finding out participants’ formative assessment of teaching and learning, based on students’ contexts of learning and background. This concurs with the transactional theory of literary reading (Rosenblatt, 1985) that emphasizes consideration of readers’ background when eliciting readers’ responses. The background of the teacher participants of the study as well as that of the students taught are explained below to provide an overview of the teaching context.

PARTICIPANTS OF THE STUDY

Participants of the study, Girija, Ravi and Leong, were selected using the convenient sampling method (Stake, 1994) and were the only secondary schoolteachers undergoing a part-time Master in Education (TESL) degree course taught. Based on interview

sessions, these participants of the study had pursued the Bachelor of TESL degree after years of teaching, using the Teachers’ Certificate earned from a teacher’s training college as the entry requirement for

a university preservice teacher education course. Girija had studied

full-time in the same teacher education university. Ravi had gone for his basic university degree overseas, while Leong had pursued a

part-time degree course. The situation alludes to voluntary interest in professional development. Girija who had to prepare her form three male city school students for the Penilaian Menengah Rendah public examination, had 15 years’ teaching experience. Girija admitted when interviewed that her students had exposure to the English language in the city, and

a majority were from English-speaking background. Ravi, who taught two, form one, and one form four classes of female school students of average proficiency level in a small town, had 26 years’ teaching experience and admitted that his students used the Malay language for communication in school, but that English was spoken by some of the students.

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

Leong, who taught form four male and female students in a co-

educational school in a rural area, had 16 years’ teaching experience. Leong recounted that his students were not motivated to be in school; neither were they interested in learning the English language. The few students who did speak the language were female students

– daughter of a policeman, a teacher, a businessman, a highway

department officer, and an estate manager. The rest of his students could barely speak the English language. Important to the researcher’s understanding of the contexts of teaching, the city in which Girija taught was the researcher’s hometown, and the school had once been an observation site in the researcher’s capacity as a university practicum supervisor. Meanwhile, the town where Ravi taught was familiar, and the rural school where Leong taught had once been a centre where the researcher was an oral examiner.

STEPS IN IMPLEMENTING THE STUDY

The lecturer-cum-researcher discussed various approaches to teaching and testing reading of literary texts with the class. Based on a recommendation by Spiro (1991), literature tests could be conducted to match teachers’ perception of who the literary reader should model when taught literary texts. Spiro (1991) emphasized that teachers should model readers either as the literary critic, the literary scholar, the poet, the appreciative reader, the humanist, or the competent language user. Spiro’s (1991) six role models of the literary reader are based

on the different views of literature teaching by the teacher. Firstly,

a teacher who models the student as a literary critic would view

literature as a canon taught for accumulation of knowledge as well as the ability to analyze, synthesize and contextualize such knowledge. Secondly, a teacher who models the student as a literary scholar would view literature as a canon taught for accumulation of knowledge as well as the ability to analyze, synthesize and contextualize such knowledge. Thirdly, a teacher who models the student as a poet when teaching literary texts would perceive that literature teaching is to develop the skills of creative self-expression and experimentation with language, for training in creativity.

Fourthly, a teacher who models the student as an appreciative reader would view literature teaching as having a role to develop enjoyment, appreciation and independence in reading, no matter

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

what the text or target cultures, for literature is regarded as an incentive to independent reading. Fifthly, a teacher who models the student in the role of a humanist would view literature teaching as a way to develop an empathy and understanding of the human condition, and so regard literature as training in humanism. Finally, a teacher whose role model of the student is that of the competent language user would view literature teaching as a way to develop language skills and awareness in all genres and contexts, whereby literature is used as an example of language in use. As a post-lecture assignment, participants were asked to conduct literature lessons in English with students in their classrooms using their own approach, considering the context of their school, students, and text taught. Course participants were required to submit field notes of the lessons taught and also copies of students’ assignments that they completed based on the literary genres taught. The following week, the course participants brought copies of their students’ completed work in response to the lesson or lessons taught. In order to triangulate field note data, course participants were given an hour to an hour and a half to reflect on the lesson or lessons taught in writing. When diagnosing the strengths of the lesson or lessons taught, course participants needed to substantiate their discussion by citing relevant examples of students’ writing. At the end of the journal writing session, each course participant read his or her reflective journal out loud.

FINDINGS OF THE STUDY

Students’ completed assignments in the classes that Girija, Ravi and Leong taught using texts selected by the Education Ministry showed the approaches used to assess understanding, as shown below.

Girija: I encouraged my students to write their own basedon the poem “The Dead Crow” written by A. Samad

Said” (2000) and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” written by

William Butler

Actually it was revision for that

day.

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

The poem written by one of Girija’s students in response to “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (Yeats, 2000) follows:

The Life in the City

Are you ready for life in the city? Where people are busy all the time? Parents working, children schooling, Life in the city is real hectic. Hustle and bustle of the vehicles, Traffic jam and accidents occur everywhere, It is safe no more. The night is forever young, Teenagers hanging out at night, Music, dances and discos are Part of the entertainment.

The above poem indicated a personal response to the persona’s feeling of the city in Yeat’s (2000) “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by a teenager from the city. The response indicates the success of the activity based on the criterion of relevance of the teenager’s response and empathy for the persona. Both are displayed. Such work indicated that Girija had modeled the student as an appreciative literary reader. The teacher had this to say:

Girija: My 3B class is considered to be the best class and all the students in that class can read and write pretty . The poem written by Khoo Chong Teng which explains about life in the city is a simple and meaningful poem. It gives us awareness about life in the city whereby life is really hectic, there is no clean environment to enjoy and teenagers are involved in unhealthy activities such as having late nights out.

One of the poems selected in response to the poem “The Dead Crow” (A. Samad Said, 2000) is provided below, followed by an excerpt of the teacher’s perception of students’ proficiency.

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Pollution

English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

Long long time ago The world is peaceful and colourful Earth is covered by grass and trees Animal and human living happily.

After a thousand years The world has polluted Animal and human suffered the pollution Earth is covered by dead body.

Let we safe the world Let we free the river Let we leave the forest alone Let we politicians plan how we may live with dignity Now and always.

Girija: As for the students in 3A, considered to be a weak class in my school, the students were reluctant to write. After encouraging and motivating them, some of the students wrote poems based on life, pollution and friends. Most of the students copied words and sentences from the English textbooks. They have not much confidence to write on their As I walked around the classroom, they asked me certain words in Bahasa Melayu and Tamil language. I helped them.

The lines of the poem though copied in certain instances again showed that the reader despite a weakness in English had fulfilled the criterion of relevance of textual understanding. But unlike the earlier poem, the second poem showed that the reader had not applied the information in the original poem to create a new poem based on personal knowledge of the theme portrayed. The moralizing was basically a mirror of the text used by the poet. The response showed that the weaker student had not reached the level of independent aesthetic response through the writing activity. But both poems showed students had responded by creating their own ‘art’ in writing. By comparison, Ravi had used different approaches to test understanding of “The Dead Crow” (A. Samad Said, 2000) taught in two form one classes. Form one Rancangan Khas comprising rural students awarded a scholarship based on merit to study in a town

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

school were asked to categorize the poem under its theme, setting, tone and mood, moral values as well as to provide an overview that summarized the poem in prose form. A pair of students’ completed assignment showed that they mind-mapped the categories as follows: theme – environmental pollution is a serious threat to health and life; need for cooperation between government and capitalists to ensure that development goes together with environmental preservation; setting – drain, clinic, forest, rivers; tone and mood – anger (about environment), didactic (demands a clean environment), moral values – environmental consciousness; about the poem – stanza one – He saw a dead crow in a drain by a post office. He also saw an old man and a baby with a breathing problem in a crowded morning clinic. He wonders why we are still suffering when we have a country which is rich with natural resources, stanza two – The poet demands clean air for his grandchildren. He wants the politician to plan development carefully so that the environment will be clean for now and for the future; overview – The poet voices his anger about what we have done to our environment; among the victims of the pollution are an old man, a baby and a dead crow. The activity was followed with a mind-mapping at word level to show the same pair of readers’ understanding at the word level. An excerpt from the journal about the lesson provided below showed the teacher’s perception of the extent of students’ learning from the mind-mapping activity:

Ravi: I started by giving some input on “The Dead Crow” which they have been taught. Then I asked the pupils to show their understanding of the poem. It was really amazing. The students came up with mind-mapping technique and later made modifications according to their own understanding.

It was an information-basedtestforstudentstodisplaycompetence on negotiating meaning intrinsic to the text. This competence is deemed necessary for language development (Chambers & Gregory, 2006; Gadjusek, 1988; McKay, 1991). The teacher suggested that there was an aspect of backwash in the test stemming from the classroom teaching experience. No abstract personal response was required. But the testing-teaching bridge during testing meant formative assessment as the test was taken by pairs of students. Interaction alludes to less stress. The mind-map activity shown above was consistent with Spiro’s (1991) assertion of the advantages of a question that focused on a specific text: skills were to be applied

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

to a text, rather than be displayed in abstract; responses were not learnt by rote but generated by information within a text; and the activity was a meaningful vehicle for demonstrating discrete and specific literary knowledge for the linguistically able. Ravi’s second approach implemented with weaker form one ‘Semarak’ required pairs of students to illustrate the same poem, “The Dead Crow” (A. Samad Said, 2000). A pair of students wrote the title of the poem and illustrated the content of the poem with

a picture of a man picturing in his mind felled trees in the forest

and also of a woman standing in a foggy area; a post office with a stream filled with dead fish flowing behind it; and a religious old man holding a baby in front of a clinic. The pair wrote a summary of the poem as follows: “The Dead Crow” is about what has to our environment. It has been taken for granted and neglected by man.” When explaining the art or illustration, writing the one to two-line summary of the poem was optional, as shown in other students’ illustrations. The criterion of practicability of use of the poem was evident. The above response was from appreciative readers. Meanwhile, a mind-mapping activity was used to explore form four readers’ understanding of the poem “There’s Been a Death in the House Opposite” (Dickinson, 2000). A pair of students’ completed assignment showed a drawing of the Chinese prayer altar with its offerings to the deceased as well as a mind map below the drawing, which was as follows: Death – Death is a part of life; most of the people dying; everyone will mourn for the dead; the fear of death is

natural; live bands that play sad songs; a casket in the house; family members burning joss paper. The mind map showed the value the reader attributed to symbols such as rituals, religious icons and traditional ceremonies of the Chinese culture associated with death. The student’s work showed that the poem was conceptually accessible to generate a meaningful activity within a limited frame, even for weak students. The following

is the teacher’s perception of what the literary experience involved:

Ravi: The students are generally regarded as above average. They internalized the poem, making intra-textual as well as textual references. Students coming from different cultures could relate the concept of death with their own family background

or having witnessed a friend’s in the neighbourhood. Students also draw pictures to show that death can take any form,

as in committing suicide and road accident. I think this is

a good way of learning as students link the ideas from the poem to the real world.

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

Ravi perceived that the activity in response to the poem “There’s Been a Death in the House Opposite” (Dickinson, 2000) allowed readers to relate literature to their own lives and to identify with the universal human condition. Literature broadened understanding of culture, and helped readers to achieve a sense of self-identity and to clarify values (Rodrigues & Badaczewski, 1978). Meanwhile, Leong who taught “Sonnet 18” (Shakespeare, 2000) to form four students in the rural area faced a bigger problem.

Leong:

When I introduced “Sonnet 18” to my class, a majority of them could not comprehend the message put forth by the poet. Most of them are from the estates and for them to be able to converse in English at the communicative level is outstanding.

But a poem excerpted from Leong’s student was that of a poem written below a picture of Catherine Zeta Jones:

Shall I compare the sun and moon to you Your eyes wins the sunshine The moon hide from you You are an beautiful angel Star shine for you I will waiting for you While you likes me.

Another had illustrated the poem excerpted below with a cut-out of a couple holding hands:

My lovely guy Even I don’t see you

I know that you are a lovely guy

I always think of you

Every second, every minute of every day.

The response was explained thus:

Leong: Many of my pupils especially boys, even girls, have for themselves an intimate relationship with pupils from other forms and also other schools. Most of my pupils used pictures from newspaper cut-outs to portray their thoughts.

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English Language Journal Vol 3, (2009) 27-38 ISSN 1823 6820

The teacher had probably discussed the poem within the context of students’ personal experience, and ensured participation by bringing in other materials to help students to illustrate their thoughts based on the theme of love. Leong’s perception echoed Girija’s perception below.

Girija: The subject did arouse students’ interest and attention for they took the initiative to write, draw, colour, and come up with some meaningful sentences.

Literature was perceived as fun. A different approach motivates students (Hill, 1986; Collie & Slater, 1987; Basturkmen, 1990; Kellough, 2007).

CONCLUSION

The small case study looking into teacher practice is a formative assessment of three teachers, found to have modeled students in their literature classes as appreciative readers who were allowed to create or to illustrate poems as a form of literary and/or artistic creation. The methodology of teaching and testing were fun, with creativity and real-life application being the basis and focus. Formative methods that assessed learning were consistent with the aims of literature study and concurred with the transactional theory of literary reading (Rosenblatt, 1985) which requires that teaching be based on students’ contexts of learning and background. The exception to the rule, but important to ESL learning, was the class where Ravi focused on readers’ ability as language users rather than as literary scholars. Yeager (1997) posits that dealing with fossilized teaching methods is a challenge to teacher education.

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