CHILDREN’S LITERATURE IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. TEACHING TECHNIQUES TO IMPROVE ORAL COMPREHENSION, INTRODUCE AND DEVELOP READING HABITS AND TO APPRECIATE THE POETIC FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE.
2. CLASSIFICATION OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
a). Fairy Tales
c). Illustrated Books
d). Educational Books
3. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
4. THE ROLE OF LITERATURE IN THE PRIMARY CLASS
5. STRATEGIES TO BE USED BY THE STUDENTS
6. TECHNIQUES TO HELP STUDENTS WITH READING
Children’s literature has traditionally been considered as a second-rate genre. The fact that the receivers of this literature are children somehow predisposes critics to think of it as being of low quality. Nevertheless, children’s stories are generally the first literary texts we face in our lives, the ones that help us develop both linguistic and imaginative aspects, so it would be mistaken to reduce this type of literature to a mere distraction lacking any literary values.
Therefore, it seems reasonable that teachers of English as a foreign language may want to use children’s literature in class. Moreover, the Spanish Educational System requires the promotion of meaningful learning, presenting the students with topics that are both interesting and familiar to them.
Before going into more detail about this type of literature, perhaps it would be sensible to consider exactly what is meant by the term ‘children’ in this context. Childhood is the period of life when one is free of responsibility and susceptible to education. Using this idea as a starting point, we should consider children as human beings who require education in order to reach complete maturity. Children’s literature, thus, can be regarded as one of the means of accomplishing this process of maturing.
2. CLASSIFICATION OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that children’s literature was established as an independent subject. From that moment onwards, a classification of different types of books for children emerges, and we are able to sort them according to their main features. This classification includes fairy tales, poetry, illustrated and educational books.
a). Fairy Tales:
Strange as it may seem, fairy tales do not normally include fairies, as J.R.R. Tolkien observes:
“Fairy stories are not in normal English usage stories about fairies or elves, but stories about Fairy, that is Faerie, the realm or state in which fairies have their being.”
In this way, a fairy tale can be defined as a story originating in Western civilisation; it is normally a tale of some length involving a succession of themes that takes place in an unreal world without a definite locality or characters. Fairy tales pace their action in an indeterminate place in an extemporal moment, the characters usually correspond to stereotypes and there is no major inner development. A conflict or prohibition often affects the plot of the story, and there tends to be elements of the supernatural or metamorphosis; both physical and character change may be key elements within fairy tales.
Poetry is often forgotten when theorising about children’s literature. However, since the 1950s poetry for children has experienced an extraordinary growth, as it was considered that a good poem for children is two poems in the sense that they contain a twofold approach: one for children and another for adults. They have playfulness and creativity in profusion, they are colloquially entrenched, and they also pose questions rather than answer them, thus requiring the reader’s attention.
c). Illustrated Books:
Illustrated books are usually the first books children come into contact with. Visual support helps them to fulfil those linguistics gaps they have not yet come across. As they are intended for very young readers, illustrated books must have very clear illustrations, which must convey the core of the story, so that children who cannot read can follow the plot. There should not be fissures between the text and the illustrations, which should reinforce difficult linguistic items and be attractive and colourful, as well as raise questions for the children to answer.
d). Educational Books:
Educational books are those whose main aim is to develop specific linguistic skills, basically reading competence. It has been conventionally agreed that these sorts of books are of a lower quality than normal children’s books, which tend to be purely artistic. However, we must consider that both types of books fulfil market criteria. At the same time, any type of book depends largely on the reading process, so educational books, if exploited correctly, can provide literary pleasure for children, whereas an artistic text will probably be read from an analytical point of view. For a book to be considered educational, the age of the target reader must be made explicit and it should take into account the psychological development of children. There must also be a connection between the book’s content and the Official Curriculum. Regarding the plot, it must be meaningful, fulfilling the children’s interests and needs.
3. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
During the Middle Ages there was no specific literature for children, but rather a core of texts shared by both adults and children in the shape of folk tales and fables. The fact that most of these stories have animals as the main characters may be confusing, leading people to think that they were intended for children; such is the case of Aesop’s Fables, Reynard the Fox by Caxton and Geste de Robin Hood, by Wynkyn de Worde, printed between 1481 and 1510.
The sixteenth century brings the distinction between cheap books sold in the streets and addressed to both adults and children, such as Comenius’s Sensualium Pictus, published in England in 1659, and texts that pursued the child’s instruction without leaving entertainment aside.
Puritanism can be blamed for the lack of entertaining children’s books during the seventeenth century (it even affected the eighteenth century), as reading for pleasure could not be conceived under this religious notion of the world. Legends and folk tales, which were so abundant during previous times, were replaced by pious stories in which the Gospel played an essential role. James Janeway’s A Token for Children: Being an Exact Account of the Conversation, Holy and Exemplary Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children, published in l692, provides a good example of the sort of books intended for children at the end of the seventeenth century.
Although this tendency survived during the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment enabled the advent of fairy tales from France. It is at this time when titles such as Goldilocks, Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots or Cinderella became popular. These tales are still well-liked and read, even if Post-Modernism, with the help of post-colonial and feminist criticism, started to satirise them. Marina Warner, in her essay From the Beast to the Blonde, focuses on Cinderella, Bluebeard, The Beauty and the Beast, Donkeyskin and The Little Mermaid, paying special attention to female characters and their adventures, with emphasis on the themes of shape-shifting, the effects of female curiosity, beast imagery, sexual awakening, the importance of hair, deconstructing the traditional myths spread by the official version of the tale.
The utilitarian atmosphere of the nineteenth century, together with religion, provided a shift of taste regarding children’s literature: fantasy almost disappeared from the genre and books for children started to resemble those intended for adults. There was a gradual introduction of individual talents as opposed to the moralising tone that dominated the previous century. Books such as Lear’s A Book of Nonsense, Hoffmann’s The English Struwwelpeter or Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River were considered to be eccentricities in an epoch in which straight-laced attitudes were the norm.
It was not until the appearance of Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter that children’s literature suffered a radical change. At the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, books for children experienced what could be known as the Golden Age.
Lewis Carroll is the pseudonym of the English writer and mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who was born in 1832 and died in 1898. As the eldest brother of eleven children, he began to amuse his family from a very early age. Magic, marionettes and poems were his first artistic products. His most famous books are Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Both books represent a satire and are examples of verbal wit. Carroll’s comic and children’s works also include The Hunting of the Snark, two collections of humorous verse, and the two parts of Sylvie and Bruno, unsuccessful attempts to recreate the Alice fantasies.
Beatrix Potter was born in 1866 and died in 1943. She grew up in London, but became very fond of the Lake District, where she used to go on holiday with her parents. As a young girl, she moved to the Lake District and bought her home, Hill Top Farm, where she wrote most of her stories – thirteen books in all, six of which are set in Hill Top itself.
Peter Rabbit is her most famous character. The evolution of the Peter Rabbit stories into book form took her eight years. Beatrix rewrote and illustrated the tales, but they were rejected by publishers. She then decided to publish 250 copies privately and tried again to get a commercial publisher, which she finally achieved, becoming one of the most celebrated authors of children’s books.
Immediately after this Golden Age, the inter-war period has been described as an ‘age of brass’, between two exceptional periods.
From the Post-War period to now, children’s literature has stood as an independent genre, completely differentiated from adult literature. If during the 50s fantasy was the main sub-genre in Great Britain, the 70s and 80s were considered realistic periods, where the term ‘young adult literature’ was coined in order to label a new kind of narrative which was specifically written for young boys and girls.
Nowadays, children’s and teenagers’ books stand as important products for the literary market; millions of new consumers have looked forward to reading the new Harry Potter book and many of them even ordered the book before it was released.
The last decade of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first century are characterised by parents’ involvement in their children’s reading process; they carefully select the appropriate book and actively participate in the reading. This has lead to the appearance of a vast number of titles classified by genre, age and type that aim at fulfilling the great demand for children’s books.
4. THE ROLE OF LITERATURE IN THE PRIMARY CLASS
This historical background contributes to a deep and full understanding of the phenomenon of children’s literature, a trend that nowadays constitutes an essential part of literature written in English, and at the same time has a say in those aspects regarding children’s literacy and cultural development. Nevertheless, we cannot leave aside the fact that books for children play a fundamental role within the English class.
When exploiting children’s books, primary school teachers are faced with a huge variety of aims they may want to tackle. Amongst these, the most relevant ones seem to be the development of aural comprehension, the promotion of reading habits and the vindication of the poetic function of the language as a key factor regarding reading in the foreign language class.
Young learners usually come across books by listening to them, as they cannot read properly during the first stages of their education. In the English class, students frequently listen to stories told by the teacher, although on other occasions a tape or CD is the source for the story-telling.
Apart from mastering some grammatical rules and linguistic structures, the students need to develop certain aural comprehension aspects if they are to get thy gist of the story. In order for this to happen, the teacher must train them not only in reading but also in listening.
Listening to English can be hard work, especially for the youngest pupils. In the early stages of their learning process they will normally spend much of their time listening to the teacher or to recorded material with songs, rhymes, games and so on.
It is very important to bear in mind that pupils will concentrate more during a listening activity if it is meaningful, so story-telling would seem to the perfect alternative for developing this skill, providing that the story suits their level and interests. If teachers want their pupils to engage actively in a listening activity they must be either interested in what they are going to listen to or they must find it useful. In both cases, they must have expectations about the content of the text.
Another important factor to consider before dealing with listening is the pupils’ psychological characteristics. Teachers must build up students’ confidence by letting them know they are not supposed or expected to understand every single word, using backup visual material when possible and especially by informing them about the purpose of the reading activity. In order to help them feel confident about listening activities, teachers must also teach children to develop specific strategies that will facilitate their listening comprehension, such as predicting, extracting specific information, getting the global idea or inferring opinions and attitudes. Extensive and intensive listening will be the techniques to be applied in order to put all these strategies into practice.
Teachers must encourage pupils to predict what they think might come next in the story. Efficient listeners understand what they hear by matching the spoken message to their previous expectations; even native speakers frequently misunderstand unexpected messages.
5. STRATEGIES TO BE USED BY THE STUDENTS
- Extracting Specific Information and Getting the Global Idea: these are essential strategies so that students do not get lost in the bulk of unknown words and expressions which they will normally come across in stories. In some situations, understanding the gist of the message will be enough for communicative purposes; in others students will have to focus on details that are more specific.
- Aural Comprehension: students can also develop their aural comprehension by trying to infer opinions and attitudes from the characters in the story, especially when these opinions and attitudes are not directly stated. An awareness of stress, intonation and body language will help pupils work out meanings.
- Deducing Meanings: even native speakers often come across words they do not understand. Teachers must encourage pupils to use their general knowledge of the story they are following to deduce the meaning of unfamiliar words.
- Recognising Marks of Speech: this is an important part of understanding how a text is built up. Sequencing words, such as first, but and or, offer clues about what is coming next in a text, thus helping us to understand a sequence of events in the story.
If teachers want their pupils to be efficient listeners and readers in English they must give them practice in both intensive and extensive listening and reading.
6. TECHNIQUES TO HELP STUDENTS WITH READING
Reading is an essential part of language instruction at every level, as it supports learning in multiple ways:
- Reading to Learn the Language: reading material is language input. BY giving students a variety of material to read, teachers provide multiple opportunities for students to absorb vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure and discourse structure as they occur in authentic contexts.
- Reading for Content Information: the students’ purpose for reading in their own language is often to obtain information about a subject they are studying, and this purpose can be useful in the language learning classroom as well.
- Reading for Cultural Knowledge and Awareness: reading everyday material that is designed for native speakers can give students a valuable insight into the lifestyles and viewpoints of the people and cultures of the language they are studying.
Reading is an activity with a purpose. A person may read in order to obtain information or to verify existing knowledge, or to criticise a writer’s ideas or style. People also read for enjoyment or to enhance their knowledge of the language being read. These purposes for reading guide the reader’s selection of texts.
The purpose for reading also determines the appropriate approach to reading comprehension. For example, if you need to know whether you can afford to eat at a particular restaurant you will need to comprehend the pricing information provided on the menu, but it is not necessary to recognise every item on the actual menu. A person using a scientific article to support a theory needs to know the vocabulary that is used, understand the facts and the cause-effect sequences, and recognise ideas that are presented as hypotheses.
Research shows that good readers:
- read extensively.
- integrate information in the text with existing knowledge.
- have a flexible reading style, depending on what they are reading.
- are motivated.
- rely on different skills interacting.
In addition, it can be said that reading is an interactive process that goes on between the reader and the text, resulting in comprehension. The text presents letters, words, sentences and paragraphs that encode meaning, while the reader uses his knowledge, skills and strategies to determine what that meaning is. This can be divided into:
- Linguistic Competence: the ability to recognise the elements of the writing system, knowledge of vocabulary and knowledge of how words are structured into sentences.
- Discourse Competence: knowledge of discourse markers and how they connect parts of the text to one another.
- Sociolinguistic Competence: knowledge of different types of texts and their usual structure and content.
- Sociocultural Competence: this deals with the awareness of the social and cultural context in which the foreign language is used.
- Strategic Competence: the ability to use top-down strategies, as well as knowledge of the language (a bottom-up strategy).
Teachers need to ensure that their students are able to fend for themselves in communicative situations, even though they may not have complete control of the grammar or an extensive lexicon. Therefore, teachers need to help their students to become effective readers by teaching them how to use strategies before, during and after reading.
Among these strategies, the following are important:
i). Before Reading:
- Set a purpose or decide in advance what to read for.
- Decide whether more linguistic or background knowledge is needed.
- Determine whether to enter the text from the top down (attending to the overall meaning) or from the bottom up (focusing on the words and phrases).
ii). During Reading:
- Monitor comprehension.
- Verify predictions and check for inaccurate deductions.
- Decide what is and what is not important to understand.
- Re-read to check comprehension.
- Ask for help.
iii). After Reading:
- Evaluate comprehension and strategy use.
- Evaluate comprehension in a particular task or area.
- Evaluate overall progress in reading and in particular types of reading texts.
- Decide whether the strategies were appropriate for the purpose and for the task.
- Modify strategies if necessary.
With regard to the development of these reading strategies, effective teachers show students how they can adjust their reading behaviour to deal with a variety of situations, types of input and reading purposes. They help students to develop a set of reading strategies and to match appropriate strategies to each reading situation. Strategies that can help students to read more quickly include:
- deducing from the context
Developing reading activities involves more than identifying a text that is at the right level, writing a set of comprehension questions for students to answer after reading, handing out the assignment and getting students to do it. A fully-developed reading activity supports students as readers through pre-reading. while-reading and post-reading activities. As teachers design reading tasks, they have to take into account that complete recall of all the information in a text is an unrealistic expectation even for native speakers. Reading activities that are meant to increase communicative competence should be success-oriented and build up students’ confidence in their reading ability.
So, teachers need to:
- construct the reading activity around a purpose that has significance for the students
- define the instructional purpose of the activity and the appropriate type of response
- check the level of difficulty of the text
This can be seen more clearly in the factors listed below.
The activities teachers use during pre-reading may serve as preparation in several ways. During pre-reading, teachers may:
- assess the students’ background knowledge of the topic and the linguistic content of the text
- give students the background knowledge necessary for comprehension of the text, or activate the existing knowledge that the students possess
- clarify any cultural information which may be necessary to understand the passage
- make students aware of the type of text they will be reading and the purpose(s) for reading
- provide opportunities for group work and for class discussion activities
The following are examples of pre-reading activities:
- using the title, subtitles and divisions within the text to predict content and organisation or sequence of information
- looking at pictures, maps, diagrams, graphs or captions
- talking about the author’s background, writing style and usual topics
- skimming to find the theme or main idea
- eliciting related prior knowledge
- reviewing vocabulary or grammatical structures
In while-reading activities, students check their comprehension as they read. The purpose for reading determines the appropriate type and level of comprehension. So, when reading for specific information students need to ask themselves whether they have obtained the information they were looking for. If they are reading for pleasure, they would ask themselves whether they had understood the storyline or sequence of ideas well enough to enjoy reading the passage. When reading for complete understanding (intensive reading) they would need to ask themselves whether they had understood each main idea and the author had supported this, whether what they were reading agreed with their predictions and, if not, how it differed.
As far as post-reading is concerned, reading ability is not always easy to assess accurately. Students’ reading level is the level at which they are able to use reading to accomplish their communication goals; this means that the assessment of reading ability needs to be correlated with their purposes for reading.
For example, a student’s performance when reading aloud is not necessarily a reliable indicator of that student’s reading ability. A student who is perfectly capable of understanding a given text when reading it silently may encounter problems when asked to combine comprehension with word recognition and speaking ability in the way that reading aloud requires.
As regards comprehension questions, these are often used by teachers to test whether students have understood what they have read. In order to test comprehension appropriately, these questions need to be co-ordinated with the purpose for reading. If the purpose is to find specific information, then the questions should focus on that information, whereas if the purpose is to understand an opinion and the arguments that support it, then the questions should refer to those points.