Dystopian Literature for the ESL Classroom

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January 10, 2014 by k. liz

Have you jumped on the dystopian literature wagon yet? I have. In fact, I’m planning on hosting a book club for international students in the DC area over the next few months, and my top fiction pick at the moment is Divergent by Veronica Roth. The majority of dystopian pop literature is aimed at young adults. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of them: The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Divergent Series, Uglies, Delirium, The Maze Runner . . . 

dystopianDystopian literature is by no means new, think George Orwell’s, 1984, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, and even Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, however, I think that it has just made a comeback in recent years. 

According to the dictionary, ‘dystopian’ means:

an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be

It is contrasted with ‘utopian’ which we all know is an imaginary place of perfection. 

I know I have absolutely no authority in which to do this, but I’d like to tweak the definition of dystopian just a bit. I don’t think that the focus is on things being ‘as bad as they can be,’ but rather they are like our world, but completely different. 

Dystopian is not fantasy, because the animals don’t talk, and there are no mythical or unrealistic creatures. It is not sci-fi, because there are no improbable technological innovations or a world controlled by robots. 

Rather, at least in popular dystopian literature, we are presented with a world that in construct is the same as the one we live in, but in reality and culture, it is nothing like where we live . . . or so we are led to think. 

So, why am I getting so excited about dystopian literature in the ESL classroom? Because, dystopian literature deals with very real and present moral/ethical/political issues, but it is completely divorced from labels, stereotypes, misconceptions, and preconceptions. Rather than looking at a story that is about Republicans and Democrats, we see the same conflict, but with new names. In this way, it takes our minds much longer to realize that we are reading about ourselves, and rather we have the freedom to see human character and issues for their face value and begin to construct opinions and thoughts without raising defenses our seeing ourselves mirrored in the text. 

This is great for teens and young adults because it gives them the opportunity to work through issues in a semi-distanced manner. It is even more ideal for cross-cultural classrooms because students aren’t forced to wade through cultural nuances and abnormalities to get to the message. 

At the same time, I feel that the goal of several dystopian novels is to highlight an issue or problem that society in general faces and force the reader to figure out what they think about it. The Hunger Games looks at the issue of inequality from the government down. Who is going to argue that that problem actually exists in our world? But by magnifying the maltreatment of citizens and renaming factions, the reader is able to make decisions on their own without having to keep allegiance to their political party or social class. The Maze Runner looks at the issue of using people for future advancement, without much care to their well-being. Divergent raises issues of what it would take in the world to eliminate war and fighting. It also looks at how our world would function if we classified people according to what they valued most and isolated that value.

So, in conclusion, here are my top 5 reasons to use dystopian literature in the ESL/EFL classroom: 


Keep the Conversation Going!
What do you think? Have you used, or do you plan to use dystopian literature with your language students? What other pros, or possible cons, have you thought through? 



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