English literature; 4 important reasons to learn it

English literature; 4 important reasons to learn it


The use of modern English literature for learning English, both as a second and a foreign language, has gained momentum in recent years. As a technic, reading English literature is primarily useful for learning vocabulary, grammar rules, and conventions of writing via authentic English texts.

English Literature is the study of written text, from the 7th century to the present, in the English language. It also refers to the literary analysis and criticism of written works. In this article, the two versions, old and new, of English literature are explained in detail.

The Old English literature

The Old English literature, also known as Anglo-Saxon literature, denotes the study of written texts in old English literature from the 7th century to the year 1066. The literary works of old English literature are written within the Anglo-Saxons’ conversion to Christianity till the conquest by William of Normandy. The Benedictine monastic foundation played an impressive role in the development of old English literature.

 The earliest literature must have been visual and oral since the Anglo-Saxons developed a written English literature. Most of the survived literary works of old English literature are anonymous. But the are some famous masterpieces such as Bewolf, Alfred the great, Decor, and the Wanderer.

Most of the old English literature works are religious and in form of verses. The evident characteristic of old English verses is resigned melancholy. The literary terms used in most Anglo-Saxon works are litotes, kenning, and above all, alliteration.

Studying old English literature not only helps us think and analyze much deeper but also ales us to understand the traditions, beliefs, and events. For example, we understand the characteristics and historical events of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Anglo-Saxons were the dominant group including Angles, Saxons, and the Jutes in the early Middle Ages till the conquest in 1066; in addition, they have a very impressive influence on English literature. Old English is composed of Briton’s language and the Germanic tribal tongue borough by Anglo-Saxons.

Also, the oral poetry tradition was brought by the Anglo-Saxons. Old English poetry had prominent features such as heroic poetry, royal generosity, and blood vengeance; In addition, old English poetry has two types including the heroic Germanic pre-Christian and the Christian.

Geoffrey Chaucer was the father of old English literature. He was the first person who wrote stories and poems in the old English language. His greatest masterpiece was “The Canterbury Tales” including twenty-four great stories. Chaucer has also had a huge influence on politics because he was the Clerk of the King’s Works and Controller of Customs and Justice of the Peace.

Learning English including modern English literature

Many English teachers make their students include English literature into their course materials or provide a translation of the English literature, believing this might give students rich linguistic input and a chance for students to express themselves in the English language, as well as practice lexical, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and stylistic knowledge they have acquired in similar courses.

There are a few main reasons why we recommend English learners use modern English literature to improve their English skills. These include authentic material, cultural enrichment, personal involvement, and more importantly, language enrichment.  In the following section, we explain the reasons you should use modern English literature to improve your English proficiency, and what criteria are used in selecting literary texts.


Authenticity is the main criterion for using English literature to improve your English skills. It’s not that all works of literature have been created for the sole purpose of teaching English. Many real-life contents such as English magazine or newspaper articles, travel timetables, advertisements, and city plans, forms, and pamphlets are created for native English speakers, not English learners. The language is used in these sources is real, akin to what English speakers use in everyday life.

In this sense, modern English literature can act as a powerful complement to course materials, especially if they are supplemented by audio-texts, CDs, movie clips, podcasts, all of which will provide a multi-sensorial learning experience. You can expose yourself to real English samples of different real-life settings and enrich your English learning experience. And as you have to cope with a language that is intended for native speakers, you get to learn various communicative functions and meanings, as well as getting a taste of British and American English literature.

Cultural enrichment

english literatureWhile reading authentic English literature, for example from the aforementioned sources, can boost your English proficiency, but that is not the main reason why you should use them. Cultural enrichment also has a role to play. Normally, people who speak the same language belong to a similar way of life or culture. In other words, language and culture are intertwined together. That’s why cultural enrichment facilitates our understanding of how people communicate in real situations. So, cultural understanding certainly makes learning the English language easier when we realize that culture is mainly centered around language.

Modern English literature such as novels, short stories, and plays may look imaginary but can help increase our understanding of the culture and in turn the English language (in terms of verbal/nonverbal aspects of communication) without having to visit an English-speaking country. By reading a novel, for example, you can discover how people in the source country see the world, how they behave in different situations, and what language they use to address each other. In this regard, modern English literature adds a lot to a learner’s cultural grammar and awareness.

Personal involvement

Personal involvement is another reason why modern English literature should be used in the language learning process. Personal involvement means the reader is drawn to the texts via the impersonation of the characters in a literary work. He or she feels close or hatred towards a certain character, and tends to share an emotional response to his or her favorite character or a sense of dislike towards the character he or she hates. This emotional wave makes him or her enthusiastic about the events as they unfold.  

In addition to the emotional attractiveness of English literature, personal involvement makes learning less conscious and more interesting. When a reader, or listener if the literary work comes with an audio file, starts to inhabit the texts, understanding the meaning of words and phrases becomes less important against the development of the story.

Readers become enthusiastic about what comes next so they try not to get hung up on a single word, and they tend to guess the meaning of challenging words using the contexts. As the result, learning becomes even more effortless as readers are lost in the twists and turns of the plot. This can benefit more the whole English learning process than if they studied the words separately.

Language enrichment

English literatureThe ideal way of learning for most English learners is to visit an English-speaking country and experience verbal/nonverbal aspects of communication firsthand. Unfortunately, having an extended stay in a country where the English language is spoken is not an option for most English learners. For those students, modern English literature including audio storybooks, novels, and plays, can provide a virtual environment that facilitates understanding how communication takes place in real-life settings among native speakers. This is nothing short of immersion.   

In addition, English literature provides learners with a wealth of written language in the form of contextualized text. Students learn about lexical or syntactic items including discourse functions of sentences, various sentence structures, numerous ways of connecting ideas, all of which enrich their own reading and writing skills. They may also become productive and adventurous as they try to create their own piece of writing, poetry, etc. as their perception of the English language increases over time.

The use of modern English literature in the form of newspapers, novels, online journals, audio storybooks, and podcasts can enrich the English learning process for students who learn it as a second or foreign language. The only concerns are the relevance and level of difficulty of the English literature texts to be used as learning material.  The selection of English literature texts should be based on the needs, expectations, interests, and English competency of the learners. A beginner would benefit more from an easy storybook than he or she does from a newspaper article.


When did English literature start?

English literature refers to any novel, short story, poem, science fiction, and play written in the English language. Many scholars believe that English literature begins with Beowulf, a very popular epic poem written in the Anglo-Saxon language. The Old English as we call it, used by German tribes (the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) who invaded England at the dawn of the fifth century. Anglo-Saxon’s language is considered almost a different language from today’s English by many men of English literature. The type of English literature that today’s scholars associate with Old English is mostly descriptive and narrative in the form of poetry, chronicle, ballads, etc.

At first, the Anglo-Saxon poets were fond of poetry focused on heroes of the battles and gods. They also followed the elegiac tradition in which writers mourned the passing of earlier, better times. After the adoption of Christianity, however, they began composing religious songs about Christ and God. This is why religion constitutes a major portion of Anglo-Saxon’s (or old English) poetry.

The main point of the Anglo-Saxon era is the oral tradition as new settlers had no writing. Writing became common only after Roman missionaries taught German settlers how to use Latin alphabets. The written works that today’s scholars associate with the old English literature were probably written years after their composition or being passed down orally from speaker to speaker. That’s why nearly all authors of old English literature, including Beowulf, are anonymous.

There are, however, a few authors whom we know by their literary works with certainty such as Cædmon, Bede, Alfred the Great, and Cynewulf. Cædmon is the earliest poet of the old English literature and his only book (Cædmon’s Hymn) is said to be written somewhere in the late 7th century. Cynewulf mostly wrote religious poems praising in honor of God and Jesus Christ. His most popular poems include Juliana, The Fates of the Apostles, Crist, and Elene. His most famous work is Crist in which he tells the story of events in the life of Jesus Christ. 

The remaining English literature from the late 10th century includes old English poems The Wanderer and The Seafarer with religious themes. In the description of “The Seafarer”, Richard Marsden the director of Teaching for Arts and Humanities at Open University, wrote: “an exhortatory and didactic poem, in which the miseries of winter seafaring are used as a metaphor for the challenge faced by the committed Christian…”

Even though there is a continuous development of linguistic between old English literature and modern English literature, the earliest records of the former are incomprehensible to a reader who is familiar only with modern English, not to mention the people who use English as a foreign language. This is partially due to the fact that the language of the old English literature was originated by Angelo-Saxon’s invaders and influenced by Latin and Norman writings, and that the language itself was very different from the English we speak today. For example, early English poets used alliteration in their poems instead of rhyme.    

When did English literature start?

English literature refers to any novel, short story, poem, science fiction, and play written in the English language. Many scholars believe that English literature begins with Beowulf, a very popular epic poem written in the Anglo-Saxon language.


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