By Mohd Azhar bin Kamarudin
Literature, as it is often interpreted, is a work of art to tell stories for society to relate and reflect. The use of literature can be traced way back to the Greek glorious Civilization and even the first writings on the caves’ walls of the Paleolithic Period. Since then, men has been using literature to tell stories, history, arts and morale values on how people and society in general should behave, in general. Literature has been seen as tools for the French and Russian Revolutions against the tyranny of the feudal system and as well as leisure, just to past the time when technology inventions were unthinkable and still can be enjoyed today.
In Malaysia, literature has been used to revolt on the colonist nations of Portugal, Great Britain, The Dutch and our Asian neighbour to the East, Japan. We have come up with many literature writers that we can be proud of such as Pendita Zaaba, Rosli Dhobee, A. Samad Said, Usman Awang and many more. Hence, the implementation of literature in secondary schools’ education system in conjunction to embedding English as our second language is a no brainer. However, since then, many students as well as highly trained teachers have failed to grasp the essence of literature to be used as part of learning English. Most of the time, the teacher would rather teach literature as if it is being taught to the first speaker users, as a form of art. This in turn makes the students believe that literature is not as important of being learned such as other English skills of listening, speaking, writing, grammar and reading, thus forming the perception that literature is hard to learn. It also did not help when the Ministry of Education changes the literary texts to be used in schools more than once since its implementation in 2000. This can cause confusion for students as well as teachers, who need to be constantly trained because of these changes. The only groups of people who will benefit from these changes as it seems, are the reference books writers.
On the other hand, in Early Childhood Education (ECE), there exist English literature materials for young children such as nursery rhymes, songs, jingles, storytelling, choral speaking and role play among others. Most of the time, these young children will be excited to join in an activity or two but the objective of the activity was not achieved because the teachers do not explain the usage of the literature material and the children basically dismiss it as mere entertainment.
There are significant issues that lead to why teaching English literature to students in Malaysia is difficult. One of the obvious issues is “caused by the text itself” (Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy & Kamaruzaman Jusoff, 2009). They believe that teaching literature is difficult because there is an incongruity between the selected texts and students’ language ability. They also mention that on selecting suitable texts, the texts “should be interesting, promote intellectual development, independent thinking as well as meeting certain cultural and aesthetic standards”.
Here, the writer fully agrees on this issue for why literature is deemed difficult to teach and learn in Malaysian schools and kindergarten. The selected texts are somewhat not that suitable for language learning. Moreover, during the writer’s years in secondary schools, some of the chosen texts are somewhat confusing and uninteresting. Furthermore, for less proficient students, they tend to dismiss literature texts as uninteresting simply because they cannot grasp the texts read. For example, the usage of A Life’s Brief Candle and There’s been a Death in the Opposite House are somewhat difficult for students to interpret. The language usage may be not that difficult but entirely different from what the students usually learn.
Another issue of why teaching English literature is difficult in Malaysia is the literary styles are not conventional to the standard English forms. Wan Kamariah (2009) mentioned that “literary texts such as poems are disliked due to the lavish usage of figurative language and images that the students fail to interpret in their understanding”. Moreover, the linguistic structure of poetry can be confusing with the usage of irregular punctuation, capital letters and organization. This is why “students believe that poetry does not contribute much in the language development of the target language” (Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy & Kamaruzaman Jusoff, 2009).
The writer also agrees with the issue that English literary styles are different from standard English skills convention. This difference is the key to students’ turn-off when it comes to learning literature. The styles and linguistic structures that are different from the other English context such as listening, reading, speaking, grammar and writing is the proponent of disinterest. The writer himself sometimes preferred learning literature through short stories or dramas since they still have some similarities with the English language skills whereas poetry has different structures that can be called ‘unnatural’ to the ESL learners. This is probably the reason why in learning literature, poetry seems to be the least favourite texts to be used.
The third issue why teaching English literature is difficult in Malaysia is that the literary texts are from unfamiliar cultural context. “Unsuitable texts can create distance between the text and the readers” (Saraceni, 2002). In order to learn literature in ESL context effectively, “students need to have background knowledge, similar values and norms to the authors” (Horowitz, 2002 & Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy & Kamaruzaman Jusoff, 2009). Since these characteristics are not usually not met, “students tend to infer the meaning of the texts on their own culture and what one culture interpret as one thing, another culture may interpret it differently, thus misconception on the true meaning of the texts” (Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy & Kamaruzaman Jusoff, 2009).
This issue is the major reason why Malaysian students and children have the perception that learning English literature is difficult. Some of the literary texts chosen are not familiar to the Malaysian students. For example, A Life’s Brief Candle by William Shakespeare was one used as a poem taught in literature lessons. One of the problems occurred from discussing the poem is that Shakespeare interpreted the candle as significant of someone’s life on the way to his or her death whereas Asians, particularly Indians, believe candles as a symbol of life. Some Western literary texts also like to perceive that white cloth as a symbol of life or joyful whereas for Muslims, white cloth can also be symbolizes as death besides pure and beauty. Another example of cultural confusing literary text is the poem There’s been a Death in the Opposite House by Emily Dickinson In the poem, death is treated as a hateful crime against nature. The action of throwing away the mattress that the deceased was on signifies that the people are not welcoming death very often. Next, when the family members of the deceased mourning and wearing black, the surroundings becomes sombre and frightening to the kids and all the undertaker and ministers that has direct contact with the deceased . However, in Malaysia, death is treated as a way of life. Muslims embrace death as they embrace life and the Chinese people would have music on their way to send the deceased to the grave. Therefore, the treatment and view of death are very different between the Westerners and the Easterners.
Next, the issue of why teaching English literature is difficult in Malaysia is because English literature lessons are too teacher-centred. Although teacher-centred lessons “follows specific flow of lessons which are explanation, discussions and finished with exercises given by the teachers and save time for the syllabus to finish before examinations” (Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy & Kamaruzaman Jusoff, 2009), they are “boring, dull and uninspiring to students” (Gurnam Kaur, 2003).When mentioning on the teacher role in literature lessons, most of them are solely based on the teachers. The teachers will decide what the texts means, the literary elements used, the plot, the characters and their characteristics, moral values and so on. The teachers do not give any chance for students to give an opinion, let alone criticize or evaluate the texts they read.
The fifth issue of why teaching English literature is difficult in Malaysia is students and children do not see the benefit of learning literature in helping them succeed in life. Sivasubramaniam (2001) stated that “literature will not adequately help students to fulfill their academic and professional goals”. Children, on the other hand, see literature as a form of entertainment and a tool to ensure they do not disrupt the class. However, literature can be given the benefit of the doubt in stimulating students’ critical and creative thinking, where can be used in using the language as a whole.
However, no problem is without solution. There have been countless efforts made by experts in Malaysia that have been trying to tackle the issues that teaching English literature to Malaysian students is difficult. One of the solutions on how literature can be easily taught in Malaysia is teaching literature for personal enrichment. With this approach, students are given permission to relate the texts to their own experience, reactions and opinions. Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy and Kamaruzaman Jusoff (2009) also believe that this approach “can encourage students to be more involved, promote group work and interaction in the classroom since the materials are of the students’ interest”. Moreover, for “students to use experience to relate to the literary texts is more of using the Story Grammar Approach” (Aly Anwar Amer, 2003). Using the approach, students “can focus on text structure, enhance their comprehension and improves recall of information” (Taylor & Beach, 1894; Berkowitz, 1986; Wilkinson, 1999). Therefore, they “will have expectations about the literary texts that they read” (Garner, 1988). Sivasubramaniam (2001) agreed on teaching literature as personal enrichment and quoted as saying literature “promotes language acquisition, motivation in classroom, cultural awareness, language awareness, educates human emotions and educates social sensitivity”. Radzuwan Ab. Rashid, Shireena Abdul Rahman & Vethamani (2010) agreed that literature “inculcate students’ reading habits, enhancing students’ thinking skills, promoting cultural understanding, improve English language proficiency, and providing lively, enjoyable and high-interest readings”.
The second solution on how literature can be easily taught in Malaysia is using the language-based approach. It can be used to incorporate literature and language syllabus together. Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia, Muthusamy and Kamaruzaman Jusoff (2009) argued that the approach can “enable students to make informed and meaningful interpretations as well as evaluations through detailed analysis thus, ensure students to be more sensitive and aware of the language and its linguistic features”.
This approach can be used for both less proficient and the proficient students of the English language. Using the approach will not only get the students to be actively involved in the literature lessons but make them aware of the English language structures and linguistic features that can ensure proficiency.
The third solution on how literature can be easily taught in Malaysia is using the periphrastic approach which “deals with the surface meaning of the text” (Hwang & Embi, 2007). This approach permits teachers to use simpler words and sentence structures as well as translations for easy literature lessons.
This approach is best used with an introduction to literature classes, specifically to young children. Teaching literature at the surface meaning by using simpler words, simple sentence structures and translations can be the way to not shock students who are just getting comfortable learning the standard English language skills. Besides, students can hone their literature skills and change the students’ perceptions that learning English literature is difficult.
In conclusion, the issues of teaching literature in Malaysia have been a constant struggle. However, efforts have been made to eliminate these issues and experts have come up with several solutions that are hoped able to tackle these issues effectively. It is hoped that Malaysian students and children can enjoy learning literature as well as improving their English language proficiency simultaneously.
Aly Anwar Amer (2003). Teaching EFL/ESL literature. The Reading Matrix, 3 (2).
Chittra, Siti Norliana Ghazali, Roszainora Setia & Kamaruzaman Jusoff (2009). ESL students’ attitude toward texts and teaching methods used in literature classes. English Language Teaching, 2 (4).
S, Sivakumar (2001). Promoting the prevalence of literature in the practice of foreign and second language education: issues and insights. Asian EFL Journal, 8 (4).
Sidhu, G.K., Chan, Y.F. & Kaur, S. (2010). Instructional practices in teaching literature: observations of ESL classrooms in Malaysia. English Language Teaching, 3 (2) pp. 54 – 63. Retrieved from, http://search.proquest.com.ezaccess.library.uitm.edu.m/docview/838889882/fulltextPDF/13B2BE13B09144674CB/2?accountid=42518. Retrieved on, November 20, 2012.
Vethamani, M. E., Radzuwan Ab. Rashid & Shireena Basree Abdul Rahman (2010). Approaches employed by teachers in teaching literature to less proficient students in Form 1 and Form 2. English Language Teaching, 3 (4). pp. 87 – 99. Retrieved from, http://search.proquest.com.ezaccess.library.uitm.edu.my/docview/839110248/fulltextPDF /13B2BE13B09144674CB/6?accountid=42518, Retrieved on, November 20, 2012