Sun, 23 Jan 2000

Why literature is not popular among students

By A. Chaedar Alwasilah

BANDUNG (JP): Literature is simply defined as a collection of the best writings. How good is the best? It is judged using a set of criteria accepted by the literary community. Members of this community share commonality, expectations, and values inherent in literary works.

All of these constitute a convention established throughout a nation's civilization and is passed on through education. People appreciate literature as part of being educated and civilized. People ignorant of their own culture's literature, let alone world literature, are considered less educated and less cultured.

Literature, by universal standards, is important enough to be included in school curricula. It is not because it embodies the best of writing, but most importantly it represents cultures. Education begins with knowing one's own culture and gradually understanding others.

This is how literature develops in students' multicultural perspectives and cross-cultural understandings. By reading literary works, students share the problems, concerns, values, and issues common to all human beings. In other words, literature offers universal values and thus makes students more human.

In my observations, the objectives of teaching literature as discussed above are still a far cry from reality. A 1999 survey involving 100 college freshmen representing high schools throughout West Java and its vicinity was conducted to reveal how literature and Bahasa Indonesia are taught in schools. In its conclusion, the study suggests that literature is not popular among teachers and students. It is not frequently taught, and in most cases when it is, it is not properly taught at all. But lets take a closer look at the survey's conclusion:

Firstly, compared time-wise with vocabulary and grammar, literature gets less. However, it does not suggest that vocabulary and grammar are better taught than literature.

As Table 1 and Table 2 show, grammar and vocabulary seem to be over-taught; therefore, they become boring and unproductive. When teaching listening and reading comprehension, teachers dominate the class by reviewing vocabulary and grammatical rules. Traditionally, students are made to memorize the rules and to create sentences using the vocabulary under discussion.

Secondly, students are not well acquainted with literary works. Surprisingly, less than half of the respondents (48.4 percent) reported they were advised to read novels or short stories, while 34.4 percent of them were not recommended anything at all. As to the number of teacher-recommended novels or short stories, you will be surprised to see Table 3.

Thirdly, apparently listening and reading comprehension dominate the teaching sessions. As depicted in Table 4, listening comprehension dominates all the other language skills, suggesting the teachers dominate the class, thus leaving the students inactive and unchallenged. Despite its ample sessions, apparently reading is overused in teach vocabulary and grammar on the pretext of understanding the reading passages.

Fourthly, consistent with the principle of the psychology of learning, the teaching material should be selected to arouse students' interest. Student-selected materials in most cases are better received rather than teacher-selected ones. In Table 5, you will see that what is most taught in the class is not necessarily what is most well received by the students.

As the table indicates, in students' perceptions short stories seem to be the easiest genre for some reason. They are easily obtainable, do not cost much and students can often finish one at one sitting. Most newspapers carry a short story in their Sunday editions. Short stories create a single impression. Each word contributes to the planned effect. In many aspects, short stories are more familiar to students. This being the case, they require less concentration on the part of students than poems do.

For the students, poems are the most difficult genre to learn; likewise, for teachers, they are the most difficult to teach. Poems are the most highly emotive form of expression and exploit the sounds of words in a systematic way.

Using rhythm, rhyme and other sound effects to heighten and intensify expression, poems require more concentration on the part of students than short stories do. However, it would be entirely wrong to assume that poems are by definition the most important literary genre to teach, as much as to assume that short stories are the least important genre to teach.

From what I have discussed, some instructional suggestions follow:

* To teach literature correctly is not synonymous with increasing the hours for teaching literature or Bahasa Indonesia. Literary works could be used as triggering materials for teaching all components and skills of language.

* Literature should be taught following the principle of easy-to-difficult and simple-to-complicated. Familiar genres should take precedence over unfamiliar ones.

* Literature is a form of expression; accordingly, students are to be encouraged to create their own poems and fiction and to share them with their peers and teachers.

* Literature is better instructed through reading-responding techniques, whereby students are encouraged to produce written responses to the works. By so doing, they will unbelievingly become young writers themselves.

* Writing constitutes the most difficult language skill to acquire. Research shows that reading literary works, rather than grammatical explanation, improves students' performance in writing.

Through literature, students explore the best in writing across cultures, and in so doing, they are facilitated to learn to think, speak and write more effectively and creatively.

The writer is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Universitas Pendidikan Indonesia in Bandung, West Java.

Table 1

Language components most presented in the class

Language component Percentage of respondents ---------------------------------------------- Vocabulary (54.8%) Grammar (52.7%) Literature (34.4%)

Table 2

Perceived lack of interest in studying language components

Language component Percentage of respondents ---------------------------------------------- Grammar 35.5% Vocabulary 31.2% Literature 23.6%

Table 3

Reported numbers of recommended novels or short stories read throughout high school years

Number of novels/short stories read Percentage of respondents --------------------------------------------------------------- 0-5 34.4.% None 18.3% 6-10 15.1% more than 20 12.9%

Table 4

Language skills most taught in high schools

Language skills Percentage of respondents ------------------------------------------- Listening 62.4% Reading 49.5% Writing 43.1% Speaking 19.3%

Table 5

Perceived difficulty of learning literary genres most taught in high schools

Literary genre Most taught Most difficult to learn ------------------------------------------------------ Poem 68.8% 63.4% Short story 36.5% 7.5% Drama 29.0% 21.5% Novel 23.6% 20.4%