By the end of this lesson, you will be able to:

I.        Define literature,

ii.       Identify the types of literature, and

iii.      Discuss the importance of literature in our lives.

What is Literature?

Literature can be defined as the representation of human experience, or a representation of human experience, through beautiful or appropriate language, so as to create a work of art having a permanent value. This representation of human experience is depicted in drama, prose and in poetry which are the genres of literature.  Literature is often seen as written works of art. This means that anything we read can be called literature.  Things we read include our textbooks, storybooks, instructions on how to use the gadgets that we buy, the dosage of medicine written on the bottle or packet, advertisements  on billboards,  notices  on the school notice board, and writings  on even cars and buses.

They are described as works because certain people wrote them. Someone wrote the text you are reading now, someone wrote the stories you have read, the manufacturer of the medicine wrote the dosage on the bottle or packet, and so on.

In addition, literary works are called works of art because they have beauty. The beauty is in the way the works are structured.  Poems, for example, have lines arranged in special ways, and a number of these lines make a stanza. The beauty is also seen in the use of language.  There are proverbs and wise sayings that we find thought-provoking or simply amusing or both. Don’t you smile when you hear a proverb such as:

“If no one will praise him, the lizard that had jumped off the tall iroko tree will praise himself by nodding”?

The essential thing that these literary pieces do is to pass on information.  They give information about our culture; that is, the totality of our way of life.  Our  culture  includes  everything  that identifies  a  group   as  a  specific  group  of  people.  It includes the language we speak, the occupations we engage in, how we marry, how we treat our children, the kind of training we give them, even, according to some writers, how we die.

How, for example, do cultures in which cloth weaving is done pass on this trade to the younger generation?  It  is  through  telling  the  younger  generation  how  to  do  the  weaving.  If your father weaves, he will tell you how to handle the equipment. He will also guide you through the spoken word and by example to weave. In cultures where there is reading and writing, the process to go through when you weave may be written down.  It then becomes written literature.  If it is not written  down  and  is  passed  on  from  one  generation  to  another,  it  is  usually  called  the  oral literature of the people.

So you see, literature passes on information from one generation to generation.

Apart from giving information, these writings affect our emotions.  This  means  that  when  we listen  to,  or  read  some  literature,  we  feel happy; others make us sad,  or make us have other feelings  such as anger or pride.

Imagine that you come from Akwamufie.  And then, one day, you read the story of Asameni. Asameni was the man who made the governor of the Gold Coast, at the time, run along the beach from the Christianborg Castle to the James Fort, some kilometres away along the beach of Accra. You know, he went to buy a gun from the castle. Then he asked to be given a few bullets to try the gun.  When he was given the bullet, he loaded the gun.  And then he pointed the gun at the seller.

You can imagine what happened next, can’t you.  If you hailed from Akwamufie, what will you feel when you hear such a story?

Of course, literature also records our thoughts.  It tells what we think  about life and living, what we  believe  and  why  we  believe  in  those  things,  what  we  consider  as  the good  life,  what we consider as acceptable or unacceptable ways of living, and so on. Many families know herbs that can be used in curing malaria.  How did they get to know this? Someone had passed it on to someone who also passed it on. Today, it has reached someone else who will pass it on. Perhaps later, it will be written down.  There are stories that we enjoy listening to, and which teach us lessons about life and living.  These teach us what we think about life and living in our culture. Once again, remember, if it is written down, we will call it written literature; if it is not written down, we will call it oral literature.

Literary and Non-Literary Forms of Literature

All literature can be put into two broad groups: non-literary and literary.

The Non-Literary Form

Some literature give factual information.  For example, the writing on the medicine bottle will give factual information on the dosage of the medicine for adults and children. If a child is given the dosage for an adult, the child may be hurt.  Our textbooks also give us factual information. Again, the English grammar textbook gives us factual information on the English language.  Such a  textbook  will  tell  us  that  the  words  that  specify  names  are  called  nouns,  and  we  can  see examples of nouns in the textbook.

Once again, even the non-literary form of literature is not always written; it can also be passed on by word of mouth. That is to say that your great grandparents told your grandparents; your grandparents,  in  turn,  told  your  parents;  your  parents  told  you;  you tell your children,  and  the information  is  passed  on,  in this manner,  from generation to  generation.  Much of the history of our people has been passed on by word of mouth. We have mentioned the herbs which can be used in curing malaria. If you are given that herb and you apply it as it should be applied, it will cure the malaria sickness. We can also talk about great men and women in our cultures. We can find in our history several of these great men and women.  The oral accounts of these men and women who had lived in our towns and villages are true accounts; they are the kinds of literature that we shall refer to as non-literary.

Can you mention other non-literary forms of literature that you use in school?

The Literary Form

Some other kinds of literature give us information that is not factual. The stories that we read are not always factual.  Some stories are created by the writers. These works are, therefore, referred to as imaginative works of art. They are called so because they come from the imagination of the writers. They are also called creative works of art because they are created by the writers.

All cultures have the unwritten forms of this creative works of art.  In Ghana,  most of us are familiar with Ananse stories.  They are interesting and entertain us, but also they teach us lessons about life.  They are not true stories but we know that they are valuable in teaching us to lead good lives.  These  are  the  kinds  of literature  that  we  are  referring  to  as  the  literary  kinds  of literature.

Think  about  other  literary  forms  of literature  that  you  use  in  school.  Write down two titles of such texts.

When we talk about literature as a subject, we are thinking about the literary form of literature. These include stories, plays and poems.

What literary texts are you studying in your core literature course this year?

If you are asked this question, you are required to name the poems, plays, and novels that you read for your Core Literature lessons. Remember that these poems, plays, and novels are created by certain individuals.

The Genre

What we study as literature in school are of three kinds: poetry, drama, and prose. We often refer to them as the genre, a French word which means „kind‟. That is to say that, in school, we stud y the three kinds of literature: poems, plays, and novels.  We shall discuss each of these kinds of literature in detail in another lesson.

Is every literature written?

We have another classification of literature.  We have mentioned that literature can be oral or written. However, if you look up the word „literature‟ in a dictionary, you are likely to find that it is defined only as written works of art.  This is the kind of definition that most dictionaries will give you. But literature has not always been written.

Oral Literature

Literature existed in pre-literate societies.  The  term  „pre-literate  societies‟  refers  to  societies before  reading  and  writing were introduced.  In other words, before writing was introduced into all societies, the people had poems, forms of drama and prose that were passed on by word of mouth. These are called oral or traditional literature. There still exist in our society today oral or traditional forms of literature.

The Oral Poetic Form

The word „oral‟ refers to the source and performance of the poem.  In a pre-literate society,  a poem is  originally  composed  in  the  mind  and  transmitted  by  word  of mouth.  This means that such poems are not originally written; they were simply spoken. One of the poetic forms that still go on in many parts of Ghana is the libation.  A libation is usually made during traditional family occasions, such as an „outdooring‟ or naming of a new baby.  Libations are performed during festivals as well.

When the performer of the libation does the libation he pronounces some words. The words that the linguist pronounces when he performs the libation is a form of poetry. You will find that the pronouncement follow a certain pattern. Some parts actually sound musical too. These are characteristics of a poem.  Now, the performance of the libation, especially the words that accompany the pouring of the libation is an oral tradition. It was passed on by word of mouth. It is an oral form of literature.

Another form of oral poetry is related to our funeral rites.  In many of our cultures, the women sing a sad song when a loved one dies. This is called a dirge. The words of the dirge are in the form of a poem.  This is not written.  It is not taught either.  Nobody learns to sing a particular dirge when her father or mother dies.  In fact,  if you are seen learning a dirge that you wish to sing when your mother or father, who is still alive dies, you will be considered a bad person who wishes  to  see  her  father  or  mother  die.  But then, when some loved one dies, the grief of the woman drives her to sing the dirge. This is an oral form of poetry.

Think of some other oral forms of poetry in your culture. Write down two oral poems that you know about.

The Oral Dramatic Form

There are dramatic forms, or forms that resemble play acting as well in our traditional societies. Have you witnessed a naming ceremony in any of our cultures?  The actions enacted during a naming ceremony are like play acting.  In one culture, during an „outdooring‟ ceremony, the baby being „out doored‟ is brought out of the room after the family has gathered at the forecourt of the house. The baby is placed on the bare ground. When the baby begins to cry, another woman runs out of the room and exclaims that she has found a baby. Then the mother of the baby rushes out and claims the baby. It is all more like play acting. And so are some other rites of passage, such as, the puberty rites, marriage ceremonies and funeral rites.  These are not acts that are written down. However, when the occasion arises, they are performed very well.

 Think about specific cultural rites that are very much like play acting.  Write down two of these dramatic acts.

The Oral Prose Form

It is easy to identify the stories that we are told when we are young. Most of us have enjoyed the popular Ananse (Akan), Anani (Dangme), or Yiyi (Ewe) or the spider stories. These stories were passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.  This  is  to  say  that  your  great grandmother,  perhaps,  told  your grandmother the story; she,  in turn,  told your mother, who told you the story.  You pass it on to your children, and on and on it goes. Other forms of the oral prose are myths and legends.  We shall learn about myths and legends in another lesson.


 Remember that some literature are non-literary.  For example, we learn about how our people came to live where they are today. For example, for the people of Logba in the Volta Region, the young  ones  are  taught  that  the  name  „Logba‟  derives  from  the  phrase  „gbegba‟.  This word translates into English as „crush bush‟.  „Gbegbawo‟ or „the Logba people‟ will be translated as „those who crush the bush‟.  This will be what might be called the vanguards. They lead the way, beat down the bush and make the way for others to follow to arrive at where they have settled. This is a story that all young people are told in this culture.You see, this one is a true account and is the kind of literature we should describe as non-literary.


Some of the oral prose forms are rather short. They are not as long as a story, but they help us understand our life and living.  Have you been told that you should not do certain things, but no explanation is given you? For example, in some cultures, children are warned never to sing when they are taking their bath. Have you ever asked why you should not sing while you bath? You are likely to be told that you asked too many unnecessary questions. You see, in societies before reading  and  writing,  and  at  the  time  that  people  did  not  have  scientific  explanations  for  some events,  the  culture  tries  to  help  people  to  avoid  certain tragic happenings by giving some such warnings  about  them.  These kinds of oral prose forms are called myths.  We shall learn more about myths in another lesson.

Think about the oral prose forms in your culture. Write down two oral prose forms; one should be the literary, that is the imaginative form, the other should be the non-literary, that is, the one that gives a true account.

Why should we study literature?

We have seen that literature has always been part of the human race. Even when there was no writing, we had passed on our ideas, thoughts, and feelings from generation to generation.

Why did we have literature all this time?

 Firstly, literature is the way by which the adults in the society pass on cultural values to their young ones. Do you remember any one of the Ananse or other animal stories that you have been told? Did the story teller tell you the lesson you are supposed to learn from the story at the end of the story?

You see, the stories we are told convey to us morals or what is considered right or wrong behaviour.  In telling us these stories, the adults teach the younger ones to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.  It does not only teach the young, it warns the adults also about the consequences of wrong behaviour.

I am sure that learning about the bad things that are likely to happen to you when you behave in certain ways will stop you from behaving in those ways. Of course, if you know the benefits of behaving in some other ways, then you are likely to behave in those ways in order to reap the benefits to be derived from behaving in those ways.

In addition, the literature we read is a source of entertainment.  Do you enjoy reading?  Reading a good story makes you happy. Reading also opens your mind to things in the world. Reading helps you to know about other people in other places and their ways of life.  What this also means is that if you listened more to stories told, you are likely to benefit greatly.  You will behave in ways that will benefit you as an individual and the society will benefit too. You see, if you are at peace with yourself because you enjoy yourself, you are not likely to do things that will hurt yourself, your family or others in the society.

I am sure that you have a good idea of what literature is all about. Literature is an interesting area of study. Read the texts that have been selected for you with an open mind.  I assure you that you will enjoy studying literature.

The Importance of Literature

To understand the relevance of literature, we must ask ourselves what makes literature so important in our lives and secondly, how literature influences society.

According to one British scholar and novelist called C.S Lewis:

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” The above statement is perhaps the most appropriate description of the importance of literature in our lives.  Literature reminds us of stories, epics, sacred scriptures and classical works of the ancient and modern times.

Why is literature important?

As stated in the quotation above, literature not only describes reality but also adds to it. Yes, literature is not merely a depiction of reality; it is rather a value-addition.  Literary works are portrayals of the thinking patterns and social norms prevalent in society.  They are a depiction of the different facets of common man’s life.  Classical literary works serve as food for thought and a tonic for imagination and creativity.  Those people studying literature look at poems, plays, essays, stories and novels.  Reading and learning about these help people to sympathise with others and see how complex humans truly are. It aids in broadening a person’s intellectual horizons and it stimulates a more active imagination.  Literature explores different human beliefs, ideas and societies.  This allows people to learn about where they came from and how past events work to shape the different cultures.  Exposing an individual to good literary works, is equivalent to providing him/her with the finest of educational opportunities.  On the other hand, the lack of exposure to classic literary works is equal to depriving an individual of an opportunity to grow as a person.

It is through reading literary and poetic works, that one understands life.  They help a person take a closer look at the different facets of life.  In many ways, it can change one’s perspective towards life.  Lives of brilliant achievers and individuals, who have made a valuable contribution to society, are sketched in their biographies.  These works give the readers an insight into the lives of these eminent people, while also serving as a bible of ideals.

Reading literature is a pleasurable, entertaining activity that offers readers the potential to escape from the troubles of daily life.  Beyond this, literature survives because of its capacity to entertain readers. It also has the power to provoke thought in readers, making it a leisure activity that is also intellectually productive.  Literature has the power to impart a wide variety of experiences to readers. A story can expose readers to different places, time periods, viewpoints and cultures. Readers can gain experiences through literature they would never have access to in ordinary life.

Literature’s ability to capture the imagination and depict the lives of others also increases readers‟ ability to empathize with others. Literature also helps in developing critical-thinking skills.  Readings and discussions of literature force readers to make reasoned judgments about character motivations, cause and effect, critical analysis of plot among others.

Literature serves as an enormous information base. Research works by famous inventors and literary works by notable scientists often narrate stories of their ground-breaking discoveries and inferences.  Ongoing developments in the fields of science and technology are documented so that the world can know about them. Several ancient scriptures relating stories of human evolution and narratives of human life in those times have been of tremendous help to mankind. Thus, literature has always served as an authentic source of information from all around the world.

Truly, languages are the building blocks of literature.  But the study of literature cannot be restricted to only studying languages.  In fact, literature cannot be confined to an educational curriculum.

 Literature, in fact, lays the foundation of an enriched life; it adds ‘life’ to ‘living’.


In this lesson, we have learnt that:

i.          literature  refers to the experiences  that we are told or that are written for us to read,

ii.         Literature gives factual information, but can also be from the imagination,

iii.        the three main kinds of literature  are referred to as the genre,

iv.        we study poems, plays and novels at school as the literary  forms or genre of literature

v.         literature  is important  in informing  and entertaining  us.


Eunice Kyemenu-Sarsah 

Prosper Kwesi Agordjor, M.Phil.

Peer Reviewers

John Tetteh Agor, Ph.D.

Modestus Fosu, Ph.D.

William Foli Garr, (Rev.) M.Phil.