What literature are students reading in school?

New study shows that the choice of literature used in Norwegian classrooms is limited and stems from the textbooks. 

Teenager reading in a library

Schools provide meaningful arenas for children to experience literature (Illustration photo, Colourbox).

A key ambition for the language arts subject across the Nordic countries, and elsewhere, is to provide meaningful arenas for children and young people to experience literature.

The texts that students encounter in their Norwegian language arts (L1) subject is an underexplored topic. In a newly published article in the Norwegian journal Edda, QUINT researchers Ida Lodding Gabrielsen and Marte Blikstad-Balas, explore which literary texts students from 47 different classrooms in the 8th grade from the LISA material read in four consecutive video recorded  lessons (178 lessons). Their major findings are that the repertoire of literature made available to students is limited and stems from subject-specific textbooks, not from books actively chosen by the teacher for that particular class – even tough all Norwegian teachers have this possibility. Further, Gabrielsen & Blikstad-Balas find extensive use of literary excerpts, and that when students read entire novels, these are self-chosen and intended for individual reading, not shared literary experiences. The literary texts are all typical of their literary genre, e.g. typical short stories – and never challenge classical genre features, which distances school literature from contemporary literature. The article can be read as an argument for reevaluating the role of literature in the classroom, and it is a part of Gabrielsen's PhD on the role of literature in the Norwegian classroom. We have asked her and key QUINT researchers in this topic to comment on the article. 

Ida Gabrielsen – what surprised you the most about these findings?

– Teachers in Norway are, in theory, free to choose what they want their students to read. I was a bit surprised that so few teachers chose what literature to bring into the classroom and just relied on the textbook and the many excerpts found there. 

What do you think the main take home message from this article is – what do you hope to accomplish with it? 

– We show in the article that many literary texts are typical examples of specific genres, intended to show students particular ways of writing literature. This is understandable.

– However, if literature is reduced to a tool for learning something else, it is hard to claim the value of literature itself and establish its position in the curriculum.

– I really hope that the article will contribute to further debate and research on why students read fiction in school, across the Nordic countries.

Anna NissenAnna Nissen - you are researching literature across the Nordic classrooms for your PhD. Are you surprised about the findings from your Norwegian colleagues?

– I think it is fascinating to see that there are actually some very interesting differences between the countries! When analyzing the Swedish LISA-material from 38 language arts lessons we have seen that, just as in Norway, literature is an important part of language arts. Quite often Swedish students read and/or discuss literary texts. However, rather than paying attention to genre and stylistic features, Swedish teachers and students generally focus on aspects such as plot, characters and settings when literary texts are discussed. Therefore I was surprised when I heard that the genre discourse is so strong in Norwegian classrooms.
– In Sweden narrative texts such as short stories and novels are much more common than other genres. Teachers use literary texts that they seem to have chosen themselves, and subject-specific textbooks are seldom used in language arts.
– Just as in Norway the texts that the students meet are usually modern. This is especially true when it comes to novels, which normally are written for teenagers. In the Swedish LISA-material, we have seen a number of classes reading and discussing a novel that all students in the class have read, which suggests that this is more common in the Swedish classrooms than in Norway.

Photo of Nikolaj Elf

Nikolaj Elf –you are an established researcher in the field, and know a lot about the Danish approach to literature. What do you think of the findings presented in the article? 

– I am not surprised to learn about these findings from a Norwegian context. To some extent, I would expect similar findings from the Danish context analysing similar kind of material, he says. 

– As the authors point out in the state of the art section, earlier Nordic research, such as Sylvi Penne’s, has made similar findings in smaller case studier from a Norwegian context. Similar results are found in Sweden by Maria Ulfgard and Katrin Lilja Waltå, among others. What makes the LISA study really interesting and important, is that it has a broader empirical base and is thus able to offer more representative findings substantiating such case study findings. 

– In a Danish context, publishers’ learning platform have taken over the market, and within these platforms, excerpts of literary works of art and a narrow approach to reading dominate, as found in a recent Danish study also referred to in the state of the art. On the other hand, I do assume that the notion of literary reading is expanding in primary school language arts classrooms in Denmark. Teachers tend to move from reading monomodal literary works of art towards multimodal aesthetic works of art, such as graphic novels, short movies and hybrid aesthetic pop genres.
– New research focusing on primary education and teacher education, explores the literary didactic potential of transmedialisation, transduction etc., and this research has impact on teacher education and teacher training. Also, the curriculum for Danish actually requires it. Whether this is reflected in what is taught in everyday language arts practice, is an interesting question.
–Due to a literary canon and a long-lasting literary paradigm, literature in the traditional version does dominate.
– On the other hand, new trends, such as an expanded notion of literature linked to inquiry-oriented teaching, including creative writing, transmedialization and adaptation attempt to change things.
– New intervention research in the so-called KiDM project (Kvalitet i dansk og Matematik) demonstrates that a large majority of teachers embrace this development. Even long for it. Having said that, practices are difficult to change, and it will take time. Hopefully, it will happen. For students in their in and out of school life beyond the language arts classroom, reading takes place on all kinds of platforms, and they don’t have or make clear distinctions between literary and other kinds of reading. The language arts subject should help students experience, analyse, cultivate and, of course, also challenge such experiences.
By Larissa Lily, QUINT/UiO
Published May 14, 2020 9:50 AM - Last modified May 14, 2020 9:51 AM