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ELT Journal Advance Access published June 21, 2016

Report from Middle-Earth: fan fiction


tasks in the EFL classroom
Shannon Sauro and Bjrn Sundmark

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This study builds upon work in task-based language teaching and literary studies
to explore the use of fan fiction as a pedagogical tool in a technology-enhanced
university foreign language class. A task-based fan fiction project, The Blogging
Hobbit, modelled on blog-based role-play storytelling found in online media
fandoms, was carried out in a first-year university course for undergraduate
learners of English who were also training to become secondary school English
teachers in Sweden. Students were organized into groups, in which each
member was responsible for voicing a single character from Tolkiens novel The
Hobbit in a blog-based collaborative role-play of a missing moment from the
story. Findings revealed that carefully sequenced collaborative fan fiction could
facilitate analysis of a literary text, learners use of creative writing techniques,
and language development, particularly at the level of lexis.

Introduction This study investigates the use of fan fiction tasks to foster literary and
language learning in a technology-enhanced university foreign language
class with a literature focus. This fandom task-based project was designed
to bridge the language and literature divide in language teaching (Paran
2008). It also addressed the concern that task-based teaching often does
not account for more creative use of language (Cook 2000), such as
that found in online media fandoms, defined here as online groups of
networks of fans that support the creation and sharing of fan-generated
content (Sauro 2014).

Task-based language Task-based language teaching (TBLT) is a language teaching framework in


teaching and the which tasks, i.e. goal-based activities that necessitate the use of language,
advanced language serve as the foundation for structuring and assessing a language course
learner (Van den Branden 2006). In much of the TBLT literature, such tasks
often reflect both pedagogical goals (for example the form-focused editing
tasks of Pica, Kang, and Sauro 2006) and work-related goals (for example,
vocational tasks) that learners might encounter within or beyond the
classroom. However, such work-oriented tasks often do not tap into the
creative manipulation of language form and use of language to generate
fictional realities, hallmarks of what Cook (ibid.) describes as language
play. Adeptness at language play underlies a language users ability to
appreciate and produce creative works of fiction and may therefore be

ELT Journal; doi:10.1093/elt/ccv075  Page 1 of 10


The Author 2016. Published by Oxford University Press; all rights reserved.
considered a facet of advanced language proficiency. As Sauro (ibid.)
argues in her description of technology-mediated tasks produced by online
fan groups (for example the writing and performance of parody songs that
retell the story of a particular text, etc.), such playful tasks simultaneously
draw upon and facilitate the development of advanced language
proficiency. Fan fiction is one particular type of creative task found in
online fandoms, which lends itself to a task-based approach for advanced
language learners.

Fan fiction and Fan fiction is understood to be writing that continues, interrupts,
language learning reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have
already written about (Jamison 2013: 17). It is often written by fans of

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a particular piece of media, though one does not have to be a fan of
something to write fan fiction of it. The reading, writing, and discussion
of fan fiction has been spurred by online fan fiction archives and
communities, the most prominent of these being FanFiction.net (founded
in 1998) and Archive of our Own (launched in 2009), together hosting
several million fan works in more than 50 languages, though English
dominates both archives.
Within the field of applied linguistics, case studies of second language
speakers have documented individuals independent and non-classroom-
based writing of fan fiction to develop written language skills (for example
Black 2009), to confront and examine social issues they face in their local
context (for example Leppnen 2008) or to index their multilingual and
transnational identities to their audience (for example Leppnen 2007). Such
research illustrates how fan fiction can be used to support different aspects
of independent language learning. Fan fiction, which includes a wide ranges
of genres and styles of stories written in response to particular texts or media,
requires careful attention to both the literary and linguistic conventions of
the source material (for example plot, theme, character, characters dialects,
speech style, word choice, etc.) for the purpose of successfully transforming
existing stories and characters into something new, yet recognizably
familiar. In this manner, fan fiction-related tasks allow for the bridging of
the language and literature divide in English language teaching, an issue not
limited to, but very much present in, ELT in Sweden.

Bridging the The divide between language and literature learning can be found
language and in university foreign language programmes, with the early years of a
literature divide programme focused on language development and the later years on the
study of literature (see Paran op.cit. for an overview). Within ELT and
foreign language education in general, there is an interest in bridging
this long-standing division (Paran op.cit.). This is motivated in part by
the recognition of the range of analytical and rhetorical tools language
learners can gain from the analysis of literary texts, which they can apply
to the reading and writing of other genres (Chan 1999).
Within Sweden, the language and literature divide can be found in
English teacher education programmes, which provide students with
training and coursework in the analysis of English grammar and sound
systems as well as coursework on the analysis of English language literary
texts. Although training in these two areas is present, it rarely occurs

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within the same course, thus continuing to perpetuate the divide between
them. However tasks that require close reading and analysis of the themes
and language of literary texts (for the production of an original creative
work that reimagines or reinterprets the original) provide one way in
which language and literary learning can be bridged in the same class. In
addition, as Chan (ibid.) illustrates in his series of literary tasks, carefully
sequenced activities that include reflective components around analysis
and response to a literary text are useful for fostering language awareness
through literary analysis. Thus, fan fiction writing tasks that also require
learners to reflect upon language and literary choices could be ideal for
bridging the language and literary learning divide in an English literature
class for language learners.

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Research question Accordingly, the research question guiding this study was as follows: Can
fan fiction be incorporated into the curriculum of an advanced English
language class to support both literary and language learning?

The study This study was carried out during a course given by the researchers on
Participants teaching literature. The course was required for students on the teacher
education programme at a Swedish university who were specializing
in teaching English at secondary school level. The participants were 55
students, self-organized into 12 groups of 36. Each group member was
responsible for selecting a single character from Tolkiens The Hobbit, and
writing at least six paragraphs from that characters perspective in a blog-
based collaborative role-play of a missing moment from the story.

The Hobbit Since the overarching goal of the courses in the teacher education
programme is to provide resources and materials for teaching at the
secondary level, The Blogging Hobbit was designed to serve as a possible
model of tasks that these teaching candidates could use with their own
future students. J. R. R. Tolkiens The Hobbit,1 one of several young adult
books taught periodically on this course, was selected as the source text
for two reasons. First, the course coincided with the release of the second
of Peter Jacksons Hobbit films, making it potentially more current and
relatable to students. Second, The Hobbit is already the source text for
much online fan fiction, suggesting it would lend itself to a fan fiction-
inspired project.

Tasks and task The design, sequencing, and implementation of this project drew upon
sequence multiple approaches to TBLT, and began with a needs analysis (Long
and Crookes 1992). This incorporated prior observations of practising
secondary school English teachers as well as an investigation of the
learning outcomes that guided their teaching at the secondary level. These
curriculum goals included the following:
1 that pupils develop English skills for reading literature and other fiction
in spoken, dramatized and filmed forms (Skolverket 2011: 34);
2 that pupils be able to produce oral and written narratives (Skolverket
ibid.: 35); and
3 that pupils be able to use fiction, non-fiction and other forms of culture
as a source of knowledge, insight and pleasure (Skolverket 2013: 6).

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The needs analysis allowed for the identification of real-world target
tasks (for example scaffolding of the fiction writing process, collaborative
storytelling) that these future educators would perform or guide their
own students in completing. Thus, while the primary task used in The
Blogging Hobbit project was modelled on one of the fandom tasks
described by Sauro (op.cit.), a collaborative role-play story using a blog,
the structure of the task and the sequencing of sub-tasks were designed
to provide support for the writing process and language-learning goals
(Van den Branden op.cit.). As a result, the overarching project consisted
of two sub-tasks and two assessments: the creation of a story outline
and map, the collaborative story itself in which each student wrote from
the perspective of a particular character from The Hobbit, an individual

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reflective paper, and a group oral presentation.
The first sub-task, the outline and map, was based upon the concept of
task-dependency (Nunan 2004). It was devised to facilitate the narrative
writing process of the second task while also requiring careful reading
and discussion of The Hobbit to plan a story that fitted within the greater
narrative. The second sub-task, the collaborative blog-based story, was
specifically designed to facilitate a focus on form, since capturing the voice
and perspective of an existing character asked students to pay attention to
and mimic the lexical choices, speech style, or grammatical idiosyncrasies
of their character. Although all groups were required to write fan fiction of
a preselected text, they were granted autonomy at the level of plot choice,
rating, theme, character selection, literary devices used, and point of view.
Finally, in order to assess learning outcomes and processes, students
completed an individual reflective paper and a group oral presentation.
This required reflection on the learning that took place (Nunan ibid.), and
asked them to consider the literary and linguistic skills that were or could
be developed through this task-based approach. The questions guiding the
reflective paper were the following:
1 What did the collaborative role-play writing process require you to pay
careful attention to?
2 Describe at least two linguistic features of your characters style of
speaking or thinking that you were careful to include. Give an example
from both The Hobbit and your own writing to show this connection.
3 In what way can creative writing like this influence the development of
reading, writing, listening, and conversation skills in English?

Results Of the 12 groups that began the course, 11 completed the full project,
generating nearly 50,000 words of fiction, with stories ranging in length
from 2,067 words to 7,932 words. Altogether, the data collected and
analysed for this study include 11 complete blog-based stories, individual
reflective essays (n = 51), and notes from the 11 group oral presentations.
Consent was secured in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the
Swedish Research Council.

Developing literary Literary learning can here best be understood as literary competence, by
competence which we mean both a critical understanding of literature and a practical
ability to produce literature (Kern 2000). The teaching was built on the
premise that literary competence involves both critical and creative skills.

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Hence, the students first studied and engaged critically with the primary
text, then used this theoretical knowledge practically in the creation of
their own literary texts.
Plot, setting, characterization, narration, theme, language style, and genre
are all standard concepts when analysing fictional texts. Here, they serve
not only to help the students pick apart and understand how the primary
text works, but to inspire their own writing. Only by interrogating and
employing these concepts was it possible for the students to successfully
complete the task of producing a missing episode to supplement the
original text. Consequently, the main questions they had to be able to
answer were the following:

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Where can new actions be introduced into the existing story without
disrupting the plot trajectory?
What topics and themes are characteristic of Tolkienian fantasy?
Which stylistic markers are typical of his writing and how is the text
narrated?
How are places evoked and characters described?
One student wrote I think that it is challenging and fun to imitate the
voice of an author, and I felt rather inspired by Tolkien in this project.
Imitating is a way to re-fill ones bank of ideas and repertoire of
expressions (Student 19).
The second literary objective of the course asked students to write a
fictional narrative using different creative writing techniques. In a broad
sense, familiarity with a specific genre and trying to emulate its stylistic
and generic conventions is in itself a creative writing technique. By
consciously reducing the near endless options a writer is faced with when
given a completely free choice, he or she is forced to replicate and adapt,
thus giving the creative impulse direction and focus. Just two examples of
many such in-class activities based on features found in the primary text
were workshops on maps and verses (in the form of riddles and songs).
Maps are important in Tolkiens creation of setting and verses are part of
his literary style. By paying attention to such signal characteristics of The
Hobbit, the students were able to incorporate both maps and verses in
their own texts in productive and inspiring ways, while staying faithful to
the original.
Hence, in the student-produced fan fiction entitled The Mirkwood
mysteries, the students writing the story decided to revisit the use of
riddles by having one character track down and seek revenge on another
for escaping with his ring, and use riddles to threaten him:
It is lying still, yet it spins around
It tries to move but its body is bound
All because of the precious it stole
Fool us again and they eats it whole.
More common than riddles, however, was the use of song. In The Hobbit,
Tolkien incorporates several songs to provide characterization or further

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background on the characters motivations. Several songs served similar
functions in the collaborative fan fiction. However, one groups story,
Down in a hole, featured multiple songs sung by an original character,
the witch Hezelma, which were used to ground the fan fiction in the
larger narrative by foreshadowing later plot points in The Hobbit:
Through coal-black sludge, in the thicket you will trudge
With sticky feet, so sticky feet
A safe road you allege, dwarves soon hanging by a thread
Seeing hairy legs, little Ori begs!
In the darkness you shall dance, through a pack of monsters prance.

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They cant see you, they cant see you
But the thing that you carry is not all that merry
Not keen to linger, seeks its masters finger
He will see it retrieved, you will all be deceived
The Mirkwood will impede you.
One student in this group explained that he felt this song would cohere
with the rest of the book since it already contains many songs and
that they would be divinations ... intended to increase the feeling of
uneasiness you are meant to get when you read the text (Student 18). In
this manner, this original character enabled the student to experiment
with matching the style of storytelling (legends told through song) that
Tolkien used throughout his text.
If knowledge of a particular genre and then of a specific work can be
seen as the basis of the creative writing model we are putting forth here,
we then move on towards familiarity with fan fiction communities and
their practices. By looking at existing narratives that have been inspired
by The Hobbit and produced in a fan fiction context, the students can
examine which conventions are at work. The particular writing techniques
employed in these fan discourse communities can then be picked up quite
easily by students.
Finally, while literary knowledge and imitation of a particular text here is
seen as a starting point, and familiarity with fan discourse communities
provides additional framing and inspiration, the writing process in
itself is further supported by being carried out in groups of three to six
students, with each student making individual contributions to the larger
group story. Thus, each student writes in a socially situated context, to
use Kerns (op.cit.) terminology. This means that the student negotiates,
discusses, and develops her or his contribution with the other members
of the group. This could be seen as hampering individual contributions,
but the results show that the group generally exerted a positive and
stimulating influence on the individual writers. One student made the
following comment:
I have become better at writing with other people. When doing this,
teamwork is essential. You have to adjust yourselves to your group

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members and they to you so that your separate writing styles feel both
like they match each other and that they are distinguished and tailored
to fit the writers respective characters. Otherwise the group dynamics
between the characters will seem dull and they will all seem alike [sic]
one another. This has made me increasingly aware of other peoples
writing styles and different ways of voicing characters and made me
reflect on what sort of things I like and do not like when it comes to
writing. (Student 18)
The same student stressed the benefits of writing within the contexts of a
literary work and a fan fiction framework.
When you write in the fashion we did, you start out from what other

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people have written before you, and you and your group members
cannot really plan the story, at least not as much as you might have
done had you written something like this on your own. I noticed how
this makes for very spontaneous plotting, and how collaborative writing
in this way can be a great tool for opening ones mind for other ways of
plotting and prevent writers from getting writers block.

Developing Here, language learning is defined as the development of linguistic


linguistic competence in English, and encompasses the development or mastery
competence of discrete units of language. This operationalization is in keeping with
Long and Crookes (op.cit.) approach to TBLT, which recognizes the
use of pedagogic tasks that draw students attention to form during task
completion.
In their reflective papers, the majority identified ways in which the
collaborative fan fiction task enhanced their language learning at the level
of lexis. In particular, several pointed out that mimicking the language of
The Hobbit required them to understand and use words that were more
old-fashioned or formal than they were accustomed to using:
this writing activity has influenced my language skills . During
this project I have been able to expand my repertoar [sic] of English
words which are not so commonly used in everyday English anymore.
(Student 14)
Lexical development was recognized by a range of students, including
those who identified as more proficient in English. They found that
imitating the writing style of Tolkien allowed them to expand their
vocabulary particularly with respect to adjectives and adverbs, which they
observed to be characteristic of Tolkiens writing. Some students who
identified as non-readers of fiction described how this task in particular
led to the development of vocabulary or grammar knowledge useful for
creative writing:
I am not that much of a reader of fiction compared to others and I feel
that my vocabulary have [sic] increased when it come to creative writing.
(Student 30)
Beyond learning discrete vocabulary items, more than a third of all
students felt that the collaborative writing task improved their ability to
write in English. Most of these emphasized development in the area of

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creative writing in particular because they had little or no prior experience
of this, while others identified an improvement in overall writing fluency,
for example one student noted [a]fter a short while, the writing became
very fluent and I did not have to think too hard before writing (Student
40). In addition, a few self-identified weaker writers described an
overarching improvement in their writing accuracy, which they attributed
to the peer feedback they received during the collaborative writing process.

Connecting Since the final objective of the course was for students to develop an
literature and awareness of how literary texts could be used to support their own or their
language learning future students second language development, students awareness of
this connection was also analysed.

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Of the reflective papers, only 14 explicitly discussed a connection between
literary texts and language development. In part, this may have been due
to ambiguity of the prompt, which most students interpreted as a request
for reflection on teaching methodology as opposed to reflection on how
literary texts could facilitate their own or their future students language
development.
Of these 14, most focused on the interface between reading and writing,
and noted that in a project such as this, which required writing in the
voice of a particular character, careful reading of The Hobbit was crucial to
successfully complete the assignment:
I have not worked in this way before with reading and writing where
you tend to go back to your book like a dictionary to highlight special
features from your character. It was very important to read the book
to make the story work. It was too bad that everyone in my group
clearly didnt read it since they wrote things that wouldnt be possible
according to the book. (Student 15)
In this students case, capturing the voice of his character, who he
observed to speak in a grammatically incorrect way, required treating
The Hobbit like a dictionary or grammar book to guide his writing.
Unfortunately, he observed that his fellow group members managed to
subvert this expectation by writing their parts without reading the source
text sufficiently, resulting in a completed story that he interpreted as
improbable. In his view, successfully writing a transformative story as
required by the fan fiction project relied upon the close interface between
reading and writing.
The link between listening and writing was also identified by another
student who worked to capture in her writing her characters speech
style and agitation and turned to the audio book version of The
Hobbit:
And how it has affected my listening positively, too, is because I listened
to the audio book while I read the book, it made me understand how
certain words are pronounced and to focus on a different kind of
English. (Student 25)
The students decision to seek out the audio version of The Hobbit as a
resource for writing supported vocabulary learning at the level of meaning

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and pronunciation and provided a link between writing and speaking.
Although students were not assessed on their ability to actually speak like
their characters, knowledge of how to pronounce the unfamiliar English
of her character may have influenced her ability to talk about the project
in the group presentation or when discussing the story or the projects in
other contexts.

Conclusions and Taken together, these findings suggest that by drawing upon tenets of TBLT,
implications for the in particular the design and sequencing of sub-tasks to align with student
classroom learning needs and course goals, fan fiction and fandom activities can be
integrated into an EFL course to support literary and language learning.
The process employed in bringing fan fiction into this language classroom

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also holds implications for other practitioners interested in doing the
same. In addition to selecting fan fiction or fandom tasks that align with
curriculum goals, instructors can also look to online fan fiction archives
and resources to select source texts that lend themselves to the production
of fan fiction writing. For instance, consulting the fan fiction archive,
Archive of our Own, reveals contemporary and classical texts and media
that more easily lend themselves to fan fiction writing (for example
there are more than 4,000 fan works for The Hobbit but less than ten
for Conrads Heart of Darkness). It is also helpful to select a source text
with ample multimedia and supporting material to increase student
interest and to which students can look for both ideas and assistance
in understanding their story and character. As we found in this study,
students who did not normally read books found it motivating and helpful
to view the Peter Jackson films, including the second Hobbit film, which
premiered during the project.
While fan fiction tasks such as these may not tap into the real-world
language goals of all students, in the present state of online English
language learning and use, no set of tasks can be expected to reflect the
needs and goals of all learners. For this reason, it is worth considering
a potentially wider range of online tasks to serve as models for our own
technology-mediated classroom teaching, including the kinds of playful
tasks found in online fandom.
Final version received October 2015

Note Cook, G. 2000. Language Play, Language Learning.


1 The Hobbit is a fantasy novel first published in 1937, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
which takes place in Middle-Earth, a world inhabited Jamison, A. 2013. Why fic? in A. Jamison (ed.). Fic:
by dwarves, elves, humans, hobbits, and other species. Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World. Dallas, TX:
Smart Pop Books.
Kern, R. 2000. Literacy and Language Teaching.
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The authors
University Press.
Shannon Sauro is Associate Professor of Applied
Paran, A. 2008. The role of literature in instructed
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Pica, T., H. Kang, and S. Sauro. 2006. Information

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computer-mediated second language acquisition,
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Email: shannon.sauro@mah.se
models for technology-enhanced language learning
in M. Gonzlez-Lloret and L. Ortega (eds.). Bjrn Sundmark is Professor of English at Malm
Technology-mediated TBLT: Researching Technology and University, Sweden, where he teaches and researches
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Skolverket. 2011. Curriculum for the Compulsory BookbirdJournal of International Childrens Literature
School, Preschool Class and the Leisure Time Centre and a member of the Swedish Arts Council.
2011. Stockholm: Skolverket. Email: bjorn.sundmark@mah.se

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