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Teaching Vocabulary and Grammar Using Authentic Literary Texts and Other Reading Selections

Dr. Emily Spinelli Executive Director, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. Professor Emerita of Spanish, University of Michigan-Dearborne

For many years the foreign language profession viewed the teaching of language and the teaching of literature as two very separate and distinct activities. At all educational levels the reading of literary texts was often seen as a task that only very advanced students could undertake. As a result, the early years of instruction were generally devoted to learning the language so that students could study literature in upper-level courses.

Authentic Texts Defined

In the 1970s this separation of language and literature teaching was challenged as researchers in language acquisition advocated for the use of authentic texts and materials in the language classroom. Widdowson pointed out that the language presented to students does not need to be simplified for easy access. He further stated that, “Nowadays there are recommendations that the language presented should be authentic.” Wallace later defined authentic language as that found in “…real-life texts, not written for pedagogic purposes.” Soon thereafter, authentic materials gradually made their way into textbooks in the form of advertisements, brochures, menus, schedules, and other items utilized in daily life. However, literature was still not viewed as suitable material for language learning.

 Contemporary View of Literary Texts

Recently, a report from the Modern Language Association called for an end to the separation of language courses and literature courses and recommended a curriculum “in which language, culture, and literature are taught as a continuous whole.” This contemporary view of the role of literature reinforces the notion that literary texts can be used to teach language beginning at the earliest levels. In addition to providing language models for students, literary selections also provide authentic cultural information, help critical thinking skills, and emphasize historical and literary traditions.

Reading Strategies and Activities to Promote Comprehension

It is now generally accepted that literary and other authentic texts should not be simplified or modified in order to help students comprehend them. Rather, students should be provided with reading strategies and activities prior to reading the selection. In turn, these strategies and activities will help students comprehend the authentic material.

Pre-reading, During-reading, and Post-reading Activities

Generally the strategies, explanations, and activities related to a reading selection fall into three categories called pre-reading, during-reading, and post-reading activities, depending on when they are used in relation to reading the selection. Pre-reading strategies provide students with reading techniques such as reading for gist, understanding the genre of the text, or forming hypotheses about the theme or topic of the text. Pre-reading activities can involve a presentation or review of vocabulary or grammar structures used within the literary selection. Vocabulary activities typically focus on cognate recognition, word families, prefixes and suffixes and other information designed to assist students with comprehending individual words. Grammar activities generally focus on recognition of parts of speech, verb forms and tenses, and word order. Other pre-reading activities focus on cultural information that have students compare or contrast cultural products, practices or perspectives found in the text with those found in their own cultures. During-reading activities generally help students focus on the pre-reading strategies and other information taught or reviewed in the pre-reading phase. Finally, the post-reading activities focus on comprehension and ask students to demonstrate what they learned while reading.

By helping students comprehend authentic texts through the use of pre-reading strategies and activities, we expand their language capabilities while strengthening their cross-cultural and literacy skills.


Bernardo, Sacha Anthony. “The Use of Authentic Materials in the Teaching of Reading.” The Reading Matrix 6 (2006): 60–69.
Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World.  New York: Modern Language Association, 2006.
Wallace, Catherine.  Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Widdowson, Henry G. Aspects of Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
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