Useful Idiots: Using teenage fiction in the ELT classroom

It’s wonderful to record the memories of the ‘Torhout crowd’ (see below): Ludo Timmerman (former webmaster), Jan De Corte, Johan and Lieve Strobbe-Deprez, Willy Vandekerckhove, Christa Pacco

Is it an honour when one of the best British writers for young people dedicates her newly published book to a group of EFL teachers that you belong to? It may seem a strange thing to so, but it is certainly no coincidence that the writer in question, Jan Mark, dedicated her novel to what she calls “the Torhout crowd.”

Torhout is a small provincial town in the centre of the province of West Flanders in Belgium. It is home to a very large secondary school, Sint-Rembert, and to a rather well-known teacher training college, KATHO-RENO, making it a typical school town, full of young people and… teachers.

Torhout is not very well known, even in Belgium. But ask successful writers for young readers such as Anthony Horowitz, Tim Bowler, Jan Mark whether they know it and they will tell you they do. How can this be?

In 1996 a number of Torhout teachers started discussing ways to innovate the teaching of literature. There seemed to be a gap between the world of the students and the world of literature. Yet, they were convinced that literature had to be part of their curriculum because nothing could enrich the students’ language in a more efficient way and nothing could be more motivating to learners of English. “Above all, literature can be helpful in the language learning process because of the personal involvement it fosters in readers.” [1] (Collie and Slater 1996, 4)

Or, to put it in the words of La Rue [2] : literature is authentic, unmodified material, which should encourage interaction. It should be motivating, intrinsically, but also because it gives the students a real sense of achievement.

Unfortunately only a few students in each class seemed to experience the motivation and the personal involvement that literature promised. Something had to be done to allow more of them to enjoy literature and profit from its positive influence.

Thanks to links between the Torhout teacher training college and Westlands School in Sittingbourne, England [3] , we had just learned to know two British writers for young people, the poet Robin Mellor and writer Jan Mark. We were thrilled when we read their work, because we immediately realized that their writing would appeal to our students. It was literature that created a world that the students would be able to recognize, protagonists that they would be able to identify with. We hoped we had found the missing link.

It all started with poetry

Some of Robin Mellor’s poems were easy to prepare for the classroom. Three teachers immediately started reading about what you could do with poetry in the classroom and applied what they found to some of Robin Mellor’s poems [4] . Some of the results are still available on the Internet [5] . As you can see, they worked with gap-filling, scrambled lines, anticipation, matching, etc. Apparently Mr. Mellor’s poetry was powerful enough to stimulate teachers into studying methodology books [6] and experimenting in the classroom.

In their elaboration of the poems Deprez and Strobbe (1996) followed the following principles: bring in as much variation in the approaches as possible and focus on the text itself rather than give commentary or background information about the text, because the literature itself is important – they say – not the people who wrote it.

Last but not least they wanted to put the pupils to work. “A true interaction between the pupil and the poem should be provoked. Pupils should be offered the chance to express their experiences and opinions and share them with fellow pupils.”

As predicted the poetry lessons were successful. The members of the “Torhout crowd” found the pupils were very responsive to the poems. This kind of poetry clearly appealed to them. It also became clear that this was the perfect introduction to serious adult poetry. Starting with some of Robin’s lighter poems, proceeding with his more serious work and then changing to poets like Seamus Heaney, was something that worked.

This all happened in 1996. Since then we have discovered more poetry that is useful in the classroom, poetry that is motivating and challenging and that can function as a stepping-stone to the ‘serious’ stuff.

Jan Mark and her short stories

The most striking example of these lessons dealing with the stories was created by one of the Torhout teacher trainers involved in the project. Christine Vyncke first took the dialogues from “The Choice is Yours.” The pupils studied and practised them, and finally played them in a role play – after they had established the right order. Only then did they get to read the original text. The fact that they wanted to know how correct their reconstruction of the story had been, made them voracious readers.

Jan De Corte prepared Nothing to Be Afraid Of for classroom use and I took care of Feet. The shy 16-year-old tennis player in the latter story and the baby sitter of about the same age in the former were (anti)heroes that the 16 and 17-year-old students of the target group could identify with. Moreover, there was also something in Jan Mark’s style, something akin to irony, that the students seemed to like very much.

In “Nothing to be afraid of” the protagonist – Anthea – has to babysit a young over-protected boy who is afraid of everything. She takes him to a park and – by inventing all sorts of park monsters – she scares him out of his wits. “Robin is a gibbering wreck by the time Anthea’s finished with him, his mother is furious: he wants the light on all night, he doesn’t want to go to bed, he is terrified of being alone and he won’t go anywhere near the bathroom in case the toilet demon gets him. Mother is complaining bitterly, but Robin just wants to go back to the park and be frightened all over again. It’s the most interesting day he has ever had.” (Jan Mark interview)

The lesson starts with a lead-in in which (some) students talk about their experiences with babysitting. The text of the short story is split up into several part. Each part is explored by means of focussing questions. The students are provided with vocabulary lists so that as little time as possible is lost looking up words. The final step is the interpretation of the story: a slide with some keywords is projected to guide the students and speed up the process.

The lessons is rounded off using an interview with Jan Mark in which she gives background information on the writing of the short story and also advances her own original interpretation. The confrontation with this interpretation usually incites interesting discussions.

“Feet” is a story about tennis, a very popular sport in Belgium at the moment. But it is also about a sixteen-year-old falling in love, about being humiliated, being rejected and finding true friendship, very recognizable situations for our students.

Because of time pressure – there were only three 50-minute periods – to deal with this short story – I had to prepare the short story for homework. First there was a lesson on tennis vocabulary and rules which – thanks to Belgian tennis champions Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin – is now highly unnecessary. Then the story was divided into parts. Some (easy) parts were left unchanged, with the most difficult vocabulary explained in footnotes. Some parts were slightly simplified. After the students had tackled two parts at home, there was a listening comprehension lesson in the classroom. The answers to the focussing questions about the first two parts were discussed and then the pupils listened to the third part, a pivotal moment in the story, read out loud by an English seventeen-year-old girl. The students read the fourth part at home again but the final part was dealt with by the teacher in the classroom.

Afterwards the students had to choose a post-reading activity from a list based on Diana Mitchell’s “Ways into literature” [7] . A few examples: a monologue to a character from the story, a diary entry, a sports article, an interview with a protagonist, a letter…

The writers come to Torhout!

Because the students responded so well to the literature we presented them with, Jan De Corte, whom the rest of the group nicknamed Mr Organizer, contacted the Flemish Ministry of Education and asked for funding. The lessons and plans that he showed were convincing enough for the person responsible to award us a (Dynamo 2) grant. That made it possible for us to invite the two writers. They did not have an easy job in Flanders: they visited classes and answered questions, read from their work, gave lectures [8] , were members of the jury of a poetry contest… By the time they travelled back to England they were exhausted but their visit to the Flemish schools had been a tremendous success, as the applause showed at the end of the “Happening” we had organized for the students and the writers to mark the end of the visit. We had spent a lot of time and energy on the project, but it had been worth it.

Afterwards an in-service training session was organized in which all the material that had been developed by the Torhout teachers was made available to fellow teachers. Still, as the diocesan adviser for English who had organized this session, I failed to fully appreciate the importance of that moment for the teaching of literature in the diocese of Bruges and in the whole of Flanders. The days when the only youth novels known and used were Sue Townsend’s diaries of Adrian Mole, were over.

Spring 1999 and the Enter course

Three years later the project was repeated under the name of “Spring 1999.” New texts were elaborated, an amateur video tape with interviews with Jan Mark and Robin Mellor was produced and prepared for classroom use, funding was requested and (again!) awarded. For the second time the two writers came to talk to and work with the students in the classroom (and in the greenhouses of the Agricultural and Horticultural School). This time the project also got the European Union Prize for Innovative Language Teaching (1999).

After the Spring 1999 project it did not take long for Lieve Deprez, Johan Strobbe and Jan De Corte to realize that also the novels written by writers for young adults might be useful. They were convinced that these novels would also provide an excellent introduction to adult novels. Together they started a new series of textbooks, called Enter, in which teenage fiction got the place it deserved. In Enter for fifth-formers, which appeared in 2001, the bulk of fictional texts consists of extracts from youth novels and short stories: Jan Mark’s “Nothing to be afraid of” – mentioned above – Yvonne Coppard’s Bully, Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls under Pressure, Melvin Burgess’ Junk, William Nicholson’s The Wind Singer.

In Enter for sixth-formers there is still some teenage fiction (e.g. Tim Bowler’s Shadows), but the majority of fictional texts belong to the classics (John Steinbeck, William Golding, but also Jeffrey Archer and Jhumpa Lahiri). This demonstrates once more that youth literature is ideal for its own sake, but also provides a lead-in to literature with a capital L.

I must admit that Enter also appeals to me – with my suggestopedic past – because the texts are presented in a textbook that is really an attractive book with (just) texts. The textbook is a colourful, imaginative, creative and stimulating collection of texts, without a single reference to (pages in) the workbook. Teachers using Enter start from the workbook, not from the textbook, so that it remains an immaculate reader.

At the end of every unit there is a section called “Shock your teacher, read a book” in which ten books are briefly introduced that deal with the theme of the preceding unit (e.g. love and relationships, war and conflict, people on the move, etc.). The students are encouraged to read one of the books. Most of them are youth novels, but also easy adult novels are recommended. Teachers who pay attention to the booklist in their lessons, tell me that one in five students has started reading English-language books on a regular basis.

Since 1999 teenage literature has become a compulsory subject at the Torhout teacher training college. As a matter of fact, the first-year-student teachers only study literature for young people. It is a stepping-stone to the literature they have to study in their second and third year.

Meanwhile many Flemish teachers have discovered and learned to appreciate the value of teenage fiction. Many of them participated in in-service training sessions held by one of the Torhout teachers. Mr Johan Maertens, a teacher who was not involved in the projects and who teaches English at a technical department of the Torhout secondary school (Department of Business and Trade) has his fourth-year pupils (16-year-olds, in their third year of English, four 50-minute lesson periods per week) read Tim Bowler’s River Boy. It appears that – once the pupils realize they can indeed read an English novel – they keep buying or borrowing and reading them.

Keeping in mind Stephen Krashen’s axiom that “Reading [for pleasure] is the only way”, that it promotes better spelling, better writing skills, higher reading comprehension (“In order to learn to read one must read.”) and a more advanced vocabulary, it is clear that the introduction of reading in the curriculum does not only make the pupils happy… [9]

Allow me to quote Stephen Krashen again, as he organized and studied a lot of interesting research in this field: “When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books”, they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills [10] .”

“Free voluntary reading is one of the most powerful tools we have in language education. […] It will not, by itself, produce the highest levels of competence; rather, it provides a foundation so that higher levels of proficiency may be reached. When free voluntary reading is missing, these advanced levels are extremely difficult to attain [11] .”

I am almost certain that Mr Maertens has never read any books by Stephen Krashen. Yet instinctively – without the research – he realized that it was necessary not to make the pupils write long essays or analyse difficult aspects of the novels they read. In the (oral) examinations they only have to be able to prove that they have read the books. It is essential for the language learning process that the students read for pleasure.

The world of youth literature in the US and the UK is so rich that there is no end to good books. Every month new novels and collections of short stories and poems are published that can take your (and your students’) breath away.

Jan Mark’s Useful Idiots, the novel with the dubious dedication, is just one of them.


Collie, J. and S. Slater, Literature in the Language Classroom. A Resource Book of Ideas and Activities, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996 (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers).

Deprez, L. and J. Strobbe, Invite a British Writer To Your Class. Poems by Robin Mellor,, 1996. (snail mail address mentioned on site no longer valid)

Krashen, Stephen, The Power of Reading. Insights from the Research, Libraries Unlimited, Englewood, Colorado, 1993.

La Rue, R.G., Using Literature in teaching English as a foreign/second language (1), (no longer on-line)

Maley, Alan and Alan Duff, The Inward Ear. Poetry in the Language Classroom, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989 (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers).

Mitchell, D. and L. Christenbury, Both Art and Craft: Teaching Ideas that Spark Learning, National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), Urbana, IL, 2000.

Interesting web sites (a very interesting site on and by Tim Bowler, also for teachers) (Robin Mellor’s home page)

Here’s a link to the Guardian‘s review of Useful Idiots.