Reading in school – not everything has changed

Has there ever been a golden age of reading when all children have immersed themselves in so-called “good” literature? Possibly, but certainly not in the Swedish elementary school in the late 1960s. This has been shown by research from the University of Borås, funded by the Swedish Research Council.

At the end of the 1960s, a large number of Swedish lessons were filmed in West Sweden upper elementary classes as part of an educational research project at the University of Gothenburg. At that time, film was the latest thing. This rich material has been preserved and has become the basis for the research that Anna Lundh, Associate Professor at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science at the University of Borås, and Mats Dolatkhah, now Research Advisor at the university, began almost 50 years later. By studying 223 lessons from different schools, they wanted to understand what reading looked like then in order to be able to bring nuance to the discussion about how reading is changing today. Why?

The researchers believe that critical reading research is important, as notions of reading and what it should contribute to influence decision making and, among other things, curricula.

“These notions have actual, concrete consequences regarding what or who are described as problems, and what measures should be implemented to solve these problems,” says Anna Lundh. She started the project together with Mats Dolatkhah and in the final stage they worked with colleague Linnéa Lindsköld, Senior Lecturer at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science at the University of Borås.

Democratic reading culture

The rich reading culture that developed in the 20th century was associated early on with democratic values. As the need for a well-educated labour force increased as the service economy grew, financial reasons for cultivating a broad and well-developed reading tradition also emerged. In the 1960s, the modern elementary school was born as we know it today. The ambition was that all children should receive an equal education, instead of being separated in the education system according to, for example, class and gender. In order to move on to higher education, students must also be able to skim texts, find relevant information, take notes, and so on.

Debate without historyalu.jpg

That people are worried about children’s reading and changes in technology is hardly new, say Anna Lundh and Mats Dolatkhah. In their research, they build off recent years’ debate around changes in reading habits, from concentrated in-depth reading to superficial and fragmentary reading. The reason for these changes is said to be the transition from printed books to digital media. As they delved into the film material, they recognised a lot from classroom studies from the 21st century. When they summarise their research project, they conclude that much is actually the same, whether children are reading digitally or in print form. The students in the 60s used print books, but they skimmed and were supposed to find facts quickly.They were given instruction in improving their study techniques, such as how they should best underline texts.

“There does not seem to be a clear link between in-depth reading and printed books,” says Mats Dolatkhah.

“If you look at the debate over the last ten years, there is some kind of notion that there was once a golden age of reading, when children sat and immersed themselves in ‘good’ literature. Such a golden age may have existed, but not in the late 1960s. It makes us wonder: When have children ever engaged in this kind of reading generally? The question is whether it has ever existed,” says Anna Lundh.

Guided by textbooks

Were there any differences compared to today? Yes, a big difference was that the students’ reading was guided by the textbook. In the teaching of reading, this contributed to a focus on learning to quickly find “facts” in a text, even if it was a fiction text. An example is when a class was reading an excerpt from Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants.

“It was made into a kind of geography lesson with questions such as which ocean the text spoke of and so on. Although they read such an important work as The Emigrants, they talked almost not at all about the fiction element, the reading experience, and the literary work’s significance, but rather about individual facts from the text,” says Anna Lundh.

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