How and why do students read fiction? A Study of Literature Instruction in 182 Lower Secondary Language Arts Lessons in Norway

Submitted by: Ida Gabrielsen
Abstract: This study investigates literature instruction in language arts lessons across 46 lower-secondary Norwegian classrooms. We examine what students read, instructional practices related to literary texts and functions of text in instruction.

Students develop as readers by reading a variety of texts for multiple purposes (e.g. Duke&Pearson, 2008). In addition to reading non-fiction across school subjects, students need to engage in reading fiction. There is strong research evidence that reading fiction does not only develop literary text competence, but also a general text competence not only important for reading in itself, but also to enable students to acquire knowledge and express themselves in various subjects and situations (se e.g. Alsup, 2013; Ivey & Johnston, 2013; Leverage & colleges, 2011). As Langer (2013) emphasizes, “reading literature involves cognitive dimensions that are critical components of intellectual development”.

Literature has always been considered a central part of language arts curricula, and is still a key component of language arts. Yet, an essential change is taking place across countries: the core focus is changing from literature to literacy, increasingly stressing non-fiction (Appleman, 2014; Langer, 2013; Penne, 2013; Stotsky, Traffas,&Woodworth, 2010). Norway’s new 2006 curriculum gives fiction and nonfiction equal weight, with few guidelines on methods and specific literature. This shift makes it timely to investigate the roles of literary texts across language arts lessons.

Studies have indicated the importance of instruction that provides students with opportunities to discuss texts to build a deeper understanding of them (e.g. Applebee, 2003; Nystrand, 2006). The literary tradition the students learn within, appears to be an important factor for how students handle literary qualities in the texts they read (Johansson, 2015), and there are a various of ways to approach literary texts (Rosenblatt, 1978), but how students actually work with literary texts in language arts lessons, is an understudied area in times where the role of literature in school may be challenged by a strong focus on general, non-fiction literacy.

Methods and aims
Drawing on videotaped language arts lessons (n=182) from 46 Norwegian lower-secondary classrooms, we investigate how literary texts are used across language arts classrooms in Norway. All lessons are coded for the use of literary texts, using the validated socio-cultural PLATO-manual (Grossman, 2015), to assess to what degree students engage in discourse and activities that are grounded in literary texts. Further qualitative analyses investigate what the instructional practices related to literary texts are, and functions of texts in instructions. In the presentation, the main focus will be on the instructional practices across classrooms, emphasizing literary classroom discussions. Nuances in coding and analyses will be shown in the presentation itself.

Results, analyses and discussion
We found three dominant instructional practices related to literary texts: silent individual reading (without contextualization), genre instruction (often related to students own writing) and literary classroom discussions. In these three distinct practices, the texts either has a rather unclear role during silent reading, a very defined role as a model text or example in genre/writing instruction, or is used as grounds for literary conversations and analyses.

A key finding is that in the majority of lessons where students read fiction, the texts play a limited and rather narrow role, where references to the texts, when they occur, focus on recall of specific details. We also find a strong genre discourse across classrooms, and it is more common that the teachers frame knowledge about genre as the main purpose for the lesson, rather than getting to know the specific text students are reading. Thus, in these lessons, there is more emphasis on genre and specific genre features than e.g. on the theme, the characters or the students reactions to the texts.

The variety of texts is rather low. Most texts students read are from the textbook, strongly emphasizing pre-1990 male writers. Students scarcely read texts by foreign writers and there are no texts by Sami (indigenous group in Scandinavia) writers.

In addition to the somewhat concerning findings described, our material also offers detailed insight into how some teachers provide instructional activities or opportunity for discussion that require students to actively use texts. These lessons contain extensive literary work and a discourse that could engage students to build deeper understandings of texts. A commonality across these lessons is that texts are actively used in literary discussions and analyses where form and content in literary texts are seen as interrelated.

In all lessons with literary classroom discussions, it was the teacher who lead the discussion, often following a traditional IRE-model, where the teacher held a question and answer session about the text`s form and/or content and theme. In some classrooms we found discussions where the students voices and meanings where given more attention. Even though we found both opportunity for and uptake on students talk and responses, most discussions was between the teacher and the students, not amongst the students. Our impression is that the teachers often have a specific aim, e.g. a beforehand decided interpretation, for the analyses and literary discussions, and they direct the discussion in that direction. However, we also found lessons where the teacher would let student`s thoughts and questions about a text guide the interpretation and discussion of the text. Analyses of these lessons will be given priority in our presentation.

In addition to highlighting some serious challenges concerning literature instruction and the role of literary texts in lower secondary schools, our study also provides insight into high quality reading instruction - as we have systematically mapped what happens in the lessons where such instruction occurs. Both findings are highly relevant to the educational field, for researchers and practitioners alike.

Selected references
Applebee, A. N., Langer, J. A., Nystrand, M., & Gamoran, A. (2003). Discussion-based approaches to developing understanding: Classroom instruction and student performance in middle and high school English. American Educational Research Journal

Duke, N. K., & Pearson, P. D. (2008). Effective practices for developing reading comprehension. The Journal of Education