Unit 2: Using Literature to Develop Sensitivity to Life’s Values


This unit’s focus is on the use of children’s literature to expose students to real-life values such as honesty, fair play, patriotism, love and bravery as presented through storylines, plots, settings, themes and characters. It does this through classification and co-operative exploration of core values in literary texts. This unit should also help students share their notions of the values, virtues and personality traits, both positive and negative, that are found in literary texts as well as in real life. The unit therefore aims to help you expose your students to diverse ways of exploring the language and elements of literature to promote core values amongst them.

Unit outcomes

Upon completion of this unit you will be able to:


  • introduce literature to JSS students as representations of the values we prize in real-life experiences and that they can identify with,

  • enable students to read literature critically to assess how real-life values are expressed in literary texts, and

  • help JSS students enjoy discovering the real-life values brought out through the language of literature as expressed through storylines, plots, settings and so on.



Cooperative learning:

Learning based on students working together and assisting one another to complete a task or learning item.


Learning by discovery and investigation.

Value system:

The system of moral, traditional and cultural activities valued by a community or society.

Literary texts:

These are samples of fiction and non-fiction books that are used for educational purposes. Literary texts are meant to be read for enjoyment as well as learning and language development.


The central or main idea that is discussed in a novel, play or poem. It is what the work is about; that is, the major message(s) it portrays.


The totality of the environment of a story. It refers to the period, place, atmosphere and background of the story.


The particular qualities of characters as brought out by narration, description, dialogues and speeches in the literary text.


The organisation of the events in a literary work.

Teacher support information

Very often teachers, in their anxiety to complete the syllabus, treat literary texts as comprehension passages and focus on dealing with textual questions and answers. A sad consequence of this is that students miss an opportunity to read literature for pleasure or to develop their language competence by exposure to the special uses of vocabulary and grammar found in these texts. Although as teachers we should encourage students to read literary texts in detail, the objective of this exercise should be to make the students discover for themselves the unique and beautiful ways in which emotions and values are represented in literature. This can be done by engaging students in collaborative classroom activities that make them read such texts not just to collect a list of factual details, but to understand and appreciate the themes and messages behind the text. This unit will try to give you some strategies for engaging students in meaningful literary appreciation tasks.

Case study

Case study

Teacher Mohammed Kudu of a Government Secondary School in an African nation noticed a caption in a senior master’s office that read, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” He determined that in his next poetry lesson, he was going to help his students enjoy the experience of reading poems before he made them look for the wisdom in them. He quickly translated this idea into classroom reality. He chose poems from their school collections with underlying experiences that were familiar to the students; some of these were folksongs, dance poems and stories. The students enjoyed the new experience thoroughly; they especially liked turning some of the poems into songs, singing and dancing to the poems and modelling characters in the poems. The opportunity to personalise the poems also made them aware of the values expressed in the poems — honesty, courage, love of fellow men and so on. Mr Kudu discovered that just using a simple strategy such as this gave students the motivation to read poetry and discover for themselves the feelings, values and wisdom expressed in the poems they liked in the lesson. After this experience, the students asked Mr Kudu to give them more poems to read at home to prepare for more enjoyable activities in the next class.

Points to ponder

  1. Do you encourage your students to dramatise the poems in their course through song and dance? What class management problems do you anticipate when using such a strategy?

  2. The experience of reading poetry in English is enhanced if students are encouraged to read or recite poems from their home language. Do you agree? What reasons would you give to support your opinion?


Activity 1: Using symbols to represent values in literary texts

Activity 1

The objective of this activity is to encourage students to explore moral and social values expressed in literary texts. As you will no doubt agree, one reason we tell bedtime stories to children is to illustrate the consequences of good and bad actions performed by good and bad characters. In JSS classes, encouraging students to discover values in literary texts can be a challenging experience as students of this age group are usually impatient with adult “sermonising.”

To get students interested in discovering core values, you will probably need to personalise their experience of reading literature. One good way of doing this is to challenge your students to portray values through symbols (e.g., well-known personalities from your country/society/the world) and to support their choice of symbol with sound reasons.

To begin the activity, have the students suggest a set of abstract nouns that represent values (e.g., honesty, cowardice, bravery). Then ask them to think of any person they know who represents one of these, say, honesty. Collect their responses and put them on the board. Then put up a poster (or project a picture of the one given in Resource 1a) showing popular personalities and objects and ask the students, working in pairs, to select from the list of values (positive and negative) in Resource 1b the ones they think would fit the personalities. Each pair must also give reasons why they think a particular person adequately represents that value. Have a class discussion on their responses to explore what the term values means to us, and how well-known personalities with those values inspire us to live our lives.

Now put the students in small groups and have them read a popular story from your culture (written in English) or an abridged version of a classic English story (some examples of popular tales from African contexts are given in Resource 1d).

As the students read, tell them to classify the characters and events in the texts of their choice in terms of the values that they represent, using Resource 1c: Classification of characters and events in terms of values as a guide.

Ask the groups to share their classifications with the other groups and to note areas of agreement and disagreement and the reasons for these judgements. Some core values, virtues or character traits that should emerge from the discussion are loyalty, self-control, compassion, tolerance, firmness, respect, responsibility and so on. You could even let them talk about negative traits such as selfishness, cruelty, lying, cheating, etc., as examples of character traits one should avoid. Ask each group to choose one character who represents a core value and prepare a short skit to demonstrate how the character displayed that value. They can modify the story they have read, or even base their skit on an imaginary event. Give them a day or two to prepare their skits, and then have class presentations. To make the students feel more rewarded for their efforts, you could invite other teachers and/or the principal to watch the skits and ask them to guess the core value being portrayed.


Activity 2: Exploring values expressed in familiar tales and folklore

Activity 2

This activity is based on three conceptual frameworks. The first concept is that of linking home, school and community to promote the teaching of core values in literature. The second is to engage students in co-operative learning activities such as class projects that bring out from literature texts the values needed for life goals. The third is to expose students to the experience of critically assessing literary texts, both oral and written. This guides the students in critically assessing the productions of the group projects.

You can begin this activity with a class discussion on favourite folktales from your students’ culture(s). This will be an opportunity for you to introduce your students to folktales and the concepts of setting, plot and characters, and how themes can be used to explore life values. The discussion should also focus on how our traditional tales all have certain morals and values that we are meant to absorb and adhere to in our own lives.

For the main activity, ask the students to read the passage and complete the tasks in Resource 2: Exploring life’s values through folktales.

If possible, invite a traditional storyteller from your community to present to the class traditional stories, songs and poems with specific values. You can then help the students to translate these traditional folksongs and folklore into English on either a chalkboard or cardboard. See Resource 3 for an example of a folksong translated from Yoruba to English.

  • Ask the students to identify the traditional values brought out in the folklore, poems and folksongs (see samples in Resource 3).

  • The students should work in groups to dramatise the traditional values brought out in the presentations and enact the scene in class.

  • Then ask the students to collect traditional folklore and poems from their family members and community elders and present them to the class in their own language and, if possible, translated into English. They should also highlight the core values represented in the folktales and poems.

  • Each group’s project should be displayed on the bulletin board. The groups assess each other’s work using the assessment grid in Resource 4.


Activity 3: Personalising values expressed in literature

Activity 3

For this activity, students will learn to evaluate a literary text in terms of its characters, and to do a project on a particular value represented by a character in the text. For the activity they can read a storybook from their school collection or any other book recommended in their syllabus.

Put the students in pairs and have each pair read a literary text. The text could be a work of fiction, a play or even a poem. The students’ task is to follow the development of a particular character and decide what value or values he or she represents. Encourage the students to provide reasons for their decision and to note them down. They should also decide whether they would like to emulate the life of that character, and say why or why not.

  • To make the feedback session a little more interesting, have the students, working in pairs, share their responses by playing the Who Are You? game to reflect the different real-life values they would like to emulate from the story book. For example:

Student A: Who are you?

Student B: I’m the honest man in… (state the novel: e.g., The Incorruptible Judge).

Student A: What makes you say you’re honest?

Student B: I refused to take a bribe and did not steal government property.

  • The value need not necessarily be a positive one. It may be a negative value like I’m a dishonest man, which students should not emulate. The value should be examined in terms of the reasons for being dishonest and the consequences of dishonesty.

  • Students who can list the most points about the character chosen in the story are awarded the maximum score.

When the presentations are over, give the students a project on expressing values in literary texts. Each pair should make a poster on the character they have chosen to analyse or emulate. The students’ posters should be embellished with illustrations of the character, some quotes from the text that illustrate the particular characteristic, the students’ own comments and so on.

Unit summary


In this unit you learned how to help your students realise how core values are reflected in literary texts. Students can be encouraged to adopt positive value systems found in the literary texts. Books that present value conflicts clearly lend themselves to discussions, and students can assess their own beliefs and decide which ones to accept or reject. The unit also aimed to help students evaluate and analyse literary texts in terms of characters, setting and plot. A third objective of this unit has been to help students personalise the experience of reading literature by also referring to texts from their own cultures.



You can determine the success or otherwise of this unit using the following questions:

  • How well were the students able to identify with some positive value systems at the end of this unit?

  • How successful were the planning, organisation and execution of the various group activities and projects?

  • What could have been done better and how?



Which of the following positive life values were your students able to bring out as they worked through the activities in this unit? Mention the literary text, characters and events that brought out the following values:

  • Honesty

  • Hard work

  • Truthfulness

  • Purity


Resource 1a: Poster representing values and virtues

Resource 1a

Resource 1b: List of values to match poster

Resource 1b

Positive traits: Honesty, loyalty, self-control, compassion, tolerance, firmness, respect, responsibility, bravery, kindness, sacrifice.

Negative traits: Treachery, cowardice, greed, lust, disobedience, pride, dishonesty, intolerance, cunning.

Resource 1c: Classification of characters and events in terms of values

Resource 1c

Literature, in its exploration of actions, events and characters, presents a variety of value systems. Children can judge their own beliefs against the values expressed in the literature books.

Ask your students to classify characters and events as presented in the box below. The students should then write a paragraph or two on the value systems they have classified.

Characters with positive value systems: (characters who display the following qualities or are):

Honest — brave — leadership qualities — respect — adventurous — bold — persistent

Events with positive value systems displayed in literature:

Adventure — morally acceptable love affair — selfless service — heroic deeds — restoration to life — rescue — success — happy ending

Characters with negative value systems (characters who display the following qualities or are):

Wicked — oppressive — exploitative — cowardly — disobedient — rude — corrupt — stupid — hot tempered — selfish

Events with negative value systems displayed in literature:

Disappointment — social stigma — blackmail — death — failure — punishment — destruction — illegal deed — infidelity — tragic or sad ending

Resource 1d: Example of literary texts

Resource 1d

Below are some value systems that can be identified in some literary texts used at the JSS level in Nigeria. You can use these to get your students started on writing a page or two about the characters in the books. You can develop similar lists of value systems for the children’s literature of your own country.


Title of the text

Major character in the text

Value system brought out in the life of the character


Echoes of Hard Times

Jide Ojo

Wisdom and perseverance


The Incorruptible Judge

Ajala Oni

Brilliance, honesty, obedience, diligence and discipline

Zaynab Alikali

The Virtuous Woman

Nana Ai

Brilliance, strong work ethic, chastity, cool-headedness, maturity, honesty and obedience.

Agbo Areo

Mother’s Choice

Ade Ogidi Junior

Intelligence, talent, sportsmanship, and evils of lack of self-control, alcoholism and drug addiction.

These value systems can also form a basis for further reading, role modelling, dramatisation, critical analysis, discussions, oral presentations or debates, depending on the language focus.

Resource 2: Exploring life’s values through folktales

Resource 2

You probably know several folktales. Folktales are stories that are passed on by tradition; and many legends are passed from one generation to the next primarily by oral storytelling. Perhaps you have heard some tales from your country from your own family. Sometimes you can find several versions of the same story, like The Lucky Ones, below. Read the folktale and study the analysis that follows it.

The lucky ones

Many years ago, there were thousands of donkeys. They lived on plains and grasslands all over the world. Men caught large numbers of them and made them carry heavy loads. The donkeys did not get enough to eat, although they worked very hard. Many of them died, but the men did not worry. They could easily go out and catch more of the poor animals. After a time, the donkeys that were still free got very worried.

“The hunters will catch all of us,” they said, “we must go to see the hare. He is a wise animal. He’ll help us.”

The hare felt very sorry for the donkeys. When their leader came to see him, he said, “I will try to help you. Bring all your friends to my house in the forest. I’ve thought of a plan to make you look different. If you do what I say, the hunters won’t know you. They’ll think that all donkeys have gone forever.”

The donkeys were very pleased to hear this. “Tell us more about your plan,” they said. But the hare answered, “Bring all your friends to the forest tomorrow. I’ll tell you then.”

As the donkeys went away, he shouted, “Make sure that all your friends come.”

Early the next morning they went back to the hare’s house with all their friends. He was waiting for them. He had a big brush and a bucket full of white paint. The donkeys didn’t like the smell of the paint. One of them said, “I hope you are not going to paint us. I don’t want paint all over me.” “It will help to save you,” the hare replied. “I’m going to paint white stripes all over you. When I finish, the men won’t know what you are.”

He dipped his brush into the paint and shouted, “Come on! Who’ll be first?” But no one wanted to be first.

Soon he got angry. “I’ll give you one more chance,” he said. “Do what I say or I’ll never help you again.”

Then one donkey walked forward and said, “I don’t want the hunters to catch me. I don’t want to carry heavy loads. I want to be free. Paint me, Mr Hare.”

Very carefully, the hare painted white stripes all over the donkey’s body. When he finished, the donkey looked very different. The other donkeys were very surprised.

“He doesn’t look like a donkey now. He’s much more beautiful,” they cried. Soon they were all pushing forward, saying, “Paint me, Mr Hare! Paint me, too!”

The hare told them to come to him one at a time. He worked very hard and soon only half the paint was left. One donkey who was still waiting shouted “You’ll use all the paint before it’s my turn, Mr Hare. Please paint me next.” He tried to push to the front. The hare said, “Don’t push. There’s enough paint for everyone.” But he didn’t speak quite soon enough.

All the donkeys began to push. One of them knocked the bucket over. In a moment, all the paint had poured out on the ground. Not one drop was left.

The donkeys knew that he would never forgive them. They began to walk away slowly. But they didn’t all go together.

The hare was very, very angry. He threw down his brush. “You foolish donkeys!” he cried. “I’m not going to help you any more. Get away from my house!”

Those who had new coats with white stripes went one way. They were laughing and talking happily. Those who hadn’t been painted went the other way, crying sadly. They knew that they would soon be caught by the hunters. You can still hear the sad cries of the few donkeys that are left. Often they stand tied to a post, waiting to carry a heavy load.

The others rode the plains and grassland, still wearing their beautiful striped coats. They are now called zebras, which some people say means lucky ones.

This folktale can be used to explore life values. Compare the life values that you drew from The Lucky Ones with the ones presented below. The life values are drawn from the setting, plot, themes and various characters in the story.

Components of the folktale

Real-life values brought out

Setting: grasslands all over the world

The grasslands provide no hiding place for the donkeys, thus giving room for the hunters to dominate

Plot: the storyline presents the problem faced by the donkeys and their concern over it, the solution offered by the hare (painting their bodies with white stripes) and the origin of the zebra

  • Wisdom of the hare
  • Concern of the donkeys
  • The hare as a problem solver

Theme: the main messages in the story:

  • Oppression
  • Problem and solution
  • Luck versus ill-luck
  • Sadness and joy
  • Anger of the hare
  • Rowdiness of some donkeys
  • Hard-working hare
  • Impatience of some donkeys


  • Major character is Mr Hare
  • Other characters are the donkeys
  • Minor character is the donkey that poured out the paint
  • Determination of the hare to assist the donkeys
  • Foolishness of some donkeys
  • The donkey that pours out the paint is the spoiler


Resource 3: Folksong translated from Yoruba to English

Resource 3

Omo to mo ya re loju o, osi yo tamo naa pa 2x

The child that looks down on his mother, poverty will overwhelm him 2x

Iya to jiya po lori re, baba to jiya po lori re

The mother that suffers so much for you, the father that suffers so much for you

Omo to mo ya re loju, osi yo tomo naa pa.

The child that looks down on his mother, poverty will overwhelm him.

Description of the traditional values represented in the folksong

The traditional values portrayed in the above song (translated into English) are primarily those of respect for one’s mother and father, and the perseverance of the parents as they raise their child. The message is that any child who does not recognise his or her parents’ contribution and sacrifice is welcoming poverty into his or her life. It is a song normally sung in Yoruba-land to motivate children to love and take care of their parents.

Resource 4: Assessment grid for literary texts

Resource 4

The following is a grid for assessing any literary text. It contains certain guidelines that should help students to analyse and evaluate a literary text.



Guideline for analysis


The storyline: what happens in the story or novel

Sequential, logical, clearly defined, well linked


Where and when the story takes place

Clearly described, relevant, appropriate, real/imaginary


The main message or underlying idea of the literary text

Well presented and clearly brought out in the text


The people, real or imaginary, whose lives are described

Well portrayed, well rounded (i.e., given recognisable human attributes), distinctions between major and minor characters

Style of writing

Use of words and sentence structures

Words well chosen, ideas well arranged, language easy to comprehend and reflects real-life use, use of metaphors

Real-life values represented in the text

Human virtues and personality traits expressed through the characters

Positive and negative traits, reflected in the themes, setting, plot, etc.

Teacher question and answer


Question: Can the procedures used in this unit for analysing the sample texts be used to analyse all literary texts and other genres?

Answer: Almost all literary texts written for children or young adults lend themselves well to this kind of analysis. When choosing literary texts, you should therefore remember that the texts must be appropriate to the language, age and ability of the students. Most of the literary texts to be used at this level should be abridged copies and supplementary readers. So, for example, when we ask students to read texts like Great Expectations, Macbeth, The Merchant of Venice or Robinson Crusoe, we are not asking them to read the unabridged copies of the texts, but rather the simplified versions that are not more than 100 pages long. This is because most children do not have the same understanding as adults do of the more subtle language functions of literature — irony, sarcasm, innuendo, etc. — and how these contribute to the theme.