Investigating how teachers use literature in their instruction

Ida Gabrielsen is researching how literature is taught as part of Norwegian language instruction. 

Ida Gabrielsen in the library browsing books

Reading fiction asks you to put yourself in someone else's shoes. This can develop many important life-skills, Gabrielsen says. Photo: Larissa Lily, QUINT / UiO.

Ida Gabrielsen, a PhD candidate at the University of Oslo, is analysing the data collected as part of QUINT’s Lisa Nordic study, in order to examine how literature is used in the Norwegian classrooms. Her research has resulted in two published articles so far; “The Role of Literature in the Classroom” (Gabrielsen, Blikstad-Balas & Tengberg, 2019), and most recently, “Fiction in Norwegian Language Arts"  (Gabrielsen, Blikstad-Balas 2020). The findings of these studies give rise to further questions on why and to what purpose do we teach literature as part of language teaching?

Strictly defined genre rules

Data collected across 47 Norwegian classrooms, that is discussed in “Fiction in Norwegian Language Arts"  (Gabrielsen, Blikstad-Balas 2020), shows that the repertoire of literature made available to students is limited and stems from subject-specific textbooks. Rather than reading entire novels in the class, teachers rely on using excerpts from the textbooks. There is little variety in these texts in terms of genre, epoch or the author’s gender and nationality; for example, twice as many of these texts are written by men than women.

The data also indicates that none of the literary texts read or discussed break away from conventional genre criteria; rather, the texts used in the shared instruction across the material get framed as typical examples of the genre they represent. One example that pinpoints this well is a class where the students read an example text of a short story, written by the textbook authors as a perfect example of a short story that fits the conventional criteria.

Gabrielsen questions whether such a narrowly defined focus on genre rules systematically excludes contemporary texts that challenge conventional genre rules as well as older texts that are not in harmony with these criteria.

– If much of the contemporary, current literature  isn’t suitable for literature instruction, there might be a problem not with the literature, but with the scope of literature instruction. 

The ability to read an interpret literary texts has many benefits

The data discussed in “The Role of Literature in the Classroom” (Gabrielsen, Blikstad-Balas & Tengberg, 2019) shows that literary texts are often read in aid of achieving another goal: whether it is to learn about the use of literary devices, to learn about specific ways of writing, or to learn about a specific genre.

– There is very little instruction where the texts themselves are the main focus for the instruction, Gabrielsen explains.

– Even book presentations tend to focus on the oral presentation skills, and not on the books.

Gabrielsen believes that there are several reasons for why reading fiction is valuable. There are many skills and qualities we want children to learn. The curriculum states that we want to develop critical citizens, and that children should learn to understand their own identity and that of others. However, Gabrielsen has seen little instruction that supports these ambitious aims for literature.

Gabrielsen is aware that there are many things students should learn within the language arts subject, but underscores that literature needs to play a significant role in this subject, as there are a lot of important things we can get from literature.

–  The ability to read and interpret complex literary texts has many benefits. For example, reading literature is linked to expand our capacity for empathy and social judgment (Nussbaum, 1997), and several empirical studies have supported such notions, even within a secondary language arts school context (see Schrijvers, Janssen, Fialho, & Rijlaarsdam’s (2019) thorough review of literature classroom interventions studies).

– Reading fiction – all kinds of fiction – asks you to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and this develops an understanding of other people’s position, perspectives and choices.

– I think it is a good thing to try to understand how other people live their lives, and this could include both people a lot like yourself, but also people far away in terms of time or space, Gabrielsen points out. It is also a way to understand oneself better.  

This goes back to Aristoteles, she recounts, and how he said that since we have never lived enough, art is important.

– Reading fiction is a way to try out different ways of life or conflicts, without the real-life consequences.

– Through reading a book you can really get to see behind someone’s actions and choices. This helps to understand why people are the way they are and how they became that way.

Creative inquiry develops thinking

Reading fiction also develops creativity. By creativity, Gabrielsen doesn’t mean being a good painter or writing great poems. It is more about how the mind works. According to Judith Langer, when you engage in reading a book, you start to think and ask questions such as: Why did the character do this or that, what is the relationship between the people in the book so far? This kind of inquiry happens by itself, you do not even know you are doing it, Gabrielsen explains.

It is important to develop these kinds of skills. It is one way to train the mind and it develops analytical skills. This can help students to think both in education – in all subjects – but also in their personal lives.

– It is also important that we teach children how to live good lives with others, Gabrielsen emphasises. We can develop these skills by reading fiction.

– Yet these are the things that may be lost in the way that we see literature now being taught. There is no room for these kinds of reflections, as teachers and students seem to spend limited time on each text and have limited conversations about the meaning of the literature read.

– When there is so much emphasis on form, literary devices and related learning goals, there’s less room to address the experience of reading a text, the ability to interpret or read between the lines, or even the grand question of what the main theme of a novel, poem or play might be – and how it may relate to our own life.  

Discussing literature in the class

In order to get something out of reading, it is important to discuss it and to find ways to understand it. This is something that needs to be supported and scaffolded. Some kids have that support from home, while others don’t have books at home at all. Therefore, teachers have an important role in introducing children to literature.

– Many literature teachers might in fact want to discuss literature more, but they just don’t have the time.

– It is difficult to find time for everything and it might therefore seem like a waste of time to just discuss a text without a specific goal. Perhaps this is why reading has often been turned into writing instruction? 

We need a conversation on why and how we teach literature

Gabrielsen works closely with the teachers whose instruction she is researching. She understands that it can be difficult to evaluate the student’s work when you teach literature, and wonders if the focus on genre and literary devices is one way to make the subject more graspable or measurable. Teachers are expected to grade the students and need to justify the grades; by focusing on these very specific devices, it is easier to grade them.

Gabrielsen wants to make the findings more accessible to teachers in order to engage them in a broader conversation. She feels there needs to be a discussion on why and how we teach literature. Gabrielsen therefore chose to write an article about the findings from “The Role of Literature in the Classroom” (Gabrielsen, Blikstad-Balas & Tengberg, 2019) for a teachers’ magazine called Norsklaereren. In the process a Norwegian teacher commented on the article Gabrielsen was working on. He could recognise a lot of the findings and reflected on the reasons why it is like this. Grade 10 exam for example asks the students to write their own analysis, and teachers obviously want to prepare the students for that. This could explain a lot of the emphasis on using reading to learn better writing.

Revised curriculum offers new hope

Gabrielsen is excited and curious about the new revised curriculum that emphasises deep learning throughout.  With literature teaching, it might mean staying longer with a specific text. Teachers could facilitate interesting discussions and use more difficult texts as well.

– There is a lot of potential to open up for the kind of literary instruction and inquiry that requires longer time. Teachers report all the time that when they use time on a novel, something different happens than when it is used just briefly as an example.


By Larissa Lily, QUINT/UiO
Published July 22, 2020 2:29 PM - Last modified July 22, 2020 2:34 PM