The Practical and Literary Problems of Using Novel in the Language Classroom

Using a novel in an English language classroom provides a rich source of pedagogic activities. If a novel carefully selected so as to link in with students’ interest, it may provide unique opportunities for educational and linguistic development. A good novel addresses itself to complex situations and adult dilemmas. It engages students intellectually, emotionally and linguistically, and as such it can provide the basis for a motivating variety of classroom activities. But using a novel also creates particular problems for both teachers and students which can be divided into practical problems and literary problems.

Practical problems:

The practical problems which students face in dealing with a novel are length of a novel, vocabulary, difficulty in understanding cultural background of a novel etc.

Length: Lengthy novels cause the loss of concentration of the students. Such novels take a long time to reach the end. Teachers have to depend on homework reading rather than classroom activities for completing a lengthy novel. Clearly it is important in choosing a novel for classroom use that the novel is short enough to be satisfactorily handled in the classroom time allocated. This implies that novel chosen should be able to be comfortably integrated in the amount of time available per week but should also be within the students’ grasp, in terms of their linguistic , intellectual and emotional capabilities. The text should be sufficiently challenging without being so difficult as to be demotivating. Depending on the number of students and their linguistic and literary competence, the teacher will need to decide whether classroom time or homework time should be spent on the novel.

Vocabulary: Experience has shown that even very advanced learners become discouraged if they have to stop frequently to look up the meanings of new words in the dictionary. Students should be able to extend their vocabulary while reading without feeling the need to look up the meaning of every word on the page. It is best to choose a text where students will not feel overwhelmed by unfamiliar language. Two strategies can be useful in helping students with any vocabulary they don’t know. The first is to encourage students to read for gist rather than detail. A second strategy for helping students with vocabulary is to give students some kinds of glossary to use while reading.

Difficulty in understanding the cultural background :A major difficulty for students reading a novel is that its cultural background may seem inaccessible to them, and may also interfere with theirunderstanding of crucial elements within the isbest to deal with some of these difficulties before the students even begin reading the novel. When considering cultural background, it is important to include not only the historical, political, and economic facts which may form the background to the novel, but also the complicated set of social and literary values underlying it.

Literary Problems:

The kinds of difficulties our students face in responding to the novel as a literary work with particular distinguishing characteristics are called literary problems. Such problems and the solutions to overcome these difficulties are discussed below.

Understanding the story:Students may face difficulty in understanding the novel if this involves reconstructing a chronological and logical sequence of events from an often confused series of flashbacks. Students are required to summarize every chapter and to reconstruct events in chronological sequence even if they are jumbled in the text.


- Write a summary of events in Chapter 1 in 50 words.

- Write a second summary of Chapter 1 in 100 words (or 150 words).

Justify why you added the information you did.

The aim here is to encourage learners to extrapolate essential elements from the plot to order them according to their importance.

Understanding the characters: For the language learner, understanding the characters in the novel implies assigning certain traits or features to them. Students quite often require guidance on this, because they may not always have a satisfactory stock of adjectives for the job. The following tasks are intended to extend the students’descriptive vocabulary, to get them to apply it to characters in the novel,and to get them to use it more creatively in their own writing.


Here are some adjectives which can be used to describe different characters. If you don’t know the meaning of them, look them up in a dictionary.

restlessviolent extrovertvivacious idealistic sophisticated

snobbish   pragmatic  generous   ambitious superficialdominating

i. In groups, go through the first three chapters of The Great Gatsby and try to see which of these adjectives can be applied to whichcharacters. To do so, you need to check whether any of theseadjectives, or a synonym for them, is actually used to describe acharacter or whether the behaviour of a character indicates particularqualities.

ii. Write a short description of somebody you know well. Describe his or her physical appearance and indicate what kind of person he or she is, both by using descriptive adjectives and describing behaviour.

Understanding narrative point of view :Particularly with novels which tell their story from the perspective of a first person narrator, students should be alerted as to how events and their  significance are filtered through a particular point of view.

The language of the novel :To understand the language of the novel is one of the crucial literary problems for the language learners.In attempting to make the language of the novel more accessible to students and increase their awareness of how it communicates mood and theme two main activities should be followed.. The first of these is close textual/stylistic analysis. Students are encouraged to analyse an extract from the novel to identify how specific lexical and grammatical features produce particular stylistic effects. The second type of activity is more ‘global’ in that it focuses on how lexical clusters recur throughout the text to create a web of associations.


The tasks suggested here are intended as a basis for classroom discovery. Once students show some competence in the kinds of skills the exercises demand, students and teachers might engage in more elaborate activities- for example, writing short essays on the novel’s main themes, discussing comments made by different critics about the work, or even comparing the novel with similar genres in the students’ own language.