Using literature to develop linguistic competences

Understanding  the  concepts  of  theme, subject and  idea

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Colegiul Național “Petru Rareș”, SUCEAVA

Motto: “Why do we read fiction? The answer is simple. We read it because we like it. And we like it because fiction, as an image of life, stimulates and gratifies our interest in life.” (Robert Penn Warren)

Why literature? Any literary work comes into existence only through the interaction between the reader and the text. It is both insufficient and insignificant for students merely to read a passage, respond to their teacher’s oral questioning and submit to a multiple- choice or short answer test on the reading. If students miss the power and beauty of literature, it is certain they have also failed their own power and potential.

Why teach literature? “The reasons for teaching literature necessarily transcend the particular circumstances, places, and contexts in which literature is taught. Three main reasons for the teaching of literature have been consistently advanced. These are: the cultural model, the language model and the personal growth model.” (Carter and Long: 1992)

The cultural model enables students to understand and appreciates cultures and ideologies different from their own. The language model puts students in touch with some of the most subtle and varied creative uses of the language. The personal growth model tries to help students achieve an engagement with the reading of literary texts. In other words, literature is meaningful, it deals with serious issues and contains pieces of language. Brian Tomlinson (1986) says that literature contains universal themes. Literature offers genuine language   material, it satisfies learners’ needs (enlarges their experience), it develops students’ interest in further reading (motivates) and it stimulates creativity (encourages the imagination) and it is integrating (develops skills).

I have to state very clearly that there has to be a distinction between the study of literature and the use of literature as a resource. The study of literature involves reading literature in an academic, institutionalized setting to get qualifications in literary studies. It involves a considerable baggage of critical concepts, literary conventions and metalanguage. Using literature as a resource suggests a less academic though no less serious approach to reading literature.

Teaching literature in today’s classrooms presents several challenges:

  • choosing appropriate literature (e.g. Shakespeare or modern writers)
  • preparing lessons that will permit access to the key themes
  • making the works comprehensible to all and yet offering great rewards to the students and to the teacher
  • choosing the right text and tasks
  • choosing the right approaches, techniques and procedures

In the teaching of literature it is important to distinguish teacher-centered, transmissive, product-centered pedagogies from student-centered, language- based and process-oriented ones. Language-based approaches provide a secure and systematic set of procedures for beginning to talk about and interpret a literary text. Such approaches enable students to secure an initial ‘way-in’ or access to literary texts. They represent a very necessary and important stage on the way to personal growth.
It is now very widely accepted that literature can be an excellent source of language- teaching material- authentic in the sense of not being primarily written for language teaching, varied, appealing to the imagination and the emotions, offering contextualised situations for all kinds of language practice activities, from straightforward discussion to quite elaborate simulations. Many writers have now provided materials that stimulate learners to explore texts interactively in ways that are enjoyable in themselves while increasing learners’ awareness of the affective dimensions and multiple layers of meaning of the literary work.
The mark of any great work of art (whether it is a musical composition, a painting, or a piece of literature) is that all the aspects of the work act together to produce a stirring, unified effect. Each element of the work seems inevitable; to change any aspect would be to alter the work’s impact. You can explore the artistry involved in a piece of literature by writing about the total effect that the piece has on you. In doing so, you will write about many literary elements such as, plot, character, setting, point of view, and theme. The author uses all these elements to achieve a specific emotional response by the reader.
Here comes the teacher’s role. He/she has to help students understand and approach a literary work. The necessity of knowing how to analyse a literary work or an excerpt taken from a literary work is even stronger nowadays due to the demands of the baccalaureate and faculty admission English exams, i.e. analysing texts at first sight, both orally and in writing.
Some students need to have what is called ‘background knowledge’ and need to understand and work with the enabling concepts and terms of modern critical theory for their own reading and writing. But here recent ideas about learner input into the learning process are very applicable. In line with the well-known motto that rather than give hungry people some fish it’s better to teach them how to fish, I could say that rather than handing out information, a better role for teachers is showing learners how to acquire it, and, very much more important, making them want to acquire it, by demonstrating actively and practically how and why it makes a difference. Consequently, to be able to speak or write about the effect a piece of literature had on them, students should be taught the main concepts which lie at the basis of their work.
In conclusion, I would like to highlight the fact that modern approaches to textual study, both in current literary critical theory and in current teaching theory, offer ways of helping readers to discover the social and ideological premises that underpin texts, often in ways that are subtle or even concealed. These approaches allow learners to become more aware of the forces that shape their world and thus better able to assess and judge them for themselves. They become, in a widely used phrase “resistant readers” (Joanne Collie, 1998) able to use their own judgment to respond to the text.

  1. Carter, R. & Long, M. – 1991 – Teaching Literature, Cambridge University Press
  2.  Carter, Ronald & Long N. Michael – 1998 – The Web of Words, Exploring literature through language, Cambridge University Press
  3. Simpson, Paul – 1998 – Language through Literature, An Introduction, Routledge, London and New York
  4. Woodhead, Chris – 1983-Writing and Responding, OUP

Colegiul Național “Petru Rareș”, SUCEAVA

Like the conductor of an orchestra calling in each of the instruments on cue to create a magnificent symphony, the author of a skillfully crafted piece of literature orchestrates all the key literary elements – plot, character, setting, point of view, tone, theme, archetype, atmosphere, symbol, irony and other elements – to achieve a specific emotional response on the part of the readers. Although we, the readers, immediately sense the impact of the literary work, we often have to analyze just how this effect is achieved. Consequently, the following lines will deal with explaining some literary elements individually in order to understand the way in which a work has an impact on the reader, and how this impact is conveyed in a response.

A literary work makes an impact on the reader because of its theme and the skill with which all the other elements support this theme. The theme of a literary work is its underlying central idea or the generalization it communicates about life. The theme expresses the author’s opinion or raises a question about human nature or the meaning of human experience. At times the author’s theme may not confirm or agree with your own beliefs. Even then, if skillfully written, the story will have a theme that illuminates some aspect of true human experience. Usually, it is synthesized in abstract terms, such as: fate, love, death, nature, etc. It may be stated explicitly (in the prologue, a motto, or the writer’s comments), but in most cases remains implicit, deriving from the frequency of motives.

When the students are asked what a story in a novel “means”, they usually respond by talking about its theme. While going further, they will find themselves exploring the thematic content of the work. We know that the theme, or underlying meaning of a work of literature, is more than just its subject or topic. The theme involves an opinion about the subject or topic. For example, “poverty” may be the subject of a literary work, but the theme goes beyond a one-word subject by filling it out as a complete sentence that takes a particular stand regarding the subject: for instance, “Poverty can open one’s heart to the real value of friendship.” Therefore, when students write about a work’s theme, they cannot look for the work’s subject. They must look at the other elements in the work contribute to forming the author’s opinion about the subject.

A long work – for example, a novel – may contain not just one theme but several. Sometimes the theme may be clearly stated. More often, the theme is implied or suggested through other elements. In fact, it is by looking closely at characterization, setting, events the outline of the plot), point of view, and tone. If we keep in mind the characters of the literary work, we have to ask ourselves what they think, say or do regarding the subject matter; in addition, what the main character’s key traits are; does the main character change at all during the course of the excerpt? All these elements, clearly belonging to characters, may have a great impact on the theme of the work. Dealing with the setting of the excerpt, we have to remember the question: how do the time, place, clothing and other details serve as a suitable background for the subject? Then, the climax and the resolution, obviously belonging to the plot of the story, may have a tremendous impact on the subject matter; additionally, what do conflicts have to do wit the subject matter? We don’t have to forget about the point of view and what it makes us realize regarding the subject matter. Finally, the author’s attitude towards the subject as revealed by word-choice and other details clearly contribute through tone at the general comprehension of the theme.

The word idea is connected to actions of seeing and knowing. Because of this mental activity, an idea was considered a conceptual form as opposed to external reality. The word is now commonly understood to refer to a concept, thought, opinion, or belief. Some examples of ideas as recognized by philosophers and historians of ideas are these: infinity, justice, right and good, necessity, the problem of evil, causation, and, not surprisingly, idea itself. A full consideration of ideas like these requires much knowledge, understanding, and thought. In this respect, ideas involve the interrelation of thinking and knowing.

In conclusion, in literature, ideas are not so much about abstract and speculative definitions as about the human side of things. For example, in “The Lottery”, Shirley Jackson causes the unfortunate winner of the lottery to raise questions of fairness and justice as they have affected her in the drawing. When an idea is brought out in literary works like this, it is often given the name theme. This word refers to something laid down, a postulate, a central or unifying idea. Loosely, the theme of a work and its major idea or central idea may be considered synonymous.


  1. Carlsen, Robert, G. – 1989 -  Encounters, the new treasury edition, Glencoe, Iowa
  2. Carter, R. & Long, M. – 1991 – Teaching Literature, Cambridge University Press
  3.  Carter, Ronald & Long N. Michael – 1998 – The Web of Words, Exploring literature through language, Cambridge University Press
  4. Crane, Milton  .     1996 - Teaching with 50 Great Short Stories, J.Weston Walch-Portland, Maine U.S.A

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