Recent PhD thesis: Great potential in letting pupils read demanding literature

When secondary school pupils read demanding fiction, they become engaged by the difficult nature of the texts, and approach the texts in a manner that is relevant for the subject of literature, a new PhD thesis shows.

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Margrethe Sønneland
Margrethe Sønneland(Photo: Elisabeth Tønnesen)

Margrethe Sønneland has investigated what happened when secondary school pupils were asked to read literary short stories of such a complex nature that even literary scholars struggle to work out their meaning. In her PhD dissertation, Sønneland found that the teenagers are attracted to these texts, and the pupils’ curiosity and engagement is triggered by the difficult and incomprehensible aspects of the literature.

– I asked pupils in Year 8 and 9 Norwegian classes to read texts by Franz Kafka, Roy Jacobsen and Raymond Carver. The common practice in these cases – which was also the way I worked when I was a teacher – is to help the pupils along before they get to read demanding literature. The teacher may explain difficult words, ask the pupils to look out for literary terms, discuss the topic, and so on. However, I wanted to find out what happened if we skipped these pre-reading strategies, and instead let the pupils read and discuss the texts in groups. I found that they showed engagement, and the pupils approached the literature with a desire to solve the problems that these texts constitute, Sønneland says.

The teenagers came up with ideas and thoughts that teachers and literary scholars may not have thought of. This shows that there is a great potential in letting the pupils meet demanding literature, without first aiding them into the texts.

– Letting the pupils learn how to think, to discuss and solve problems, is perhaps our main job as teachers and educators. These findings are relevant for the on-going discussion on problem-oriented teaching and in-depth learning in L1-subjects, Sønneland says.

Read more:
Sønneland, M. (2019). Friction in fiction. A study of the importance of problems in literature conversations. L1-Educational Studies in Language and Literature, 19, 1-28.