Using literature to teach grammar in the foreign language classroom

How can we use literary texts to introduce new grammar structures to our learners?

Here are 8 tips on the effective use of TL literature to promote grammar learning and intercultural awareness in the EFL classroom

  1. Literature as a ‘decoding tool’

               Integrating literature effectively in the language classroom to promote grammar learning while enriching our students’ understanding of the TL culture is a challenge for all EFL teachers but can be extremely beneficial to language learning. For McGlynn and Fenn (2018) “routinely weaving grammar into lessons and the study of literature”, rather than “teaching it as an abstract set of rules”, enables students to see grammar in a “more flexible, enjoyable and exciting way”. Our learners do not only benefit from noticing how the new grammatical structures are being used in an authentic TL context, but they also improve their knowledge of the TL culture. Grammar becomes a “decoding tool”: a key to “unlocking deeper meaning within texts that enriches the reading experience” (McGlynn & Fenn, 2018).

2. Focus on learner motivation

    It is important to always keep in mind that we will be using literature in the EFL classroom not only for the sake of language learning but also for promoting our students’ general education. The exposure to the TL culture through literature expands not just the knowledge of the target language but also our students’ general knowledge and personal development. Literature is not merely viewed as a linguistic tool. The text is not simply the means by which new grammar or vocabulary is introduced in the language classroom. Students focus not only on the language but also on the content.

   Through the use of literature language teachers get to achieve 3 things: boost student motivation, focus on the target language through the use of authentic texts and  at the same time promote intercultural awareness. After all teaching a language should be interconnected with teaching students more about the culture of the people that speak that language. Students get to learn more about the target culture and become genuinely interested in it.

  Using a variety of different stimuli to activate learner schemata and grasp our learners’ attention is important in the lead in stage. We can use realia, hands on materials, songs and YouTube videos related to the content of the extract we will be introducing our students to. This will not only kill boredom but it will boost our learners’ motivation and their willingness to participate in the lesson.

3. Carefully selecting the pieces of writing

    Grammar practice is most effective when it is meaningful and contextualized. Grammar should not be seen as a set of rules that always needs to be explicitly taught to the ss. New grammatical structures should be introduced in ‘meaningful context’, using authentic input and in a way that somehow creates the ‘desire’ to our learners to want to find out more about their use (for example by giving them a text with a number of instances of reported speech instead of directly stating the rules).

        Finding this meaningful, authentic language in TL literature and using it to teach grammatical structures can prove to be very effective. The extracts should be carefully chosen in order to trigger our learners’ attention. It is a challenge, but watching our students show genuine interest in the lesson can be very rewarding. The texts should be selected based on our students’ age, level, needs and interests. Teachers should also not stick to extracts from books but exploit all the different literary genres (drama, poetry, theatrical plays etc.). This will add variety to the lesson and enhance our learners’ motivation.       

        Teachers should carefully examine the extracts they are giving out to the classroom in terms of any unknown words, TL structures metaphors and slang that may confuse the learners. The language needs to match our students’ level in terms of complexity and new vocabulary. It should neither be too difficult nor too easy. My advice would be not to focus on each and every unknown word or phrase our students may encounter. Instead, we should focus only on the ones that may hinder comprehension and thus create problems during the learning process.

    Information overload

         When presenting a literary text, EFL teachers need to think about how much information they should be giving out to their class in terms of the text’s cultural and historical background, the author etc. We need to carefully select the amount of input and provide learners with all the necessary information that will activate their schemata and will facilitate comprehension. It is crucial however to remember that literature is primarily being used as a tool that will help us step away from coursebook material and boost our learners’ levels of interest and motivation. Too much background information on the text and the target language culture may ‘spoil the fun’ and may shift the focus of the entire lesson.

4. ‘Mentor sentences’

    One of the points we need to consider when focusing on grammar is the effectiveness of the examples used. They have to be clear, to the point and meaningful to our learners. The language input our students will receive needs to focus both on the meaning of the new grammatical structure as well as its form. Contextualization is key in the effective practice of newly acquired grammar in the target language. We need to provide our learners with meaningful background for the newly introduced structures by building up context through useful, authentic examples of language use that will highlight the TL forms and their functions. We want the language of the examples used to be as ‘close’ to our learners’ world and needs as possible. Our students need to feel ‘connected’ to the content and meaning of the language used in the literary extracts. They need to recognize the usefulness of these phrases and train themselves on how they can adapt them to real life communication.

     Carefully selecting ‘mentor sentences’ ( during our lesson planning stage can be very effective in helping our learners grasp the meaning behind the grammatical point we are focusing on. These are authentic sentences taken from the piece of literature we give to the class that contain the newly introduced TL structures and will facilitate comprehension. We can base our concept questions on them or use them as examples for further practice when designing tasks that will accompany the text.

5. The importance of ‘noticing’

       It is important to keep in mind that most of the times it is better for output to precede input. Learners should not be seen as mere recipients of new language input. Instead, they need to be actively involved in the learning process. Teachers at this point have to judge whether they can first ‘elicit’ the new language structure from their students. This makes ss ‘notice’ the new language patterns, discover themselves what the aim of the lesson is and try to produce and make sense out of the new structures.

     With regard to introducing new TL grammar structures, Harmer (2001:155) stresses the importance of encouraging students to ‘understand new language forms’ either by ‘discovering them for themselves in a text’, or by ‘looking at grammatical evidence in order to work out a grammar rule’. In order to verify that this discovery leads to ‘real understanding’, regular comprehension checks are important.

6. Checking understanding – Concept questions

         Sometimes our learners’ L1 background may affect our decisions when it comes to grammar teaching. The use of the gerund in English, the 3rd type conditional as well as certain phrasal verbs are some examples of structures that Greek learners of English in particular usually find confusing. Sometimes they may not fully understand the underlying meaning of the structures and the way they are used in context. This is where the ‘concept questions’ technique can help. It can be used with the most difficult and perplexing structures in order to clarify certain points and help learners ‘grasp’ the underlying meaning and usage of these TL patterns. It can also be used several times during the lesson to check understanding.

Here’s a very useful link on the use of concept questions in the EFL classroom.

7.  Task authenticity

    What we always need to keep in mind is that we should be focusing on both content and form. We need to examine whether we want our students to implicitly be exposed to the usage of certain grammatical patterns through the literary texts or we want a more explicit focus on grammar.

    Since we are using literature to promote language learning, we also need to take advantage of this exposure to authentic TL culture and focus on the content of the piece of writing we give to our learners, the plot, the characters, its literary and historical background. Depending on our students’ level, we could also introduce them to some literary terms, to some linguistic features (ex. metaphors, similes, alliterations), to the main characteristics of certain literary genres, some details on the register being used, etc. (Lazar 2009:7). In this way, we are not only focusing on grammar, but we are also promoting our learners’ literary competence.

    Different literary genres can trigger a variety of innovative activities in the EFL classroom. For example, ss can act out dialogues from a theatrical play (that contain examples of the TL structures we want them to focus on) or work in groups and use their creativity and rewrite the final stanzas of a poem.

Below you can find some ideas on designing activities that focus both on content and form:

Using literary texts to promote grammar learning

8. Encouraging creative thinking

    Literary texts provide the meaningful context that we can use to introduce new grammatical structures to our ss. Nevertheless, using authentic texts to merely focus on language teaching can spoil our learners’ enjoyment of the reading process. As a result, we should not focus on using an extract from a book in order to teach grammar/vocabulary per se, but instead view it as a very good opportunity to encourage critical and creative thinking, to make our ss begin to show genuine interest in the TL culture and its literature.

     What we need to focus on is to cultivate a love of reading in ss, not just for classroom purposes, but for pleasure. They need to feel intrinsically motivated to do so (not because they have to, but because they want to). To further promote this ‘passion for books’ teachers should consider the possibility of creating a foreign language library inside the classroom, with ss exchanging books, reading them for fun or working on literary projects as part of their H/W.


Harmer, J. (2001). The practice of English language teaching. Longman.

Lazar, G. (2009). Literature and Language Teaching. A Guide for Teachers and Trainers. Cambridge University Press.

McGlynn, A. & Fenn, R. (2018). Teaching Grammar through Literature. Bringing Language to Life in the EFL classroom. Routledge.

Scrivener, J. (1994). Learning Teaching. Oxford: Heinemann

Simpson, P. (2001).  Language through Literature. An Introduction. Routledge.

Teranishi, M., Yoshifumi, S. & Wales, K. (2015). Literature and Language Learning in the EFL Classroom. Palgrave Macmillan.

Ur, P. (2012). A course in English language teaching. Cambridge University Press

Watkins, P. (2008). Learning to teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Delta Publishing.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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