The Tesla Coil

February 22, 2010

ESL vs. “Hamlet” – the remix (part 1)

Filed under: Remixes — Sputnik @ 1:18 pm

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Is this

a) the wish of a snowman with an itch?

b) the thought of an IATEFL speaker just before they are due to give a paper?

c) a Shakespearean conceit which may prove instructive to ESL teachers?

Pity poor Shakespeare.  Here he was with a superlative plot for a play about a man who thinks rather than acts, and yet, how could he show it?  The most important feature of Hamlet the play is that Hamlet the character is a thinker. But what legitimate means did he have at his disposal to render the plight of Hamlet, and above all to give witness to Hamlet’s inner shoe-gazing?  He could not very well have the actor repeatedly wander across the stage in a dumbshow with his fist clasped to his brow, or looking wistfully from Elsinore’s battlements while he smoked a pipe.

No, he had to employ another solution.   And despite the claims of Elizabethan theatre to be ever more naturalistic than its predecessors, Shakespeare had to make recourse to a wholly artificial device in order to show Hamlet in action, or inaction – the soliloquy.  As the wonderful Margreta de Grazia remarks, ‘it is an awkward solution to be sure: speaking is asked to give the illusion of non-speaking’.  In other words, to access a greater reality, that of Hamlet’s inner self, we have to deliberately absent ourselves from reality, the reality where thoughts are silent, contriving in its abandonment to yield a more serviceable if less accurate truth.

Such theatrical pragmatism may also have a role in ESL instruction.  The general advocacy of natural, authentic and real English has never been more prominent – let us burn our textbooks, fling away their CDs like Frisbees, and condemn the school’s library of handouts to be turned into paper boats on paper seas.  But perhaps, if we can stop keeping it real for one moment, we might like to remember quite how useful the convenient fictions of course-books are.

As the great Henry Widdowson had cause to note, ‘the language subject as a pedagogic subject is not like the real object language’.  Textbook language is fake, of course it is – it’s a device we employ to get to the greater truth of communication.  Without it, we would be like a real Hamlet sans soliloquies, strutting the stage and moaning while looking wistfully into the distance: useless, uninteresting and, above all, mute.  Indeed, the real artifice is naturalism itself.  For quite in the same way as being on a stage renders everything artificial anyway, so does being in a classroom.  Is it not possible, then, that just as Shakespeare used the artifice of a soliloquy to give expression to Hamlet’s inner world, can we not use the artifice of textbook English to give expression to our students’ inner worlds?



  1. If the text books was connected to our students’ inner world and needs, sure. Often though, it is not.

    A text book is a teaching tool like any other. Some are very good. The danger lies in assuming the text book should be followed religiously. Sometimes teachers forget it is only a text book, not a daily lesson plan.

    Text books can be used to good effect, but I think they often obscure real communication. It’s not that the classroom isn’t an artifice. It’s just that compulsive use of text books fails to meet or adapt to students’ langauge needs.

    Comment by Nick Jaworski — February 22, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

  2. ‘it’s a device we employ to get to the greater truth of communication.’

    But do we get it? Sometimes. But all too often the device fails and the communication which should arise from the coursebook ‘stimuli’ is brief and stilted, having signally failed to get within 5 miles of our students ‘inner worlds’.

    Comment by Glennie — February 23, 2010 @ 1:52 am

  3. Hi Nick and Glennie – I agree with both of your points in so far as they delineate the extremes to be avoided. Yes, the compulsive use of textbooks fails to address, well, anything other than the needs of the publishers, and yes, textbooks do not invariably deliver our students into a communicative utopia. However, as heretical as it seems to be at the moment, I think some textbooks, or parts of them, are pedagogically useful for both students and teachers.

    Comment by theteslacoil — February 23, 2010 @ 11:37 am

  4. I don’t think you’re the only one who thinks that ‘textbooks, or parts of them are pedagogically useful’. See here

    Starting out as a teacher I found following a coursebook both useful and slightly infuriating. On one hand they (sometimes) provide useful guidelines, on the other hand I sometimes felt like a slave to the coursebook (before I got into thinking about using other material).

    As for getting into ‘inner worlds’, I’m not sure. I guess some of it can resonate. I think the ESOL materials produced in the UK are an example where there is very little truth in what the learners are presented with. They are also well out-of-date (does anyone really still use a walkman?).

    Thanks for an interesting question!

    Comment by Mike Harrison — February 25, 2010 @ 1:08 am

  5. Hi Mike – you make a good point about how quickly some of the textbook material becomes anachronistic, not least in terms of what it mentions, but also in terms of register. However, I do think, for example, some of the functional vocabulary used in having discussions, negotiating, disagreeing, consenting, etc has a place in the discourse of any student.

    Comment by theteslacoil — February 25, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    • Yes, I agree. I didn’t mean to deride ESOL materials completely. It’s a good basis for any syllabus/scheme of work,just as any good coursebook should be. I’d worry if it was the only exposure learners got to a language.

      Comment by Mike Harrison — February 25, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

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