Vol.2, No.3, September
The Role of Literature in College EFL
Reading Classes in Japan
This article describes the results
of a questionnaire which reveals Japanese students'
attitudes towards reading in English versus reading
in Japan. More specially, the article points out
how students may have distorted views about English
and English texts because of their limited exposure
to literary texts. The article emphasizes the
importance of incorporating literature in English
reading courses in Japan so that students can
better understand and develop an appreciation
English functions as an international
communication tool and is widely used in a number
of settings by both native and non-native speakers
of English. Most notably, English is used extensively
on the Internet nowadays. English as an international
communication tool has had some impact on the
teaching of college English reading in Japan.
Specifically, more and more emphasis is placed
on English reading for the purpose of accessing
and obtaining up-to-date information shared in
In Japan, college English reading courses were
generally literature-based, mainly because those
classes were taught by professors with literature
backgrounds. But due to the utilitarian view of
the English language, reading such materials as
newspapers and academic articles are becoming
increasingly popular over literature. For example,
Suzuki (1975) claims that we should exclude literature
in college English.
As an educator in Japan, I have been bothered
by the overemphasis on English reading for gaining
factual information because there is a danger
that students may form one-sided view of the English
language by being exposed to a specific register
of writing or discourse style. With such limited
exposure to English texts, the language may be
perceived as a somewhat lifeless, dry tool to
obtain information. Certainly English is an extremely
rich language and can convey love, despair, joy,
anger, pity and agony as much as it can express
cold hard facts and academic discourse.
I believe the reading of literature has a vital
role to play in teaching foreign language readers
that it is a living, rich language and that literary
works such as novels, poems, dramas, and short
stories are full of feelings and emotions, along
with imagination and creativity. Before exploring
the issue of literature and reading further, I
would like to examine how difficult it is for
students in Japan to see English as a lively language
by comparing attitudes toward reading in Japanese
with reading in English. The aim of this article
is to provide some insight on how English texts
and reading in English is perceived by a group
of Japanese students.
Reading in Japanese and in English
English is a foreign
language in Japan and, consequently, the need
to communicate in English is rare. In fact, students
do not have to engage in reading and writing in
English in their daily life. In this kind of environment,
reading in English becomes much more foreign than
reading in the context of ESL in which people
have easier access to English. I believe this
foreignness in the EFL context helps make people
feel that English, as well as any other foreign
language, is a lifeless linguistic system.
To find out how alien English is
for Japanese students, a survey adapted from Atwell's
'reading survey' (1998, p. 495) was administered
to 98 college students in first and second-year
English classes in June, 2000. Their majors included
Japanese literature, economics, and nursing.
The questionnaire asked nine questions about reading
attitudes when they read in Japanese and nine
questions about reading attitudes when they read
in English. All the questions were the same for
Japanese and English reading, and were presented
Q.1. How many books would you
say there are in your house?
The number of Japanese books ranged from 0 to
1000, and the average number of books they have
is 86. On the other hand, the number of English
books varied from zero to 200. The average number
of English books the students have is 7.5.
Q2. How did you learn to read?
Sixty-two percent of the students answered that
they learned to read in Japanese either at home
or at elementary school. Twenty-four percent of
the students also said they learned naturally.
Regarding English, 60 percent of the students
learned to read as a school subject in junior
Q3. Why do people read? List
as many reasons as you can think of.
A variety of responses were provided by the students
for Japanese reading. The responses include: "To
deepen and enlarge world knowledge"; "to
explore his or her interest"; "to hear
other people's opinions"; "to strengthen
imagination"; "to relax"; "to
enjoy the story"; "to escape from the
reality"; "to kill time"; and "just
to have fun." In contrast, 34 percent of
the students did not write any responses or just
wrote "I don't know" concerning English
reading. Interestingly, among the few responses
given were all related to studying as follows:
"To improve English ability"; "to
understand English better"; "to pass
the tests"; and "to meet class requirement."
One student also mentioned that people read English
because of globalization.
Q.4. What does someone have
to do or know in order to be a good reader?
There were a variety of responses in terms of
Japanese reading as follows: "To concentrate";
"to know the meanings of words"; "to
know what kind of books are available"; "not
to follow public opinion on a specific books";
"to read with interest"; "to take
good care of books"; "to read cover
to cover"; and "to read many books."
When it comes to English reading, 33 percent of
the students either left this question blank or
marked "I don't know." But those who
responded all stated something about the language,
such as grammar knowledge, vocabulary, and culture
of the language.
Q.5. What kinds of books do
you like to read?
Almost all the
major genres were presented by the students for
reading in Japanese. Those genres included mystery,
fantasy, science fiction, history, and romance.
On the contrary, for reading in English, half
of the students (51%) left this question unanswered.
Those who responded wrote that they liked to read
easy books, books with many pictures, books they
know the plot of such as fairy tales and Disney
Q.6. How do you decide which books you will
Students choose Japanese books based on the following
information: "Writer"; "book reviews";
"best sellers"; "illustration";
"plot on the book cover"; "title";
"friends' recommendation"; " letter
size"; and "the number of pages."
In deciding English books, 59 percent of the students
responded and their responses included: "Famous
work"; "easy one to read"; and
"advice from teachers and friends."
One student also stated that she never read English
books except textbooks which were required.
Q.7. Who are your favorite authors?
Sixty percent of the students came up with one
or two well-known Japanese writers, such as Banana
Yoshimoto, Shinichi Hoshi, Kappa Seno, Ryotaro
Shiba, and Momoko Sakura. In contrast, a limited
number of students (14%) have their favorite authors
for English books. Such authors as Sydney Sheldon,
Agatha Christie, and Shakespeare were mentioned,
but it is not clear whether they read them in
English or a translation.
Q.8. Have you ever reread a book? If so,
can you name it/them?
Only 45 percent of the students reread Japanese
books. Among those who read listed such books
as Natsu no niwa [Summer garden], and Futari [Two
sisters]. One student commented that she reread
all the books she read. When it comes to English,
few had engaged in a second reading.
Q.9. In general, how do you feel about reading?
The following are positive comments given for
reading in Japanese: "Normal activity";
"good thing"; "good for the development
of reading skills"; "enriching imagination";
"enlarging knowledge"; "hobby";
"self-enrichment"; "good way to
learn kanji"; "having a leisure time";
"interesting"; and "better than
watching TV." Negative comments include:
"Dark and quiet"; "not interesting";
and "tiring." With respect to English
reading, although 38 percent of the students left
the question blank, the following responses were
elicited: "Wish I could read"; "my
English is not good enough to enjoy reading";
"good thing"; "to experience a
foreign culture"; "I read for the test";
"to improve my English"; "difficult";
Qualitative results of the questionnaires
revealed that responses for Japanese reading were
much more detailed and elaborate than those for
English reading. For instance, one student, in
response to how you learned to read (Q.4), wrote
"I think I learned how to read in Japanese
in elementary school, but I think it was around
my kindergarten years when I started to do basic
reading, like understanding letters and stories."
But the same student answered simply "At
school." for reading in English. There were
also many students who simply left the questions
unanswered or wrote "I don't know" for
Close examination of the findings
suggests that reading in Japanese is deeply rooted
in their daily life. Simply, the number of books
they have at home (Q.1), the number of genres
they read (Q.5), the number of favorite writers
(Q.7), and the number of books they reread (Q.8)
are in striking contrast to English reading. For
instance, the students have 86 Japanese books
while they have only 7.5 English books in average
(Q.1). Also, the comments in Q.3 and Q.9 in general
are centered around two key concepts for reading
in Japanese; self-improvement and pleasure. In
Q.3, such responses as "to deepen and enlarge
world knowledge" and "to strengthen
imagination" indicate self-improvement, and
responses like "to explore his or her interest"
and "to relax" indicate personal pleasure.
Likewise, in Q.9, comments like "good for
the development of reading skills" and "good
way to learn kanji" are related to self-improvement,
and responses like "hobby" and "having
a leisure time" are related to personal pleasure.
On the other hand, the students'
responses to reading in English suggest that it
is basically regarded as a school subject as seen
in responses to Q.2, Q.3, Q.4, and Q.9. Responses
to Q.4 and Q.9 indicate the difficulty of the
language. Q.4 found that a good reader has to
know, for instance, "grammar knowledge,"
"vocabulary" and "culture of the
language." Q.9 found such comments as "Wish
I could read" and "My English is not
good enough to enjoy reading" in response
to how they feel about reading in English. Furthermore,
the foreignness of English is revealed in responses
to Q.5, Q.6, Q.7, and Q.8 in that most students
either left the questions unanswered or wrote
"I don't know." In short, English is
a school subject, which is difficult and foreign.
The survey, though far from exhaustive,
shows the clear gap between reading in a native
language and foreign language. One of the important
findings is that reading in Japanese is associated
with a view of reading as self-improvement and
pleasure while reading in English is associated
with a view of reading as a school subject. Interestingly,
this finding parallels Bondy's (1990) finding
on children's L1 reading that good readers defined
reading as a personally meaningful activity and
poor readers defined reading as required work.
According to Bondy, prior knowledge about reading
and the reading experiences in the classroom play
an important role in constructing a view of reading.
Similarly, the present data suggests that reading
in a foreign language is perceived as being more
limited than reading in a native language in terms
of prior knowledge of reading and the reading
experiences, result in different views of reading
for Japanese and English. Furthermore, the finding
that English reading is not related to personally
meaningful activities implies that Japanese students
are likely to see English as a lifeless language,
especially when they are exposed to only certain
kinds of texts, specifically those which inform
or present facts.
Literature and reading
Fu (1995) recalls her experience
taking literature courses and reading courses
at a graduate school in the United States. Her
literature classes dealt with such topics as symbolism,
romanticism, imagery, elements of literature,
the structure of texts, and the language and tone
of text, but "a text was discussed as if
it had nothing to do with the real world and people"
(p. 4). In her reading courses, in contrast, they
"shared [their] understanding and feelings
about the reading, and made connections between
the world in the text and real life" (p.
There are two views of reading
(Smith, 1994). One stance is that reading is seen
as a skill with a number of isolated subskills
that can be taught in isolation. This view includes
such exercises as identifying the author's main
idea, noting relationships between ideas, or identifying
and understanding paragraph organization. The
other stance, whole language, treats reading as
a process of constructing meaning rather than
decoding or comprehending. Arguing for the latter
position, Henry (1995) claims that "the important
question to ask students about their reading is
not whether they circled the right answer but
whether what they read was meaningful" (p.
Recent L2 reading research shows
that extensive reading helps improve students'
L2 language proficiency by focusing on the overall
meaning of the text, rather than on linguistic
aspects of the texts (Day & Bamford, 1998).
This reading-for -meaning can be divided into
two categories, one is efferent reading and the
other is aesthetic reading (Rosenblatt, 1978).
The former type of reading aims at gaining information
in a text, while the latter type aims at enjoying
the experience of reading. Though these two reading
positions are not mutually exclusive, efferent
reading can be beneficial when students read such
materials as newspapers and academic articles,
while aesthetic reading can be more suited for
In order for Japanese students
to develop a more positive attitude toward English,
what we can learn from both L1 and L2 reading
research is that we do not want to teach English
literature as Fu experienced it, that is as a
detachment between text and the human experience.
Secondly, English reading should be meaningful
for students so that reading does not simply mean
language decoding activities and mechanical drills.
In other words, by incorporating more literature
in the classroom and by using and analyzing it
effectively, I believe students can avoid having
a distorted image of English. McKay (1982) maintains
that the aesthetic reading of literature increases
student motivation and further develops reading
proficiency. Extensive reading research substantiates
this claim because extensive reading, which is
focused on aesthetic reading, has been proved
to improve learners' L2 proficiency, as well as
build positive attitudes toward reading (Day &
Bamford, 1998). This aesthetic reading of literature,
in my opinion, can enable Japanese students to
see English as an equally rich language.
Finally, I would like to touch
upon some key teaching issues, which should be
also applicable to teaching contexts similar to
First, we should decide what kind of literature
is appropriate. Needless to say, many factors
such as proficiency level, student needs and interests
determine this. As McKay (1982) claims, reading
texts may come from simplified versions of existing
texts, or young adult literature. Furthermore,
she suggests we use literature which is familiar
to students in terms of culture and themes.
Relevant to the familiarity of the literature,
in addition to British or American literature,
there are many people who write literature in
English, although they come from non-English-speaking
countries (Talib, 1992). For example, haiku is
written and appreciated by both native and non-native
speakers of English. It is also possible to choose
literature written originally in the students'
L1 but translated into English. A wide variety
of texts can result in a deeper appreciation of
It is also important to give students a chance
to select own texts. Each student has different
preferences depending on their background, their
level of maturity, and L2 proficiency level. For
instance, in a year when a certain novel has been
made into a popular movie, some students might
like to read that novel. Therefore, with the leadership
of English teachers, school libraries should make
an effort to collect a wide variety of literary
works, so that eventually students can learn to
select their own books (Rosenblatt, 1995).
Aesthetic reading can be also beneficial to writing
(Spack, 1985), and speaking (Gajudusek, 1988;
Tomlinson, 1998). Students can write about and
discuss the topic before and after reading. For
example, students can engage in a free writing
activity about the topic they are going to read;
they can keep a journal about the book they are
reading; they can write book reports and present
them orally. The possibilities are endless. In
other words, aesthetic reading can be used not
only for reading classes but can be successfully
incorporated into writing and speaking classes.
Last, but not the least, efferent reading in L2
has its own place and value in reading class.
There is no doubt that reading for information
is important, especially when we live in the information
age. Thus, the balance between aesthetic and efferent
reading in class should always be carefully considered.
Takagaki is an associate professor
of English at Onomichi University, Hiroshima.
He earned his doctorate in English from
Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and
has conducted research in Japan, the United
States, and Canada. His current academic
interests include biliteracy and bilingualism.