Literature labyrinth

A workshop for teachers of English literature shed light on difficulties faced by both teachers and students, reports NEIL KHOR JIN KEONG

STUDENTS find the texts boring, their proficiency in English is too low to understand the texts and their teachers do not have enough reference materials to teach effectively. 

These were some of the problems highlighted in a one-day workshop for teachers of English Literature held at Universiti Malaya (UM) last week. 

Entitled Text and Context, the workshop brought more than 100 teachers and academics together.  

“One of the reasons the English Depart-ment is organising this pilot project is to interact with the teachers and see how we can help them”, said Assoc Prof Dr Carol Leon. 

Relevance of literature 

“Students generally do not see the relevance of learning literature in schools and teachers have to explain to them the benefits of cultivating a reading habit,” said the dean of UM’s Arts Faculty, Dr Khairulmaini Osman Salleh. 

“One of the main reasons why English Literature was re-introduced in the school syllabus was the realisation that the teaching of language cannot be effective without the cultivation of a healthy reading habit,” he added. 

In his keynote address, Prof Lim Chee Seng of UM's English Department said teachers should use their imagination to teach more creatively. 

“Students find the text boring because we just read to them without passion. When we read poetry to them, we should show them how the rhythm and literary devices convey the beauty of a particular poem. We should show them the beauty of the language at its best”, he added.  

On literature's relevance to nation-building, Prof Lim said literature broadens the mind.  

“It is important that our students learn about other cultures as this would make it easier for them to accept differences in our society. The study of literatures in English is the best way to teach multiculturalism,” he said.  

Prof Lim added that teachers should keep an open mind with regard to the newly introduced English literature syllabus. “The selection of texts can be refined and improved. It is a fresh start after nearly 20 years since we stopped teaching English literature in schools.” 

Lim, who headed the English literature syllabus committee appointed by former Education Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, said the aim of reintroducing English literature in schools is to help students master the language.  

“Our former colonial masters only wanted us to learn their literature but not write our own. It is time that we learn from our own people who write in English, like K.S. Maniam, or from works translated from Bahasa Malaysia into English,” he said, referring to Keris Mas' novel Jungle of Hope, translated by Adibah Amin. 

Teachers' tales of woe 

There was indeed a lot to learn from the teachers themselves. The workshop made the lecturers aware of some interesting and disturbing facts about secondary school students. 

“I never realised that teachers had to deal with students who could not read or that most of the students had such a poor command of English,” said Leonard Jeyam of UM's English Department.  

Ambika Menon, who teaches at SM Chung Hwa, in Gombak, Selangor, said teachers find it very difficult to get students interested in literature.  

She said: “One of the biggest problems in teaching literature is the very low proficiency in English among students. They do not find literary texts interesting because they cannot understand them. They also question the relevance of literature in their lives.” 

Another teacher, who declined to be named said: “Not only are students not reading the texts, some teachers are guilty of merely reading workbooks. 

“While workbooks are definitely helpful teaching aids, they should not replace texts. But the reality is that students want to pass the exams and they generally feel that literature is not as important as other subjects.” 

A teacher from SMK Convent Bukit Nanas cited a different type of problem. “In my school, the girls find the prescribed text too simple and boring,” she said. 

Tales of woe notwithstanding, every cloud has a silver lining: “Ever since the government decided that Mathematics and Science should be taught in English, students are suddenly taking English more seriously,” said an optimistic teacher. 

Ways and means to learn 

While students may now take English seriously, will they also take English literature seriously?  

“As there is no right or wrong approach to teaching literature, we have to make it more interesting for them,” said Jeyam, who teaches creative writing. 

While acknowledging that students poor in English will find some of the texts daunting, he said there are different levels at which teachers can pitch their teaching methods. 

In his session on poetry, Jeyam explained that outside reading material is crucial for the student taking literature in the STPM exam. 

However, if one is teaching poetry to lower secondary students, then the traditional sound and sense method will suffice. “It is also important that the teacher provide some reading material for the students and share his notes with them,” Jeyam added. 

With regard to problems of literary devices and other technical aspects of teaching literature, students are said to have a general idea from what they learn in Bahasa Melayu classes. A good dictionary of literary terms is recommended for both teachers and students.  

In the drama component, the main complaint was language difficulty, especially in the teaching of Shakespeare.  

Susan Philip of the UM Cultural Centre said one way to make plays easier to comprehend is to act them out. “We can borrow visual aids from the British Council,” added a teacher from Convent Bukit Nanas.  

One of the best ways to improve on language is through reading. A teacher from SMK Teknik in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, said every teacher in her school is assigned to read a particular section of a local daily.  

“We would then point out something interesting to our students and encourage them to read.”  

She said that although this is a lot of hard work, it has paid off as, in the last two years, the school has obtained nearly 100% passes for English. 

“I cannot forget a particular incident related to the programme. The students were doing their gotong-royong activity but dropped everything when the newspaper vendor arrived. They all wanted to read the papers,” she said.  

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