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Using representational materials in language teachingtheory and practice

Jamel Abdenacer ALIMI 20 December, 2008.

[L]iterature has no legitimate place in a second-language program whose purpose is to teach language skills to a cross section of students who are preparing for studies or work in a variety of disciplines (Topping 1968: 95) . classroom development cannot proceed before key theoretical and practical issues are identified and debated. Brumfit, C.J. and R.A. Carter (1984: ix)

INTRODUCTION The field of English Language Teaching (ELT) has recently witnessed fresh attempts to re-incorporate literary, representational materials (RMs)1 into the communicative, reading curriculum (Carter 1988; Long 1986: 42-6; Jones 2003; Long and Carter 1991 among others). The overarching reason, as McRae (1991; 2008) explains, stems from the belief that RMsincluding such exponents as nursery rhymes, fairy tales, comics, songs, TV series or computer games can enhance both communicative competence and personal growth in students at all stages of language learning. Despite the abundant literature arguing for its merits, the model at issue has, unfortunately, tended to lack sufficient articulation and analysis insofar as its very theory and application are concerned; hence, severely challenging the re-habilitation of the said model, in particular, and of literature, in general, at many an ESL/EFL educational institution (Brumfit and Carter 1984:1). Within its purview, the present paper seeks to analytically describe some of the most pertinent theoretical assumptions and classroom strategies related to the integration of RMs in ELT reading classes in attempt at filling in the serious gap in research stated above. To this end, we propose to divide the remainder sections as follows: Section One will briefly sketch the theoretical background against which the recent interest in using representational materials in language teaching should be seen. Section Two will identify some of the most pertinent principles and practices of the RMs Model as brought about, most representatively, in McRae (1991)s monograph Literature with a Small l.

Section Three will discuss in some details the pedagogical significance of the RMs model with regard to reading instruction in EFL settings including, the Sultanate of Oman, where the author is currently employed.

1- THEORETICAL BACKGROUND This Section aims to contextualize the recent calls for embedding representational materials within the reading syllabus. Its first sub-part will outline the basic features of reading and of reading materials as perceived by some of the major methods and approaches which have strongly influenced the field of literacy over the last decades; the second, the reasons behind the recent attitude towards greater inclusion of L/literature in ESL/EFL classes. 1.1 EARLY VIEWS

The issue of reading and reading materials in both ESL and EFL contexts has been approached from different, rather conflicting angles. A Grammar-Translation-Method-oriented reading classroom, for instance, heavily concentrated on the use of English classics. It exploited text extracts as resources for exercises in translation, analysis of grammatical rules, presentation of new lexical items, and memorization of vocabulary of various declensions and conjugations (Brown 2000: 15). This perspective on reading and reading materials along with its underpinning assumptions regarding teacher and learner roles was to come under severe attacks. The proponents of the Situational Approach, in particular, criticised it for presenting texts that were highly artificial and divorced from purpose, context and actual use (Cook 1998: 154). They, therefore, brought reading materials either extracted from canonical literary sources or based on concocted sentences2 to an abrupt standstill in the language classroom. Alternatively, they suggested that others in the form of situational conversations and mini-dialogues should take over (Short and Candlin 1986: 91). The paradigm shift proposed by the Situational approach was soon questioned by the emerging Functional-Notional Approach as well as the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach in its early 1970s version (Widdowson 1984: 162, cited in Zafeiriadou 1991; Wilkins 1976; Carter 2007). They both criticized it for tying up reading comprehension lessons to the mere purpose of presenting, practising and producing graded structures and selected lexical items. Their objections were largely well-argued3. As yet, their joint quest for a threshold level 4 in English left rather little room for the teaching of literature. The sparse excerpts from novels, short stories, plays, and poetry were included more on the ground of their lexico-grammatical worth than the framing of the learners communicative literary skills (Maley 2001); much worse perhaps, in terms of content, they were "rather simple and predictable, thus posing no real intellectual challenge to the learner" (Delanoy 1997). As could easily emerge from the above notes, the pre-RMs-Model approaches and methods tended despite their obvious differences in perspectives and priorities to intersect at two fundamental points where

there was little or no extended discussion of the role of literature teaching in a second or foreign language or even of the relationship between language and literature teaching (Carter & Long 1991: 1), and where a reading lesson, to be successful, should predominantly consist of a series of discrete language points, using referential materials as a means to that end.

This so-called "successful" lesson, as will be pointed out in the sub-section to follow, was strongly denounced as counterproductive and promptly dismissed as actually not reading at all (Alderson and Urquhart 1984: 246-247, emphasis mine). 1.2 CURRENT VIEWS Since the late years of the 1980s, teaching approaches with humanistic, constructivist, and reader-response criticism affinities have endeavoured to bring the study reading instruction of L/literature to the forefront (Carter 2007; Delanoy 1997). Echoing the recent findings concerning the nature of text and reading processes, they view it as a necessary and powerful change agent by developing the learner's interlanguage while at the same time nurturing his/her critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and intercultural understanding (Ghosn 2002; Moi 2003: 406; Wallace 2001; McRae 2008). Not less importantly, they pressingly advocate that representational language learning should henceforth move from language awareness to text awareness (McRae 1996: 16-40) and from teaching texts to teaching readers (Haas and Flower 1988: 169 cited in Susser and Robb 1990). They, accordingly, perceive the traditional, longcherished objective of coming to terms with the content, stylistic, and cultural features of a given L/literary text, however crucial that may be, as being self-limiting and prone to make the teaching of L/literature just an arid business (Long 1986 : 4). Instead, they propose a goal which seeks to trigger reading learners instant responsiveness to the text at hand be it positive or negative in order to achieve utmost sense of comprehensiveness and self-realization (McRae 1991). The quest via reading for introducing [students] to such a serious view of our world, of initiating them in the process of defining themselves through contact with others experience (Brumfit 2001: 92, quoted in Carter 2007) is a serious enterprise, though. For this reason, there have been strong arguments for the necessity of re-inventing different pedagogical approaches for both native and non-native speakers of English (Widdowson 1984; Long and Carter 1991; Scalone 1999; Delanoy 2005). This may be achieved, as (McRae 2008) proposes, via a move away from an insistence on any great tradition of established canonical texts, and towards a broadening of the range of texts, voices, and forms studied under the heading of English The following Section will consider some of most pertinent assumptions as well as the subsequent classroom applications relating to the re-incorporation of representational materials, as brought about in McRaes 1991 monograph, in particular.

2- THE RMs MODEL: A DESCRIPTIVE ANALYSIS 2.1 THEORETICAL ASSUMPTIONS At its most basic level, the McRae RMs model is concerned with how meaning is achieved within the language of canonical and representational materials alike, rather than simply looking at what it means. It aims at exposing student readers to an unlimited number of texts of all kinds, allowing them to explore and develop a critical apparatus for reading, interpreting and evaluating textsrather than merely appreciating them, gradually leading them up to a stage whereby they become writers themselves, producers rather than merely consumers of literature, and, most prominently, helping them to transgress the confinements of the traditional four skills (of listening, speaking, reading and writing) and step into a wider sphere where their fifth skill or "thinking in English" can be explored at full (McRae 1991: 5).

2.2 IN-CLASS APPLICATIONS The above theoretical assumptions may be translated into tangible practices at class level via an intelligent, eclectic activation of the following text features: Lexis syntax cohesion words how the words are put together the linking mechanisms within the text

phonology sounds graphology the look, layout and visual effects semantics dialect register period function the study of meaning and how meaning is achieved varieties and variant uses of English tone dependent on context archaism, intertextuality, genre what the text does, aim/intention/'message'

The above checklist, as McRae (ibid) maintains, is of tremendous practical benefits. For it arguably paves the way for a whole range of tasks and activities that traditionally devised course materials would not, allows students to actively interpret what the words in the text at hand could mean, and

helps the reading teacher to focus on any, or all, of the features of a text and empowers him or her to have students go beyond ordinary reading skill activities.

On a lesson-wise basis, the checklist-drawn activities will, as advanced, "bring in speaking and writing practice in discussion, debate and extension (written work), as well as encouraging extensive reading( ibid: 96), and, by the same token, involve reinforcement techniques through occasional summary work, recall of previous reading, and the encouragement of cross reference to an ever-growing range of texts (ibid).

The above Section attempted to shed light on the most prominent aspects of the RMs Models theory and practice as expressed in the 1991 McRae model. These features are discussed at some length in the next Section. 3- DISCUSSION Glancing back at the previous Section, one would certainly recall all the enthusiastic arguments for the re-introductionand, indeed, wider useof L/literature within reading classes. Widdowson (1983: 34), for instance, maintains that literature of its nature can provide a resource for developing in learners an important ability to use a knowledge of language for the interpretation of discourse and insists that it ought to be one element of the language course. This view concurs with those of Povey (1967), Donnerstag (1996) and Gajdusek (1988), Long (1986: 37-42) Collie and Slater (1987) to name but a few. It is practically translated into the exploitation of a continuum of texts including poetry (Ramsaran 1983; Moi 2003: 406-21), folk stories (Baynham 1986), prose (Gower 1986), video (MacWilliam 1986), newspaper reports, magazines, popular song lyrics, web blogs (Carter 2007), and any other kinds of examples of "creative and purposeful play with the resources of language" (McCarthy and Carter 1994, quoted in Chan 1996: 3). In doing so, learners will hopefully familiarize themselves with different genres of texts, develop knowledge of the intricacies of language, strengthen their interpretative abilities to come to terms with how the text has come to mean what it does, and, as language users, actively participate in the dynamic process of articulating and creating meanings themselves (Chan ibid). To this end, Carter (1986) insists that language and literature be henceforth more closely integrated and harmonized and that L/literary materials cease to be marginalized or, worse, banished from the reading syllabus (see also the rest of contributions edited in Brumfit and Carter 1986). The great enthusiasm radiating from the views above and others in the same vein needs, it is thought, to be curbed when evoking ESL/EFL educational contexts. The objections raised may be summed up in the following points: The high risk that the literary reading passages (initially written for Western readership in mind) may offend the local learner community as a result of their exploration of some "taboo" themes such as selfdetermination, sex, gender relationships, human rights, and religious adherence (Alkire and Alkire 2007). The heavy cultural load that such texts are too often imbedded with as well as the high degree of intertextuality they very much operate on (Dawson 2004).

A general contention by many course designers, teachers, examiners, and even learners that literature is basically irrelevant, absurd, and can even be detrimental to the process of the language learning especially in EFL settings (Zyngier 1982: 39; Or 1995, cited in Savvidou 2004).

While we would not definitely go as far as embracing the latter point or seeing no legitimate place of literature in the English language classroom, as Topping (1968: 95) quite bluntly does in the introductory quotation, we do believe that the first two claims are considerably defendable. We are also inclined to support the view that an advocacy of an orthodox, unconditional reintegration of representational materials would be quasi-negative. A balanced view which takes into account the pros of reinstating L/literature in the curriculum conjunction with the everyday readingrelated classroom realities should be reached in the first place. This stance concerns, most urgently perhaps, EFL institutions around the world where the reading experience as a whole is more critical (Parera 2006: 69), usually yields disappointing results (Akyel and Yalin 1990), and is plagued with miscomprehension, misinterpretation, and lack of sound responsiveness to l/Literary materials (Richards 1929, quoted in Purves and Beach 1972: 8-9). Insofar as the Sultanate of Oman is concerned, the latter remarks would not be less pertinent during any informal reading class observation. Indeed, the quasi-totality of 1st -12th Graders at basic education schools would tend to be poor readers, at best (AlIssa 2005; Nunan et al 1987). From our practical teaching experiences, they would, almost irrevocably, fail to demonstrate significant signs of appropriating reasonably solid content and linguistic background so as to understand and interpret what the writer of a simple piece of writing in English is implying. Their involvement by such text elements as moral issues, decisions, revisions, anticipation, retrospection, defenses, expectations, fantasies, transformations, mental images, associations, reversal, evaluations, and recoveries (Shu Wei 1999) would prove, more often than not, very limited. Whether answering questions individually, as a group activity, or interactively with the teacher, their responses would tend to be invariably too short in terms of word count, irrelevant to the points raised, ill-expressed, and/or so tardy that the text at hand deplorably loses much, if not all, of its initial vivacity, appeal, and reason of selection. At higher education levels, the condition of reading instruction appears qualitatively less alarming. Nonetheless, students in their first year at college and university reportedly lack sufficient grasp of the English languages discourse structures and, surprisingly enough, are found to suffer from serious limitations in synthesizing, evaluating, metacognitive knowledge, and skills monitoring in both English and their mother tongue (Grabe 1991: 379-383; Laufer 1992a; 1992b, cited in Al-Kalbani 2008: 22-3). As a result, they would still fall short of generating qualitatively skilled, fluent reading comprehension in the ways Wallace (1992), Carrell and Eisterhold (1983), Nuttall (1982), or McRae and Vethamani (1999) would most legitimately expect. Zoomed in on the International Maritime College Oman5, where the author is currently is employed, the above characteristics appear wholly true with regard to students in the Foundation year and, to a lesser degree, their fellow counterparts in the Operation Technology; Port, Shipping and Transportation Managements; Marine Engineering; and Deck Officers (See Appendix). The situation takes further dramatic proportions when we realize that the English language in the Diploma/ Degree Programme here is to be taught exclusively in support of the core subjects in each of the four fields of specialization. The syllabus is a prescribed one and is geared

towards putting in practice the College's visionthus, practically, ruling out the use of literary, representational texts as a viable language teaching resource. Probsts argument that literature is experience, not information, and that the student must be invited to participate in it, not simply observe it from outside (1988: Preface, quoted in Vethamani 2004), though valuable, could not be less out of context in these circumstances. Given the current educational state of affairs here at IMCO and elsewhere in the Sultanate, it seems indeed difficult to imagine that the short- and/or long-term aims of using representational materials may be realistically achieved. The paramount objective of bring[ing] imaginative interaction, reaction and response into play in decently intelligible, fluent, impromptu English by means of any kind of material with imaginative or fictional content that goes beyond the purely referential (McRae 1991) would appear grandiose to the least skeptical teaching materials designers. Carter (1997)s concept of interpretation with its two main procedures: one a conscious activity of constructing meaning from the language of texts; the second less conscious acts of interpretation, sub-texts as it were, which inform decisions made in the linguistic analysis of texts concerning what kinds of meaning are found in texts and how such meanings are warranted and accounted for (2), would, equally, sound very impressive but too unrealistic to the most zealous, McRaean-minded English language practitioners here. The idea rather seems to refer to a highly idealized, elitist EFL context. It simply could not refer to Oman or any other nation with similarly high illiteracy problems and where English language learners, on the whole, have but relatively little understanding of, and familiarity with, certain [literary, stylistic] conventions which allow them to take the words on the page of a play or other literary work and convert them into literary meanings. (Lazar 1993: 12 ) To remedy a situation of this kind, one would need more than exhorting the RMs Model to action. The limitations of it would be more than evident even to those practitioners who have already given up involvement in the "border dispute over territory" between linguists and literary critics (Short 1996, quoted in Savvidou 2004) and embraced an approach for teaching literature that integrates "the Cultural Model", " the Language Model" and " the Personal Growth Model" (Carter and Long 1991)6. In our judgment, there is every reason to believe in the truthfulness of the RMs Model in its attempts at drawing our teaching theories and practices radically away from those purported, especially, by the Grammar-Translation Method and other Structuralist approaches and towards a more principled understanding of reading processes, techniques, and choices (Sections 1 and 2). It must be added, however, that what is lacking most is the element of triangulating these endeavours with transcripts which show how the reading lessons did actually go on. It is unfortunate to notice that more than twenty years since the publication such reference books as Literature and Language Teaching (Brumfit and Carter 1986) and Literature with a Small l (McRae 1991), not a single class-based monograph-length hasto our best knowledgebeen published to prove precisely how literary study as a communicative act is "engaged in" by both student and teacher (Scalone 1999: 3). A lacuna of this magnitude has to be immediately eradicated so that we could move to a real assessment of the model under study.

4- CONCLUSION The present paper has attempted to analytically describe representational materials in terms of its theoretical underpinnings and in-class pedagogical practices. The discussion of both aspects yielded the following overlaying positions: The theoretical validity of arguments in favour of re-integrating ideational, imaginative materials within the English language syllabus, on the one hand, and The urgency to strike a balance between the general aims of the representational materials model and the day-to-day particularities of learners in EFL contexts, on the other. The paper does not pretend to offer a comprehensive or synoptic account of the RMs Model. Rather, it is subject to several limitations, including, most notably, limited generalizability, and absence of class-driven data for triangulation. Despite the limitations, we hope it will contribute to an understanding of what actually motivates the proponents of the RMs Model to plea for an end of the exclusivity of referential materials in our reading lessons a rationale that is not yet fully grasped by a large proportion of EFL/ESL practitioners. McRae (1991: vii)s prophecy that [i]n future years, the absence of imaginative content in language teaching will be considered to have marked a primitive stage of the discipline has undoubtedly disturbed superficially calm waters in many parts around the world; it has, nonetheless, got more years to wait before its good news start being heard in such semi-arid places as Oman. Or has it?


1- The RMs Model to reading instruction, as detailed in McRae (1991), refers to that kind of materialor text with imaginative or fictional content that goes beyond the purely referential, and brings imaginative interaction, reaction and response into play (ibid: vii). Such a text may be taken from various L/literary sources like advertising materials, poetry, news headlines, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, comics, songs, TV series or even computer games. In contrast, a text of a referential type such as a recipe, a bus timetable, or a doctors prescriptionis defined as one which communicates on only one level usually in terms of information being sought or given, or of a social situation being handled ( ibid). The language it uses is normally decoded in the same way by all receivers as its words literally mean what they say no more and no less. 2- Titone (1968: 28, quoted in Richards and Rodgers 1986: 2) mention the following sentences:

The philosopher pulled the lower jaw of the hen. My sons have bought the mirrors of the Duke. The cat of my aunt is more treacherous than the dog of your uncle.

3- See Swan (1985) for a dissenting view. 4- In the Council of Europe's unit/credit system, the threshold level or TLevel is the 'lowest level of foreign-language ability to be recognised' '(van Ek 1975: 8, quoted in Johnson and Johnson 1998: 352) 5- see Savvidou ((2004) for concise definitions 6-

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7- APPENDIX: OUR PROGRAMMES IMCO offers the following programmes: - Foundation; - Deck Officer (Nautical Studies); - Marine Engineering Officer; - Port, Shipping and Transport Management; - Process Operation Technology (oil, gas and petrochemical process industries). This means that you can either choose for a career at sea (Deck Officer or Marine Engineering Officer) or a career ashore (Port, Shipping and Transport Management or Operation Technology). Before you can start one of the diploma programmes, a strong foundation in English, Mathematics and IT is a must. In order to reach the right level, IMCO offers the Foundation programme. All potential IMCO students will have to sit for a placement test. Based on the outcome of this test, the relevant Head of Department will decide whether you can skip the foundation year and start with the diploma programme directly or should you spend time better developing your English proficiency. Excellent job preparation The programmes are set up in such a way that the education and training is finetuned to the job market and the demand of the relevant industries. All programmes are practical-oriented. This means you will leave IMCO with a firm basis (diploma programme) and a dedicated specialisation (degree programme). You will also be equipped with enough knowledge and skills that will enable you to find employment in Oman or abroad. Programme Structure For each diploma and degree programme 120 credit points can be earned per Academic Year. Each year is divided into 2 semesters (fall and spring semester) consisting of 15 weeks plus an examination period. This means that each semester has 60 credit points. The programmes consist of classroom instruction, practical training in workshops, laboratories and on simulators, assignments, seminars and field visits. Summer courses can be added to each programme.


As the Foundation programme is only a preparatory programme, no credit points can be earned. Foundation programme This programme consists of two semesters. Intermediate tests are held during the semesters. Each semester will be concluded by exams. To be admitted to any of the diploma programmes, students should have an accumulated average of at least 60% in the Foundation English programme to be eligible for any diploma and degree programme. Diploma programme Once you have passed the foundation programme or passed the placement test, you can enter the diploma programme. The duration of the Deck Officer and Marine Engineering Officer programmes at diploma level is three years, equal to six semesters including one (1) year apprenticeship. Having finished the diploma programme Deck Officers and Marine Engineering Officers can apply for an endorsement at operational level. The duration of the Port, Shipping and Transport Management and Operation Technology diploma programme is two years, equal to four semesters. Several intermediate tests are held during the semesters. Each semester will be concluded by exams. Degree programme (BSc) Having achieved the diploma level you can enter the degree programme. The duration of the Deck Officers and Marine Engineers programmes at degree level is one year, equal to two semesters. This programme prepares you to reach the highest rank on board a ship, Captain or Chief Engineer. The duration of the Port, Shipping and Transport Management and Operation Technology degree programmes is two years, equal to four semesters. Several intermediate tests are held during the semesters. Each semester will be concluded by exams. Language IMCO prepares students for international jobs on ocean-going vessels, in major ports and multinational (petro)chemical process companies. Therefore all teaching and training is done in the English language only.