English is ranked as the third most important subject in Norwegian primary schools, after Norwegian and mathematics, but this is not reflected in the time and resources allocated to the teaching of reading skills in English, Rebecca Anne Charboneau found in her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Stavanger.
In the first grade, pupils are usually taught English 20-minutes a week, while in higher primary school grades the pupils receive two hours English instruction a week.
Nearly half of the 370 teachers responding to a national questionnaire felt that insufficient time influenced their teaching. Specifically, they found it difficult to find time for independent silent reading.
The questionnaire also found that the majority of the teachers primarily used a textbook-based approach, whereas a combination approach, consisting of using different reading materials in addition to the textbook, was used by nearly a third.
The combination approach has real potential, according to Rebecca Anne Charboneau.
“It offers a middle way for teachers to incorporate aspects of various materials and practices and, if given priority in future teacher training or in supportive materials for teachers, could have a large impact on how English as a foreign language is taught.”
In addition to sending a questionnaire, Charboneau conducted a case study of four schools, one using a textbook-based approach, two using a textbook in combination with graded readers, and one using The Early Years Literacy Program (EYLP), an Australian literacy program developed for first language reading and writing development, and adapted for use in foreign language teaching in the Norwegian context.
First and second language
Many teachers perceived a connection between pupils’ first and second language reading ability, but there was nevertheless infrequent collaboration between the Norwegian and English teachers.
In the case study schools, Charboneau found that there was little explicit instruction on transferring reading strategies and comprehension skills from first to second language.
“Collaboration between language teachers, whether they be first or second language teachers, is important so that pupils can apply reading skills and other language skills in multiple languages,” she says.
Collaboration could also resolve some of the time issues.
“By connecting first and second language learning, the pupils will increase their ‘language tool box’ in a way both languages may benefit from,” Charboneau explains.
“Using the same skills in both languages will make learning more efficient and the teachers will be able to explore other parts of the curriculum. Today English as a foreign language in many cases could be mistaken for being social studies about English-speaking countries,” she claims.
No English books
The research also showed that nearly half of the teachers had no other English books than the textbook in their classrooms, and a fifth had no English books in their school library.
There are multiple text sources potentially available to teachers, but Charboneau found that many of the teachers lacked information as to how they could best work with different text genres, texts at different levels, reading for different purposes, and incorporating reading strategies into their teaching.
“The teachers simply didn’t have time to orientate themselves on these issues in addition to teaching,” she explains.
Both the teachers answering the questionnaire and the teachers in the case study schools acknowledged the need for differentiation.
However, both groups found this to be challenging given the limited teaching time and the variation in the pupils’ reading abilities.
Variations in ability levels
“The case study schools addressed the problem of varying ability levels and need for differentiation in different ways, and each addressed it to a certain extent, either through materials for independent reading or through homework,” Rebecca Anne Charboneau elaborates.
Overall she found more differentiation in terms of reading materials, grouping, and teacher interaction at the EYLP approach school than at the other schools.
Many teachers also felt that variation in the pupils’ ability levels made it difficult to plan lessons and create appropriate interaction and activities.
Charboneau points out that teachers must have the courage to stray from the textbook and choose different texts when the situation calls for it.
Necessary to know why a text is used
The teacher must always be conscious of why a specific text is presented to the pupils.
Individual silent reading was an uncommon practice among the questionnaire respondents, but used occasionally at the two combination approach schools in the case study and regularly by the EYLP approach school.
“Individual extensive reading has a strong basis in reading and language learning research and was thus considered a strength of these two approaches,” Charboneau comments.
Reading aloud uncommon
Although the questionnaire data revealed that the teacher reading aloud was still a common practice, it was nevertheless an uncommon practice among the case study teachers.
“This was surprising considering that there has been a strong tradition for this practice and it is also a method research supports to be effective.”
What the research did show, however, was frequent use of pupil translation of texts, repeated choral reading, and taking turns reading aloud.
These were practices found particularly in the case study schools, but also to some extent among the questionnaire respondents.
“These were somewhat unexpected findings as they are generally associated with more traditional methods of instruction, compared to a more recent focus on communicative language learning,” Charboneau comments.
“Generally, when pupils take turns reading aloud, most of the class is passive. In contrast, when interaction take place in small groups, pupils are usually more active,” she adds.
By Elin Nyberg
Rebecca Anne Charboneau: Approaches to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) Reading Instruction in Norwegian Primary Schools, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Stavanger, 2016.