In the last forty to fifty years, research has been performed, and dynamic discussions have taken place, in the field of mother tongue education in many countries. Limitations of the traditional content of mother tongue education have been highlighted and alternative and more extended ways of talking about teaching and learning in this area have been discussed (Dixon 1975; Cope & Kalantzis 2000; Luke & Freebody 1999; Ivanič 2004; Liberg et al 2012). Motivations for this discussion, as well as discussions concerning other school subjects, have been and still are the changes in society which lead to new demands on education and the educational system. One such demand concerns the rapidly changing media landscape in which everyone is required to successfully navigate in a flood of information expressed in texts of various types. In order to meet these challenges, children must early on in school get the opportunity to develop their ability to understand and compose meaningful written, visual, and spoken texts in different subject areas. A meta-language is also needed in order to analyze, discuss and assess aspects of form as well as of content in narrative and informational texts. However, previous research on and assessment of early reading and writing development has to a large extent focused on formal aspects of reading and writing, such as code breaking, thus excluding important discussions. Such limitations can easily lead to an underestimation or a misjudgment of a student’s literacy abilities. A wider approach in discussing and assessing early reading and writing is necessary to encourage a language development that prepares children for a changing text landscape.
The main purpose of the study presented in this paper is therefore to further develop ways to study, understand and talk about students’ texts in early school years. More specifically, content-based aspects of informational texts are focused in order to discuss ways that students can expand their repertoire of text-making. At the same time a meta-language is developed in ways that have not previously been done for student writing in early school years. Specific research questions, that in different ways address dimensions of what the text is about, include:
- What type of content is possible to identify in students’ informational texts (in terms of e.g. dominant disciplinary claims, application to personal experiences and underlying norms and values)?
- How can the content in the texts be described in terms of participants and processes?
- How is the content mediated through macro themes and micro themes and how is the content extended?
The theoretical framework for the study is found within a social semiotic perspective. According to Halliday (1978), the semiotic systems that we live by are considered to form a meaning resource. It is from this meaning resource that we choose when we articulate and structure meaning. By these choices, certain aspects are put in the background or completely excluded while others are foregrounded and thereby emphasized. In this respect, the selected language forms are highly significant and colored with ideology. The social semiotic perspective provides a well-developed theoretical framework for detailed analyses of different dimensions of meaning-making in students’ texts. In order to further develop the analyses of content-based meaning making in student texts, the described theoretical framework is also combined with perspectives from curriculum studies concerning what has been discussed as different discourses of subject areas or different curriculum emphases (e.g. Ivanič 2004; Roberts & Östman 1998).
Data in this study consists of 144 informational texts written on computers by students in grade 2 in two different Swedish schools (students 8-9 year old) at six different occasions. The context for the writing and the assignments given to the students differ. However, such aspects are not foregrounded in the present study. The texts in the study have been analyzed with different analytical methods that capture complementary aspects of text content. In order to approach the first research question, i.e. to investigate text content from a curriculum based perspective, an analytical grid has been developed in interplay with the data and earlier research in this area (e.g. Cope & Kalantzis 2000; Englund 1986; Ivanič 2004; Roberts & Östman 1998). This grid consists of five main aspects of curriculum domains: dominant disciplinary claims, application to personal experiences, application to more general circumstances, perspective/s on the content, underlying norms and values and/or power relations, the design of the future. The second research question is investigated by analyzing process types as formulated in the transitivity analysis in the Systemic Functional paradigm (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004). With this analysis of informational texts we can see patterns of how content is created, i.e. if the text worlds created are worlds of doing, being, talking or sensing. The participants in the text are also analyzed using transitivity analysis. Text participants have in previous research been discussed in terms of specific / generalized, abstract / concrete or if the participants are human or non –human (see e.g Edling 2006; Sellgren 2011.). The third research question is investigated by analyzing content themes on macro as well as micro levels in the texts. Methods used are analysis of rhetorical content structure (see e.g. Hellspong & Ledin 1997) as well as expansion analysis of how clauses (and thereby content) are expanded in various ways (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004; Holmberg & Karlsson 2006). Through these analyses the interplay between themes throughout the text can be described in terms of different content patterns. Although data is drawn from a Swedish school context, the development of analytical methods to analyze text content is applicable to an international arena, independent of languages.
Results show that the texts, from a content and curriculum perspective, can be described as falling into four categories. Within these, different patterns of text worlds are noted. Two thirds of the texts can be described as “Encyclopedic”. They resemble texts found encyclopedias where dominant disciplinary claims are focused. Participants in these texts consist of disciplinary concepts such as ‘heart’ or ‘planet’. The processes are mostly realizing text worlds of being through verbs such as ‘be’/’have’. Nearly one third of the texts have a balance between dominant disciplinary claims and more general circumstances with some instances of personal experiences. Participants are often the generalized ‘you’/‘we’, sometimes a personal ‘we’/‘I’ is used. These texts can be described as “Personalized Encyclopedic”. To a large extent, these two types of texts reflect content foregrounded in the teaching. In a few texts however, traces of other curriculum domains are found. Texts include perspectives realized as the contrasting of processes such as what ‘could’ be done/believed or not. Such texts are described as “Encyclopedic with perspectives” and “Encyclopedic with perspectives and designing of future”. Analyses in terms of content patterns (macro and micro themes and expansion of these) indicate that most of the “Personalized Encyclopedic” texts and more than half of the “Encyclopedic” texts express several different themes. However, in nearly two thirds of the analyzed texts, all themes refer to the texts main topic, thus creating coherent content. The other one third consists of fragmentized content patterns. In half of these, themes are expanded on, and in the other half they are not. Research questions are investigated from different analytical perspectives. By combining these analyses, the study shows how a more nuanced picture of content in informational texts can be achieved, thus contributing to a metalanguage of interest for an international arena of education.
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