2 Background and existing knowledge

The project derives from the socio-cultural tradition in writing research. An important source of inspiration is Vygotsky and the tradition of activity theory (Vygotsky 1986, Wertsch 1998), which understands language and other sign systems as mediational means between the individual’s cognition and the social and cultural context. In Blåsjö (2004) and Hobel (2009) the mediational means are actualised in analyses of language resources in student texts that in other linguistic traditions are termed genres, speech acts, text types, etc., and which, using this concept, can be related to a cognitive and social learning context. The mediational means of specific subjects establish affordances and constraints for the students’ cognitive development and for their appropriation (Wertsch 1998) of textual skills. By using subject-specific mediational means as an overall analytical concept, the triadic focus on student, subject and use of writing is brought together.

The  understanding of literacy in the project builds on the English-American research approach of Literacy Studies in which literacy is seen from an ecological perspective (Barton 1994), as a practice embedded in other mental and social activities. Writing is studied as part of literacy events formed by cultural literacy practices but always also creating new meaning that contribute to forming the culture’s literacy practices.

In a series of ethnographic studies, Literacy Studies have examined the use of writing in a variety of social environments (Heath 1983, Street 1984, Gee 1996, Ivanič 1998 among others). Recent Nordic literacy research has documented that working culture is being textualized in ‘the new textual society’ (Karlsson 2006). On the other hand studies of the use of writing at upper secondary level show that these challenges have only to a limited extent impacted upon writing practice at schools (Westman 2009, Kronholm-Cederberg 2009).

Social semiotic literacy research has developed knowledge about writing as a multi-modal and media-borne practice. In the ground-breaking Before Writing (1997) Gunther Kress showed how children create meaning through a plethora of semiotic resources and that language use has to be understood as an aspect of meaning-making practice in a more general sense. He demonstrated how we constantly ‘translate’ between modalities and how this practice is fundamental in our understanding of the world and in innovative thinking. This branch of research, therefore, develops important knowledge about form as a meaning-making aspect of communication, focusing on the new, digital writing technologies that have altered writing culture in the global knowledge society (Kress 2003, Kress & van Leeuwen 1996). We cannot isolate the linguistic dimension in the study of writing habits, just as the students’ writing at school must be perceived in the light of the digital communicative use of writing that permeates the everyday life of young people (Elf 2008, Westman 2009, Kronholm-Cederberg 2009).

The current project should be seen as a contribution to a Nordic tradition of writing research concerned with writing in educational contexts, seen in a disciplinary didactic perspective.  This research has been dominated by studies in standard language subjects (e.g. Smidt 1996, Illum 2002, Krogh 2007, Brorsson 2007). A more recent feature is studies of writing in other subjects (Knain 1999, Knain & Hugo 2007), and studies across different subjects (Dysthe 1995, Wiese 2004, Hansen 2004a). In recent years we have seen several larger, collective research initiatives, in which writing in a variety of subjects is elucidated, an important example being Elevers möte med skolans textvärld (Pupils encounter with the text-world of school) at Uppsala University (Edling 2006, Folkeryd 2006, Geijerstam 2006).

The present project is most closely related to the Norwegian sister project Skriving som grunnleggende ferdighet og utfordring (Writing as a fundamental skill and challenge) in Trondheim. With Hobel’s visiting research fellowship, with Krogh’s presence in the Norwegian resource group of the Nasjonalt senter for skriveopplæring og skriveforsking (National centre for writing training and writing research), and with contributions to scientific publications by Christensen, Hobel and Krogh, close relations have been established with a central Nordic environment for writing research, which is, of course, also represented by Jon Smidt in the resource group for the Danish project. In the SKRIV (WRITE) project (2006-2010), an interdisciplinary research group under Smidt is examining writing practice in a range of subjects from the perspective of action research, focusing kindergarten through the first year of upper secondary (Lorentzen & Smidt 2008). The present project will carry on the SKRIV research on a number of significant points. These two projects share, then, an ethnographic approach, an interest in research into disciplinary didactics and a perception of writing as a social practice. The present project will, however, break new ground, partly in its empirical focus on the upper secondary level and on the situation particular to Denmark, and partly in its methodology – in its exploratory approach, its emphasis on the student perspective and its longitudinal design. No other Nordic research project has linked longitudinal student studies with studies in a subject-specific context, and the project is expected both to make an original contribution to existing knowledge about writing development and subject specific writing and to expand understanding of the complex question of how situated writing experience can generate general writing competence.

2.1          The applicants’ previous and current research

In an ongoing pilot study Christensen, Elf and Krogh have been carrying out fieldwork in three 9th year (15-year-olds) classes in different parts of Denmark. Here relevant methods of data collection and analysis have been developed and contacts have been made to students whom we can follow through their upper secondary schooling. The results from the pilot study will reinforce the project’s empirical weight in that they can be incorporated into the longitudinal studies and also cast light on the transition from secondary school to gymnasium (6th Form).

Previous studies have documented the need for research in written work following the 2005 Gymnasium reform (Krogh et al. 2009, Christensen 2009, Krogh 2010). Hobel (2009) sheds light on the complexity of the mandatory inter-disciplinary writing of the Gymnasium reform. His empirical data also show up significant unanswered questions about textual quality, about the cognitive challenges of these assignments and about the didactic content of the teaching context. In a design research project, Elf (2008) tested a multi-modal, semiotic approach in Danish teaching and found that the subject culture exerted a resistance towards the new way of conceiving the subject.

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