This article was produced and financed by University of Stavanger

Illustrative photo: Colourbox.

First graders can read like experts

With a little help, six-year-olds can read texts in the same way as adult literary scholars.

University of Stavanger

The University of Stavanger (UiS) is located in Stavanger, Norway and has about 8,500 students and 1200 administration, faculty and service staff.

Very little time is devoted during Norwegian class to the youngest pupils in school. Most of the time is spent “cracking the reading code”, learning to write letters and developing the pupils’ vocabulary.

Reading in Norwegian, however, is about taking an analytical view of the literary text. Questions are asked about what message the text is trying to get across and how this is expressed.

Now a study from Lesesenteret (the Reading Centre) shows that even five- and six-year-olds in the first grade are able to read literary texts in an analytical manner — provided they are given the opportunity and facilitated to do so. 

Subject-specific reading

“When the pupils were given the opportunity to be part of a discussion about a book the teacher read for them, they showed how they formed ideas from the text and presented their hypotheses about what they thought the text was about. Based on the details in the text, they formed opinions about the main characters and assigned them personal characteristics”.

Associate Professors Trude Hoel and Anne Håland, who carried out the study on two first-grade classes, say that the pupils related to the feelings of the characters in the stories and made comparisons between what had happened with these characters and their own lives.

“We know all this from professional reading of literature and what is called 'subject-specific reading skills' in Norwegian. Subject-specific reading is about becoming familiar with text that is typical for each subject. Pupils learn how they should read text in mathematics, and they learn to read complex technical text in natural science. Fictional text is studied in Norwegian class. In order for the pupils to become good analytical readers and to develop Norwegian as a subject, it is important to teach them to read analytically”, says Håland.

A literary-scientific approach

Two first-grade classes were included in the study, and the teacher for each class read aloud to the pupils from one of two different picture books.

The researchers used the theories of the American scholar in literacy learning, Judith Langer, as a basis for finding out if the pupils were able to position themselves as literary readers. They gave the teachers accurate guidelines on when to stop reading and questions about the text.

This was based on Langer’s four different major stances in the process of understanding. These are based on what the reader expects before reading, forming ideas and reflections along the way, stepping out of the text and reflecting on what is known and looking at the text, for example, in the light of the authorship, literary history or other texts one has read.

“Using these theories, the teacher can ask questions that allow the pupils to interpret the text instead of reducing the reading of the text to review questions and synopses”, say Hoel and Håland.

The children can recognise themselves in and engage with the themes and content of the books. The first book is about boys’ toys and girls’ toys, expectations and prejudices. The second book reminds the pupils about fairy tales and cartoons.

The pupils put forward hypotheses about the plot, they reflected on what the characters did and they made comparisons with events in their own lives. According to the researchers, this is how the first graders showed themselves to be literary readers on encountering the text.

“Being a literary reader can involve trying to understand the text by interpreting it. This is done based on one's experience, knowledge and age. Thus, first graders can also be active in understanding a text based on their experiences”, say the researchers.

More academic reading in early childhood education

The researchers believe that more time should be given to such literary discussion even among the youngest pupils.

“In Norwegian schools, there is practically no detailed study of literature before pupils have completed lower secondary school. But as the pupils become older, the school sets greater requirements for discussing and exploring texts. This study shows that even the youngest pupils have the ability to adopt an analytical view of literary texts. Teachers can therefore facilitate this way of reading for pupils who are only in pre-school.

They emphasise that the pupils will need a lot of experience of literary texts and classroom discussions about literature.

“To participate in exploratory discussions about literature, the pupils must be able to use literary analytical terms. If they are given specific analytical categories to think about, their discussions about the texts can be better. But they need teaching, modelling and training to understand what a literary discussion is based on and how to do this. In this way, they can really be given the chance to explore the text, go into detail about the text and the pictures and supplement old discoveries with new ones.

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