The Formeaning Response Approach: Poetry in the EFL Classroom

Ha rl a n Ke ll e m

                      The Formeaning Response
                      Approach: Poetry in the
                      EFL Classroom

                           n English as a Foreign Language               rooms, see Paran 2006.) Although
                           (EFL) classrooms, where acquisi-              these two approaches are typically
                           tion of English is the ultimate               considered mutually exclusive, one
                      goal, one of the main tasks for the                way to marry the two when teach-
                      teacher is to provide students with                ing poetry is to use what I call the
                      language input and activities that best            Formeaning Response approach. This
                      aid them in their learning process. As             approach places equal importance on
                      different researchers have reported,               the study of language elements and
                      including poetry-based activities in the           on responding personally to poetry.
                      EFL classroom is beneficial (Hanauer               This article will first review the Stylis-
                      2001; Maley and Duff 1989). Among                  tic and Reader-Response approaches
                      other reasons, poetry is a source of               and their roles in second language
                      content-rich reading material; a model             acquisition, and will then demon-
                      of creative language in use; a way to              strate how to combine them to teach
                                                                         poetry in the EFL classroom with the
                      introduce vocabulary in context; and
                                                                         Formeaning Response approach.
                      a way to focus students’ attention on
                      English pronunciation, rhythm, and                 Teaching poetry with the
                      stress.                                            Stylistic approach
                          Two main pedagogical approach-                      According to Short (1996), stylis-
                      es to teaching poetry and literature               tics is the direct application of linguis-
                      have their roots in literary criticism:            tic evidence to interpret and analyze
                      (1) Stylistics, an approach that analyz-           literature, and is a general analytical
                      es the language forms of the text, and             tool that uses explanations of formal
                      (2) Reader-Response, an approach                   aspects of a poem to discuss mean-
                      that concerns itself with the reader’s             ing; for instance, lexical repetition
                      interaction with the text. (For a histo-           can be used to strengthen the impact
                      ry of using literature in language class-          of a word, and the number of turns

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a certain speaker has in relation to another             poetry reading, Tomlinson (1998) emphasizes
speaker in a poem indicates his or her relative          the need to allow language learners to experi-
impact or importance.                                    ence reading in a risk-free environment. For
    Because language is the subject and focus            example, when classroom tasks are involved,
of instruction, stylistic analysis strongly repre-       it is best to have students draw pictures or talk
sents the EFL instructional perspective. EFL             about how parts of a story relate to their own
teaching activities in which students analyze            lives. Tomlinson stresses that it is important
poetry stylistically can provide opportunities           that reading remain an experience, and that
to explicate the formal features of English—             students should not be asked questions they
including the levels of phonology, vocabulary,           might get wrong.
grammar, and discourse—and relate them                        Martin and Laurie (1993), who surveyed
to an understanding of the poem. Rosenkjar               participants studying French as a foreign lan-
(2006) gives examples of language-centered               guage in Australia about their attitudes toward
activities used for poetry teaching in a uni-            literature, recommend that teachers permit
versity EFL class in Japan, where students do            students to integrate and relate what they are
the following:                                           reading to their own personal experiences.
     • highlight complete sentences in a poem            Liaw (2001) studied the effects of Reader-
       with alternating colors                           Response theory in an EFL course taught in a
     • categorize words from a poem into logi-           Taiwanese university. The students wrote per-
       cal groups                                        sonal responses to short stories, and they were
     • circle personal pronouns and find a pat-          most interested in the texts when they could
       tern                                              personally relate and respond to the characters
     • underline the main verbs                          and themes of the stories. The students felt
Buckledee (2002) offers similar activities from          that taking their individual responses into
a university EFL class in Italy, where students          account clarified the relevance of literature to
look at a poem and answer questions about                their language learning goals.
verb tenses, possessive adjectives, and singular              There is also evidence that not including
versus plural forms.                                     students’ personal backgrounds with the study
                                                         of literature has a negative effect on language
Teaching poetry with the Reader-                         learning. In a survey of EFL students and
Response approach                                        teachers in private high schools in Istanbul,
    The Reader-Response approach moves the               Akyel and Yalçin (1990) found that the stu-
focus of reading from the author and text to             dents did not see literature as a way to reach
the reader. The approach treats the creation             language learning goals because they were
of meaning as inseparable from the act of                often not called upon to respond person-
reading. (For more on the Reader-Response                ally to literature, nor were the language-based
approach, see Schultz 2001, 6–10.)                       activities in the classroom communicatively
    A wide range of research extols the benefits         useful. Likewise, Davis et al. (1992) found
of the Reader-Response approach for second               that although students in EFL contexts have
language acquisition. One example is provid-             favorable attitudes toward literature, language
ed by Ali (1993), who incorporated the theory            learning goals are not realized when the teach-
while teaching EFL to engineering students at            ing style does not allow for personal responses
a university in Malaysia. Ali found that when            that would make the literature relevant to
students personally responded to a short story,          learners.
they became engaged in independent meaning
making, which enhanced their reading experi-             Transactional theory
ence. Davis (1989) draws exclusively on Iser’s               It is also important to mention Transac-
(1978) Reader-Response theory and discusses              tional theory, which is linked to the Reader-
its potential applications to foreign language           Response approach and clearly explains the
pedagogy. Davis also calls for the experience of         reciprocal reaction that occurs between the
“what happens during reading” to be the foun-            reader and the text. According to Fish (1980),
dation of meaning (Davis 1989, 424; italics              it is more accurate to consider what literature
in the original). In what he calls experiential          does as the reader encounters a literary text

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than to try to describe what the text means,            tion of meaning through focusing on formal
     because the meaning is an event that is gener-          aspects is due to a procedural error that
     ated through the participation between the              did not allow for the participants’ aesthetic
     reader and the text. According to Rosenblatt            reading of the poem. And in Hall’s (2003)
     (1978), reading is also an event that involves          response to Hanauer, he argues that pleasure
     a nonlinear transaction between the text and            and understanding, not understanding alone,
     the reader; meaning is not created by a pre-            are equally important in reading poetry. It is
     conceived interpretation of the text but by             the task of the teacher, he writes, to “motivate,
     the unique individual, whose emotions, back-            to contextualize and to individualize often
     ground, and ideas create meaning during a               anxious and insecure readers’ experiences of
     particular time and setting. Rosenblatt (1978)          texts to promote pleasure and understanding”
     places reading transactions on a scale from the         (Hall 2003, 398; italics in the original).
     efferent stance, or reading to get information,             While some researchers feel that an analy-
     to the aesthetic stance, or reading for the expe-       sis of language forms and style is paramount
     rience or for pleasure. Tutas (2006), who con-          to the study of poetry in the EFL context,
     ducted an empirical study about the effects on          other researchers claim that it is the personal
     EFL learners exposed to Rosenblatt’s (1978)             relationship with poetic themes that positively
     scales, found that responding aesthetically to          affects learning English. This dichotomy does
     literature facilitates students’ enjoyment and          not need to exist, and I am proposing to com-
     engagement with literature. Hirvela (1996)              bine both approaches into one.
     also explores the way that Rosenblatt’s trans-
     actional approach is applied in the EFL                 The Formeaning Response approach to
     classroom. He argues that the meaning that              teaching poetry in a language classroom
     is created during reading is produced through               I have coined the term formeaning (form +
     a transaction between the learner and the               meaning) to represent Stylistics, the language-
     text, which is key to the successful teaching           centered approach to teaching poetry. Form
     of literature.                                          and meaning are inseparable in a stylistic
                                                             analysis, because to correctly describe and
     The tension between Stylistic and                       understand a language form—such as a lexi-
     Reader-Response approaches                              cal item or grammatical structure—one must
         It has often been argued that reading a             consider the form in a meaningful context.
     poem is different from analyzing its linguistic         Therefore, form and meaning are not two
     parts. Gower (1986) states that stylisticians           separate aspects to consider when analyzing
     are concerned only with analyzing the lan-              poetry—they must be considered one and the
     guage of a poem, and he recommends the                  same. EFL teachers know that learners must
     inclusion of personal responses in which stu-           focus on language itself in any type of read-
     dents talk about whether they liked the poem            ing, and especially poetry, which often has
     or thought it was any good, a practice that is          uncommon usage issues and utilizes rhyming,
     likely “anathema” to academics involved in              metaphor, and even format to create mean-
     stylistics (129). This observation is indicative        ing. EFL students are primed to attend to
     of the sharp divide between the Stylistic and           linguistic features because they aim to learn
     Reader-Response approaches in the context of            a foreign language, and successful lessons and
     EFL instruction.                                        activities must be relevant to this linguistic
         The process that learners go through in             goal. When classroom activities include sty-
     understanding and discussing a poem was                 listic analysis, the language itself takes center
     empirically researched by Hanauer (2001),               stage, and discussions of meaning must derive
     who reported that learners constructed mean-            from and coincide with discussions of linguis-
     ing “95.94 per cent” of the time by focusing            tic features.
     on and discussing the linguistic elements of a              The Formeaning Response approach’s
     poem (316). His research about the primacy              response component, which comes from Read-
     of language analysis to construct meaning did           er-Response theory, is based on recognizing
     not go unchallenged. Mattix (2002) argues               that when students personally relate to liter-
     that the learners’ 95.94 percent construc-              ary themes, the subject matter becomes more

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relevant—and that this relevance, in turn,             Form and meaning activities
assists the learning process. When students                     After the warm-up activities, stu-
relate their own experiences and beliefs to            dents are ready to look at the poem. But
make sense of a poem and its language, there           instead of reading the poem in its entirety,
is often less direct focus on the linguistic           they can participate in activities like the fol-
forms. This is because students construct an           lowing and focus on the form and meaning of
overall meaning through a transactional pro-           the poem’s essential linguistic elements.
cess largely based on their own backgrounds,              • Alternative words exercise. In this mul-
memories, and ideas.                                        tiple-choice exercise, individual words
    The combination of the Stylistics and                   throughout a poem are put in paren-
Reader-Response approaches makes poetry                     theses. Then, two or three alternative
learning motivational and personally rele-                  words are added to each original one
vant to students. The Formeaning Response                   as choices, and students as a whole
approach is designed to bridge the gap between              class or in groups choose which word
aesthetic and stylistic reading approaches, and             they think is most suitable (see Maley
to show how pleasure and understanding can                  and Duff 1989, 39). This activity gives
coincide and feed off of each other. Following              students a chance to look at individual
are examples of activities that teachers can                words in the context of the surrounding
use to teach poetry by using the Formeaning                 lines, and to think about fine distinc-
Response approach.                                          tions in meaning and how vocabulary
                                                            items work together in the poem.
Classroom activities and the Formeaning                   • Listening cloze. Certain words are
Response approach                                           blanked out in a poem, and as the
    Teaching poetry or literature is similar to             teacher reads the poem out loud, the
implementing any EFL activity in that teach-                students fill in the blanks with the miss-
ers must consider the language level of the stu-            ing words. This exercise offers students
dents so that the material selected is not too              another way to focus their attention on
difficult. It is also important to stress that all          individual words in context.
students can and should freely express them-              • Listing. Students make a list of words in
selves when discussing poetry. This freedom                 a poem; this could be a list of pronouns
of expression ensures a collaborative, learner-             or verbs or concrete objects. Students
centered classroom that takes into account the              then manipulate the list by ranking the
EFL students’ individual differences, learning              words in order of importance or group-
goals, and affective factors.                               ing them together into categories based
    A good way to ease students into a poetry               on their characteristics or definitions.
lesson is to give them a general feeling for              The above exercises focus attention on
the ideas presented in the poem by provid-             individual linguistic items and push students
ing a warm-up activity. Students should first          to make choices based on a limited context
brainstorm and express their opinions about            rather than on the entire poem. This is a
the themes of the poem. Initially, they may            necessary first step in helping students realize
not feel confident that they can simultane-            how they can point to actual language and
ously express their opinions and refer to the          form in the poem when expressing their own
linguistic aspects of a poem, so teachers might        ideas as readers.
want to choose warm-up activities that do not
necessarily refer to the language in the poem,         Response activities
but to a theme or image. For example, teach-              As students read the poem in its entirety,
ers can show a picture of an item or character         the following activities help them discover
and let students answer questions about the            and express what the poem means to them as
picture, or have students interview each other         individuals.
about personal experiences related to the                 • Discussion questions. In pairs, small
themes of the poem. In this way, students                   groups, or as a whole class, students
activate the background knowledge that will                 discuss how they would feel if they were
help them analyze and understand the poem.                  a character in the poem, or speculate

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about what a character in a poem will                      develops statements that either relate to
          do next and why.                                           the language of the poem or are associ-
        • Draw pictures. Students draw pictures                      ated with its main theme. Students
          depicting scenes or characters in a                        mark the statements as True or False,
          poem. This activity lets them move                         then discuss the reasons for their choic-
          from linguistic to pictorial representa-                   es. This exercise is more formeaning-
          tion of a poem; doing so requires an                       focused if the students have to make
          understanding of the poem’s language                       choices based on linguistic evidence
          and themes.                                                (such True/False statements might be
        • Role play. Adopting the role of char-                      “The poem is written in the present
          acters in the poem forces students to                      tense” or “The narrator of the poem
          think about and act out their feelings                     is angry about the situation”), and is
          and ideas in relation to the themes of                     more response-focused if students have
          the poem.                                                  to personally relate to the ideas in the
        • Letter writing. Follow-up activities are                   poem (e.g., “The poem makes me feel
          an effective way for students to respond                   happy” or “If I were the narrator of the
          to poetry. For example, students can                       poem, I would react in the same way”).
          write a letter to a character in the poem,
          giving that character advice or offering          Conclusion
          sympathy, or write a diary entry while                The Stylistic and Reader-Response
          imagining that they are the character             approaches are both useful for teaching poet-
          in the poem. By writing to a charac-              ry in the EFL classroom. However, instead
          ter, or as a character, students must             of strictly following one of the approaches,
          place themselves in the situation of the          the teacher can develop activities that help
          poem.                                             students work with the language and engage
                                                            with and personally respond to the material.
     Formeaning Response activities                         By designing activities that allow students to
        When feasible, it is desirable to combine           focus on linguistic aspects of a poem as well as
     the two types of activities mentioned above.           personally relate to ideas represented in poet-
     Teachers can adjust lessons and activities to          ry, teachers can motivate students to attend
     provide scaffolding where needed, based upon           and respond to both the form and the overall
     whether students need assistance with the              meaning. Combining both approaches in the
     language in the poem or are ready to apply             same lesson, and in the same exercise when
     personal experiences and ideas.                        possible, anchors students in the language of
        • Discussion of the alternative words exer-         a poem while inviting them to express their
          cise. Teachers can easily adapt this activ-       own responses to the themes of the poem.
          ity to different classrooms and students.             Some EFL teachers may approach the
          Each student explains to a partner why            idea of using poetry in their classrooms with
          he or she chose certain words in the              trepidation. That is understandable. Two
          previously mentioned alternative words            researchers who express reservations about
          exercise. Students’ reasons can range             using literature in the language classroom are
          from phonological (“I like the way it             Edmondson (1997) and Horowitz (1990).
          sounds”) to discourse (“That’s what               Horowitz’s argument is that the language used
          he’s supposed to say”) explanations.              in literature may not be richer than language
          Although the students are responding              used in some nonfiction genres (164), while
          to the language of the poem, this activ-          Edmondson asserts that literature is not an
          ity deepens their understanding of the            essential piece of the language learning puzzle.
          main themes and ideas, and it helps                   My stance, however, is that poetry can be
          them relate the poem to their lives.              a useful type of input for EFL learners who,
        • True/False exercise. A True/False exercise        by definition, need to understand linguistic
          can be formeaning-focused, response-              aspects to reach meaning, and it also deepens
          focused, or both, depending on the                their acquisition of English by giving them
          type of written statements. The teacher           the opportunity to describe and interpret

16                            2009       Number         4   |    E   n g l i s h   Te   a c h i n g   F   o r u m
their experiences and to express their opin-               Iser, W. 1978. The act of reading: A theory of aesthetic
ions in an interesting, meaningful context.                    response. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
By studying poetry with the Formeaning
                                                           Liaw, M. L. 2001. Exploring literary responses in
Response approach, students are attending to                   an EFL classroom. Foreign Language Annals 34
the language of a poem, using that linguistic                  (1): 35–45.
evidence to discuss the poem, and relating the             Maley, A., and A. Duff. 1989. The inward ear:
themes to their own ideas and lives.                           Poetry in the language classroom. Cambridge:
                                                               Cambridge University Press.
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Akyel, A., and E. Yalçin. 1990. Literature in the              content to language learning at intermediate
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    161–68.                                                linguistic environment in EFL settings.

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