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edlingPractices Surrounding Texts in School

Agnes Edling
Department of Linguistics
Uppsala University
June 2002

Since written media has become more and more central in our society, it is important that students are given the chance to get in touch with, and learn to treat, texts in various ways. By doing different things with texts in the classroom, students learn how to use and interpret them in diverse ways. I would like to examine the practices surrounding the teaching of texts in grades 5 and 8 in the Swedish compulsory school.

In the information society of today, written media is increasingly important. At work, school and home, in real life and on the Internet, written messages are used and produced every day. What counts as reading and writing has varied over time. In a society where more and more activities are based on texts, it is important that its members can, among other things, use information from texts, relate to the text contents and critically examine texts. Schools have an important part to play when it comes to defining literacy and offering useful practices that involve texts. It is in school that students should have the opportunity to participate in practices that encourage using texts to get information, relating text content to their own experiences, and developing awareness of texts as products written by someone for a specific audience and for a specific reason.

The outcome of the encounter between the student and the text naturally depends on several factors: the student's background and earlier experience and knowledge, the properties of the text and, not least, the teacher-created "frames" around the reading. How a text is introduced, what instructions the students are given on how to read the text, and what they are to do with the reading afterwards are all decisions normally made by the teacher. These framed conditions and purposes of reading, taken together with the text itself and the student's background and way of reading, creates the student's understanding of the text.

If we view reading as doing things with texts, how can we best describe what students and teachers do with texts in the classroom? In our research, the students are asked to relate a text read in different subject areas. In the interview, we focus on, among other things, issues such as possible author, connection to their own experiences, and the author's probable purpose of writing the text. This picture of the student's reading of a specific text, taken together with the frames given to the same text in the classroom and the characteristics of the text, can result in a description of different ways of approaching texts.

Texts are used in different ways in various subject areas. A text about the history of Russia in a social science class is read and talked about differently than a text about "Goldilocks and The Three Bears" in a Swedish class. The things done with the texts also differ. The text about Russian history could be surrounded by activities such as answering questions with ready-made answers on details from the text. This could be described as a "fact-fishing" practice, where students learn how to pick out detailed information from a text, but hardly get the possibility to create an overall understanding of it. A reading of the text about Goldilocks could typically be intertwined with questions aiming to make sure that everybody is following the plot. This could be described as a "storytelling" way of reading, where the plot is focused.

The outcome of this investigation is to describe patterns of practices surrounding the teaching of texts in classrooms in the Swedish compulsory school, and the relationship between these practices and the practices the students are themselves creating. Fact-fishing and storytelling are examples of two approaches to texts, both of which are useful in different situations. However, a variety of ways of approaching texts is needed in order to meet the flow of texts in contemporary society.