Group Work in EFL Literature Classes Tran Thi Thanh Ngoc, M.Ed. Despite a...
Group Work in EFL Literature Classes
Tran Thi Thanh Ngoc, M.Ed.
Despite a passive traditional classroom, teachers can encourage
genuine communication in literature classes through group work.
A two-period British Literature class for English majors
class discussion about it will be genuine communica-
at Hue University starts as usual. The teacher enters. The
tion. This characteristic makes literature a highly com-
students stand and greet him warmly. As is traditional,
municative course; in light of this, literature teachers
there are two long rows of student desks, the teacher’s
should allot plenty of time for students to communicate
desk is in the corner, and there is a blackboard at the
actively with one another about the texts they read. In
front. Observing more closely, however, we notice many
Collie and Slater’s evaluation: “[G]roup work and pair
colorful pictures, handwritten poems, descriptive para-
work are now well established as a means both of
graphs, and proverbs (all produced by students) mount-
increasing learners’confidence within the foreign lan-
ed on the walls. The teacher’s chair is covered with dust,
guage and also of personalizing their contact with it”(p.
for he spends most of his time walking around the class.
9). In this sense, a small group of students with various
And most noticeably, students’ benches are arranged in
life experiences can be a rich means of enhancing
pairs so as to be convenient for group work activities.
awareness of both the world created by a literary work
Communicative methods seem to have blown a strange
and readers’ personal responses to that world.
wind into this typical Vietnamese classroom!
Furthermore, within a group’s support and control,
Not many years ago, attitudes were negative toward
an individual has greater freedom to explore his per-
the teaching of literature in EFL classrooms. Literature
sonal interpretations and reactions. Shifting attention
was regarded as a written form, far removed from every-
away from the text itself to communication about it is
day communication and too closely tied to the grammar-
often conducive to fostering a risk-taking atmosphere.
translation method. In recent years, however, literature
In other words, group work can lessen the difficulties
has been recognized as an effective tool in learning a for-
presented by the number of unknowns on a page and
eign language. Within EFL literature classes, group work
can stimulate learners to reread and ponder a text on
can be an incredibly useful activity.
their own (Collie and Slater). Brown likewise strongly
This positive trend is reflected by books such as
argues that group work can help learners with varying
Literature in the Language Classroom, by Joanne Collie
abilities to accomplish separate goals. A literary text,
and Stephen Slater, in which the authors consider the
with its specific features, represents a valuable source of
role of literature in language learning from the perspec-
knowledge, and the very nature of literature, including
tive of the communicative approach. Paving the way for
its ambiguity, can provide a stimulus for expressing dif-
my article’s emphasis on group work, Ibsen also high-
ferent opinions. Group work, then, helps learners put
lights literature as a forum for exchanging views:
language to a specific range of different uses, negotiate
“Literature, when published, is the ‘property’ of the read-
meaning, and draw on their own experiences rather
er and the EFL learners, as readers, should become
than simply reading and absorbing language.
involved as co-writers of the text in their imagination, in
These perspectives describe and summarize recent
speech, and on paper” (p. 145).
changes in the ways literature is taught in the EFL class-
room. The arguments, however, are “Western” in nature
Why Group Work Is So Important
and may not be suited to other contexts. Many EFL lit-
erature teachers in developing countries might experi-
Why is student-student interaction so important in
ence the same problems as Shamin, who implies that
EFL literature classes? In a literature class, each student
large classes are impossible grounds for pair and group
approaches the text in her own way—her understand-
activities. Ellis explains (p. 45):
ing is based on past experiences and knowledge. Since
[T]he distinction between ESL and EFL highlights
there is no “correct solution” for experiencing a text, a
a mismatch for Asian learners between the
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2003

instrumental aims of the communicative approach
teacher falls back upon a more traditional classroom role
and their own situation. It is to remember that ESL
in which he sees himself as imparting information—
takes place within an English-speaking environment.
about the author, the background, particular literary con-
As a result, the ESL students will have a far greater
ventions that inform the text, and so on. Students are
need to communicate. EFL, on the other hand, is
simply expected to somehow have the ability to take all
always a cultural island, and the EFL teacher is cast in
this in and make it their own. In the Confucian frame-
the somewhat onerous role of sole provider of experi-
work, the teacher tends to have the last word by intro-
ence in the target language.
ducing a subtle moral lesson, and students accept this
lesson without question.
Students sometimes even
Brown’s position is that existing EFL problems—
compare their teachers based on the amount of infor-
including large classes, lack of resources, and local teach-
mation provided, or more specifically by information
ing and learning traditions—are apparent but have not
provided that is necessary for their final examination.
changed over the years. I find his opinion unsatisfacto-
The effects of this tradition are apparent, and have
ry. EFL teachers do have aspirations—most teachers in
two opposite effects on group work use in literature
my college would like to introduce more group work
classes. On the one hand, students are very careful in fol-
and pair work into their lessons. Yet their efforts to
lowing the instructions for the task, which results in suc-
introduce changes come up against barriers in the edu-
cessful learning. On the other hand, students are some-
cational system, culture, and traditional thinking.
what disappointed to see that the teacher is no longer
Based on Kramsch’s views and drawing on my own
“doing her job” of educating them. There is a definite
experiences as an EFL teacher of English literature, I
mismatch between student expectations and the role
now propose to analyze and discuss problems and
implications of group tasks.
potential solutions for using group work in literature
classes in Vietnam.
Background and Challenges
In Vietnam, students of English are normally placed
into classes of approximately 30-40 students each when
they enter a university. Each class can be seen as a “fam-
ily” in which members often live, study, and play togeth-
As Kramsch points out, in Vietnam, a country where
er. The associations students form are “more akin to
people are deeply aware of their Confucian heritage, the
Western notions of ‘family’ than ‘classmate.’ In many
tradition is that a teacher is honored and respected, even
cases, students in the same class will continue close rela-
more so than one’s parents. The teacher guides students
tionships throughout four years at the university, form-
not only in academic matters, but also in moral behavior
ing ties that encompass financial, familial, and social obli-
(Jamieson; Nguyen Khac Vien). Students respect what
gation” (Kramsch and Patricia). The “family” stays togeth-
the teacher says not only because they are experts in the
er during school hours while teachers come and go.
subject area, but also because they uphold the moral val-
Students are expected to learn together and help each
ues of the community. The teacher is always a “mirror”
other inside and outside class.
for students to learn from, not only during classtime but
When communicative methods, including group
throughout life. As a result, the lecture approach is seen
work, are imported into such a class, they face this
as the most valuable method, in the belief that students
embedded attitude. As Patricia remarks: “Confucianism
come to school as “empty vessels” and leave filled with
emphasizes dependency and nurture rather than inde-
knowledge the teacher provides. In the “empty vessel”
pendence. It emphasizes hierarchy rather than equality,
view of learning, the teacher is a mentor and role model,
and there is more of an emphasis on mutual obligation
while students are passive receptors (Civikly). From this
of members of a group than on individualism” (p. 125).
point of view, group work is often seen as an innovative
In this sense, group work divides a class rather than
but frivolous method of learning.
bringing it together. Communicative group work actu-
The relationship between teacher and students in
ally brings out students’ individuality. Once I asked a
the Confucian spirit of “Ton Su Trong Dao” (“Respect
first-year student who looked very nervous in his five-
Teacher, Honor Religion”) creates a formal atmosphere
member group why he kept silent during the task. He
in Vietnamese classrooms. Very often the literature
replied,“I feel lost confidence because other classmates
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2003

Sample Activity 1
Sample Activity 2
Getting in the Mood
Key Words or Sentences
The teacher asks students to build up a picture of the begin-
The teacher selects a small number of key words from the first
ning of a literary work by setting the scene in their minds.
part of a short story. In groups, students brainstorm for pos-
Then they imagine what they feel, see, hear, say, and do as
sible narrative links between the words. When each group
part of this scene. At the end of this individual “painting in the
has decided on a pattern or connections, a summary or inter-
mind,” they are put into small groups and each member
pretation can be built up orally or in written form.
describes her scene to the others. After a brief discussion,
the teacher calls the class back together. One or two students momentum into the teaching of literature,to stimulate
retell their versions for the benefit of the whole class.
students’ desire to read, and to encourage them to share
their views in English.
are separated from me.” This student, like others, had the
Recommendations for Successful
feeling that the thread that connects all the students was
broken when they were divided into groups.
Group Work
Observing classrooms in Hanoi, Kramsch and
Patricia remarked: “[T]hese students build on each
In Vietnam, the success of group work depends to
other’s responses in collaborative ways,” and, “[T]he
some extent on building a supportive communication
atmosphere is not one of individual competitiveness, but
climate, and more immediately on selecting interesting
of collaboration of the group as a whole.” This is quite
and stimulating tasks that are well within students’
true of a typical literature lesson. Students sit in rows,
ability to complete.
with four or five students sharing one bench. They are
Building a Supportive Climate
so close that their elbows and notebooks frequently
overlap. Students often look at each other’s notes and
compare their answers to their tasks. The teacher, due to
The term “communication climate” refers to the
affective dimension of classroom interaction and
the sheer difficulty of detailed comprehension of a text,
includes feelings, attitudes, and emotions, as well as stu-
often turns his lesson into a massive process of explana-
dents’ experiences with other students. Unlike weather
tion or even step-by-step translation. Setting up small
conditions, a “communication climate” is created, devel-
groups in such an atmosphere often meets initially with
oped, and shaped by teacher and students. Since our
student dissatisfaction.
aim as literature teachers is to help students acquire con-
In the face of the “teacher-as-authority” and “class-
fidence to develop, express, and value their own
room-as-family” traditions in Vietnam, literature teachers
responses, a positive communication climate in group
need to consider several essential factors. First, they
work means an easy and comfortable atmosphere in
need to think about the purpose of group work, partic-
which students become less dependent on received
ularly as it relates to real-life communicative purposes in
opinion and more interested in and able to assess other
different contexts. Second, they need to decide how to
group students to create an effective learning climate.
From the background, we know that the self-confi-
Third, they need to discern which types of tasks are
dence of individual students and equal collaboration in
most appropriate, and then diversify the repertoire of
a group are both essential because group work requires
classroom procedures. Finally, they need to understand
flexibility, cooperation, and the ability to accept respon-
that group work cannot be a panacea. Teacher-fronted
sibility for learning. Development of a sense of safety
work may foster detailed comprehension and be useful
and support can lessen students’ misgivings about the
for certain kinds of literature classroom activities.
teacher, the group members, and the learning tasks and
With this framework and background in mind, this
process. To help build this climate, teachers can spend
article will now go on to make recommendations for
time talking about communication skills important to
successfully implementing group work in Vietnamese
group work: sharing, listening, contributing, reacting,
EFL literature classes.
My hope is to put fresh
and summarizing. This might help students become
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2003

Sample Activity 3
Sample Activity 4
Exploring Characters
The teacher cuts a short story summary into separate sen-
The teacher takes a major theme from a reading and explores
tences or chunks and gives them to small groups. Groups
it with the class. Students are asked to put themselves into
rearrange the sentences or chunks into a correctly-ordered
any character in the story. As that character, they imagine
plot summary or script. To conclude, groups are called on to
what they should do, where they should go, and what they
tell their stories orally or through a role-play performance.
should say within the story’s setting. After they jot down brief
notes, the teacher collects them and puts them into a box.
Then students are put in small groups. Each group draws one
more responsible for their group’s work and learning.
paper out of the box, reads it aloud, and discusses how they
Student and teacher behaviors demonstrating respect,
feel about that character’s words, attitudes, and actions.
courtesy, encouragement, and openmindedness will also
facilitate a positive climate.
Selecting Appropriate Group Work Techniques
This article has considered the use of group work
Based on the features of Vietnamese classrooms as
within the specific context of Vietnamese EFL literature
discussed above, appropriate tasks that give students
classes. I imply a need to set an educational agenda
freedom to explore their reactions and interpretations
which acknowledges the advantages and limitations of
are those that require positive competition and discus-
group work, as well as a need to choose carefully appro-
sion. Jigsaw reading, parallel reading, and grids can help
priate structures and tasks for using group work in this
students get personally involved with a work of litera-
setting. Poorly conceived or organized group work will
ture. Discussions based on questionnaires, true-false
be as ineffective as any other badly-run method. For
statements, brainstorming, and fact-finding are often use-
whatever changes teachers make in their literature class-
ful for building students’ confidence and sparking dis-
rooms in this regard, it is necessary to take local chal-
cussion. Debates, friendly persuasion, and creative con-
lenges into consideration. By doing so, we can adapt to
real-life contexts and tap into real-life student motiva-
versation-writing aim at raising students’ motivation to
tions as they engage with the “real life” experiences
express themselves, as well as to gain and reflect on new
embodied in literary texts.
and exciting experiences. Role-plays, moviemaking, and
“thought bubbles” can stimulate students’ imaginations
and create a ripple effect among group members.
Because successful group work requires partici-
Brown, H. Douglas.
Teaching By Principles – An
pants to listen attentively and contribute equally, litera-
Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. Prentice
ture teachers should also set up tasks that facilitate the
Hall Regents, 1994.
acquisition of basic skills for interpersonal and multilat-
Brown, R.
“Cultural Continuity and ELT Teacher
eral communication, such as attentive listening, effective
Training.” ELT Journal 54 (3), pp. 227-233, 2000.
implementation of peers’ ideas, cooperation and sharing
Civikly, J.M. Classroom Communication – Principles
of information, mutual help, talking in turn, and serving
and Practice. Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1992.
as group leader.
The most important element, I believe, is that the
Collie, J., and S. Slater. Literature in the Language
structure of the group work tasks and activities should
Classroom. Cambridge University Press, 1987.
be set up in a flexible way to suit the specific features of
Ellis, G.
“How Culturally Appropriate Is the
Vietnamese EFL classes. In this way, the class-as-family
Communicative Approach?” ELT Journal 50 (2), pp. 213-
and teacher-as-authority frameworks can be fused with
218, 1996.
communicative language teaching methods.
Ibsen, E.B. The Double Role of Fiction in Foreign
Language Learning.
Oxford University Press, 1995.
Teacher’s Edition
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September 2003

Jamieson, N. Understanding Vietnam. University of
Shamin, F.
“Learner Resistance to Innovation in
California Press, 1993.
Classroom Methodology.” In Cultural Continuity and
ELT Teacher Training.
Ed. Ray Brown. ELT Journal,
Kramsch, C. Interactive Discourse in Small and Large
Groups. Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Kramsch, C., and S. Patricia. “Appropriate Pedagogy.” ELT
Journal 50 (3), pp. 199-211, 1996.
Tran Thi Thanh Ngoc (M.Ed.,TESOL, Monash University)
lectures in English and American literature at Hue
Nguyen, K.V. “On the Historical Role of Confucianism.”
College of Sciences, Hue University, where she is the
Vietnamese Studies 94 (4), pp. 67-72, 1989.
Head of the English Department’s Division of Literature
Patricia, N.S. “Playfulness as Mediation in CLT.” In Social-
and Culture. In 1997, she participated in a USIA-spon-
Cultural Theory and Second Language Learning.
sored Winter Institute at the University of Delaware.
Oxford University Press, 2000.
The secret of education
is respecting the pupil.
By contributing your teaching ideas,
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
activities, and experiences to the pages
of Teacher’s Edition, you can improve
English education in Southeast Asia.
Resource Bulletin Board
TESOL Convention 2004
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