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Vol 35 No 1, January - March 1997 Page 44 PREVIOUS ... CONTENTS ... SEARCH ... NEXT


De-Mystifying Literature
by Michael Daniel Ambatchew

Literary texts have been viewed as epitomes of language. The only way students dared to approach such texts in the past was to commit them to memory and recite them as sacred texts in the company of a chosen few.

With the functional-notional movement however, literature is now seen as a rich language resource which can be beneficially exploited by any language learner. The texts are seen as useful learning material especially if the dead weight of critical commentary and metalanguage is removed (Duff and Maley 1990).

Nevertheless, the tradition of worshipping literary texts is still far from dying out despite calls to take literature off her pedestal (McRae 1991). Students, especially those learning English as a second or foreign language, tend to be too timid to step into and explore the realms of literature. Some students are put off by the zealous guardians of the goddess posing as literature professors, while others overestimate the difficulty or underestimate their own language skills.

While conducting an advanced composition course in an in-service program for ELT Ethiopian teachers, I conducted a brief needs and wants analysis of the trainees. A few of the trainees expressed their desire to learn how to write poems, while the majority ridiculed this idea as being far above their level of proficiency in English. Aware of the time constraints during the courses, I opted for two trial lessons on poetry writing which might motivate students to self-study in the future.

During the first lesson on poetry writing, I got students to discuss in groups what they understood by the word "poem." I then gave each group a name of a person, place, or thing and asked each member to write a sentence defining the name. After this, one group member had to write all the sentences on the blackboard, and I changed most of the clauses into phrases and modified some of the adjectives, so we had five "poems" on the board. An example follows:

Title: An Aeroplane


An aeroplane is a means of transport with two wings.

An aeroplane is one means of transport with the air.

An aeroplane is the product of man.

An aeroplane is a two winged lifeless object flying through the air guided by a pilot.

An aeroplane is a means of transportation that flies in the sky.

An Aeroplane
An aeroplane is: Two wings in the air. A product of man. A flying pilot in the sky.
For the next lesson, I told the trainees to write similar poems of their own entitled "Teacher." I then made them get into groups of five and choose the best poem for the group. These are two of the poems that they selected.

The Teacher by Tewodros Endale
Can we think of a nation, Without an educated person? He devotes his whole life To combatting ignorance. Melts like a candle, For the enlightenment of people. He removes the darkness That blocks progress.
A Teacher by Wondu Haile
A Teacher is: A sprinkler of knowledge, A foundation layer, A mould for generations, A candle for others, Forgetting himself.
I had the satisfaction of knowing that my trial lesson had worked when at the end of the course I received a poem of praise to me. Moreover while reading through some general comments on the course, I was delighted to read, "The other thing which surprised me was writing a poem. I thought that it was difficult and only possible for those who had a lot of practice. But when I saw the method that you used to teach us, I was very surprised to see that it was not as complex as I thought before."

Let us hope that more of our students have the courage to face literature and discover the wealth of language and excitement it has to offer them.

Michael Daniel Ambatchew is an Ethiopian teacher trainer working at Kotebe College of Teacher Education.



  • Duff, A. and A. Maley. 1990. Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • McRae, J. 1991. Literature with a small "l." New York: Macmillan.

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