Project description


The purpose of the project Multimodal literacies in L1 – a Nordic perspective (abbr. MultiL1) is to establish a consistent and coherent research agenda among experienced scholars for exploring literacy practices in L1/mother tongue education in four Nordic countries. In popular terms, we are interested in exploring how and why the school subjects Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish are taught and learned, with a particular focus on ‘reading’ and ‘writing’. By developing a shared research design in the four countries, MultiL1 – which is running from autumn 2015 to spring 2017 – will be able to set a new research agenda across countries where there is a high impact of digital technology and a shared focus on students’ work on multimodal texts in schools, that is, reading/writing in an expanded sense.

The purpose of the planned review (Work Package 1 (=WP 1)), the two pilot studies (WPs 2 and 3) is to prepare an application (WP 4) which will be used as a bid for national applications in the four countries. Together, the applications will comprise a major externally funded Nordic research project. Such an initiative is crucial for international research on L1 which, on one hand, is evidently bound to national contexts, yet on the other is forced to rethink its rationale in a globalised world (Ongstad, van de Ven, P.-H., & Herrlitz, W., 2007). The Nordic research design suggested here will allow for ‘supernational’ comparisons of L1, developed from the point of view of Nordic research.

As a point of departure for MultiL1 we ask two interrelated research questions:

• What characterises literacy practices in Nordic L1 classrooms, and
• what are the implications for future L1 teaching and teacher training in Nordic countries and beyond?

We are convinced that MultiL1 can and will attract external funding since research councils in Nordic countries are increasingly calling for research projects that address supernational issues, not the least within education.


The project’s point of departure is the claim that the understanding of language and literacy has been extended, and that this holds important implications for teaching and learning literacy within school in general and in L1 in particular (S. Ongstad, 2014; Vollmer, 2006). Theoretically, we approach literacy from a socio-cultural and multimodal perspective. A socio-cultural perspective emphasises that learning occurs through participation in a community (Cole, 1996; Dysthe, 2001; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Rogoff, 2003). A learning community is created by both participants and the learning materials and resources for learning that they have at hand. Socio-cultural theory devotes considerable attention to an analysis of literacy practices. In social practices, cultural tools such as computers and learning resources are central to the school's working methods in L1. A socio-cultural perspective gives explanatory power to help analyse how these cultural tools are employed in literacy practices. Learning and literacy over time may be understood as a change in the observed action in the use of artifacts among those participating in the community (Gee & Green, 1998; Gee, 2004).
Analysing semiotic and material ‘elements’ also requires an analytical input to understand how images, signs and signage are assembled in students’ texts and resources for learning. Each of these expressions represents a possible resource for communication and learning. Semiotic and material resources are termed modalities within social semiotics (Gilje, 2008a, 2008b; Hodge & Kress, 1988; Selander & Kress, 2010). All such modalities are shaped through different teaching practices over time. Each modality therefore has meaningful potential as a result of the shared values assigned to the semiotic resource over time (Kress, 2010). The preferred modality in L1 over the last few decades has been written language and a linguistic approach to the teaching and learning of language and literature (Elf, 2009). However, the emergences of digital learning resources problematise the distinction between the written-based and multimodal learning tool culture.


In a number of studies, Nikolaj Elf, the PI of this application, has explored the emergence of multimodal literacy practices within L1 on national and Nordic levels. Addressing an international research community, Elf recently conducted a review of L1 research in a Nordic perspective focusing on technology and literacy practices in the last 30 years (Elf et al., 2015). This review reveals that multimodal literacy practices have emerged in school practices and been investigated in national small-scale research projects in Nordic countries. Findings suggest interesting similarities in terms of changes in the subject’s teaching practices on a Nordic level. The review highlights a Nordic comparative study based on interviews with and diaries from teachers (Elf & Kaspersen, 2012) which finds that one of the interesting patterns of similarity is that literature has lost its traditionally dominant position in the sense that teachers have trouble justifying teaching literature when confronted with students; instead, writing has become a main focus of teachers’ practice and been used for developing students’ literacies and their personal development/Bildung in recent decades (cf. Krogh, 2012); however, the study also shows that writing as a key focus is also being challenged, not least by the technology associated with emerging multimodal literacy practices. The review concludes that technology represents one of the big L1 questions in both contemporary research and practice – and in the future. The emergence of new communication technologies raises fundamental questions about the subject’s demarcation lines on several levels: a) about the subject’s content and methods; b) about productive and receptive aspects of the subject; c) about the aim and purpose of the subject in terms of competencies and the role it has for personal development; and d) about L1 as a nation-building subject or a subject whose content and methods, like media itself, are referring to a global world.

The review leads to the hypothesis that what is broadly referred to as technology and media within L1 can no longer be ‘contained’ in a simple sub-knowledge domain such as ‘mass communication’ taught for a few weeks during (upper) secondary school, which was the case in the 1970s and 1980s in a Danish L1 context (Lehrmann, 1996; Svendsen, 2011). In a contemporary perspective, empirical research finds a relatively heterogeneous practice in Nordic L1 subjects related to teachers’ diverse establishment and use of literacy practices. Literacy in the narrow analogue version of an individual’s ability to acquire verbal reading and writing ‘skills’ still dominates, teachers tend to disintegrate semiotic approaches to literacy practices, and there is a general perception of “teacher uncertainty” (Elf, 2012) related to the use or non-use of new technologies and multimodal literacy practices. Technology is regarded as a tool for the distribution of information and testing of skills rather than a literacy practice for meaning making and identity development embedded in social practices at home, at work, and in society at large. This perception is nurtured, to some extent, by the PISA literacy tests, a repetitive literacy practice at school in all Nordic countries, which suggests a more verbal and less situated understanding of literacy (Christensen, Elf, & Krogh, 2014).

This development in L1 is somewhat paradoxical and problematic considering the general development in society, influenced by megatrends such as technological development, globalisation, migration, and an expanded notion of language and literacy. For three decades, policy actors and researchers at the Nordic and European level have argued that access to and use of ICT and media literacy in education is a prerequisite to succeed in the future information and knowledge society. The assumption is that it is not enough to be able to read and write verbally (literacy in the narrow sense), you have to be able to communicate through ‘multiple literacies’; and especially digital and multimodal literacy practices are designated as a necessary development area (Erstad, 2010; Fraillon, Ainley, Schulz, Friedman, & Gebhardt, 2014; Gee, 2010; SOU, 1994; UFD, 2004; UVM, 2001).

It follows from these observations that there is a huge discrepancy between research, practice and policy. There is a call for research-based answers to fundamental didactic questions about the basic ‘whats, hows and whys’ of the subject related to the traditions and knowledge regimes historically and geographically embedded in Nordic countries. The review by Elf et al. (in press) points to several obvious knowledge gaps and at the same time hints at potentially interesting future research. One gap is a need for large-scale comparative research on how technology in a broad semiotic sense is integrated into L1 practice, and how it may be justified in L1 practice in a Nordic context. A second gap is a stronger focus in qualitative research on the development of a rigorous empirical research design that allows for a higher degree of generalisation, which would be acknowledged in international research. A third gap is research on the link between teaching practice at secondary and upper secondary levels and teacher education. The MultiL1 Project aims to fill these gaps by following the project plan described below. By using L1 as a focal point, we seek to develop more systematic and detailed empirical knowledge about the differences and similarities between the multimodal literacy practices of L1 in each country. Moreover, we will gain insights on how literacy developed in L1 can inform students’ literacy development and learning across the curriculum.

Project plan – including notes on working packages and organisation

The two-year MultiL1 project involves four work packages (WPs):


2015 Autumn

2016 Spring

2016 Autumn

2017 Spring

WP 1






WP 2






WP 3






WP 4





 Table 1. Time flow of MultiL1

WP 1: A review, to map existing research in the four countries in a review, focusing on secondary school grades 7–9. One epistemological reason for focusing on the secondary school level is that comparisons on this level are possible in a Nordic context due to the relative homogeneity; upper secondary education is more diverse and thus difficult to compare. A strategic reason is that there is a high degree of political interest in literacy development on this school level.
WP 2: Pilot study 1, to conduct a curriculum analysis of steering documents for L1 in grade 8 in the four Nordic countries. This is a prerequisite for WPs 3 and 4.
WP 3: Pilot study 2, to conduct a small-scale empirical case study of two grade 8 classes in each of the four Nordic countries. Cases will be strategically selected in terms of exploring the diversity of situated literacy practices and student experiences on composition, among others related to popular culture.
WP 4: Application generation, to develop an application which works as a template for applications sent to funding agencies in each country.

The time frame of MultiL1 is 2015–2017. As described in Project potential , MultiL1 is organised through the establishment of a research group (RG) and four national reference groups. So-called HUM SEED funding by the faculty of humanities at University of Southern Denmark, and funding from home departments of participating researchers, will enable project participants to meet at a number of research meetings where they will present preliminary findings of pilot studies, as described in notes to the budget . As the expected outcome, MultiL1 should catalyse externally funded research projects in the four countries (termed the ‘Quartet Project’; in Danish Firkløverprojektet) following the funding strategy described below. The Quartet Project is expected to run from 2017 to 2022.

Methodologically, we expect that Pilot study 2 and the later Quartet Project will be carried out as a series of case studies following the same research design in grade 8 in three different secondary schools in each country (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden). We expect that a strategic sample of schools will be chosen in each country based upon a diversity of literacy practices, and students’ achievement and interests. We also expect that in the Quartet Project teachers in the local schools and teacher educators will be involved in the latter phase of the project, in which developing teaching practices in L1 is a key concern. It should be pointed out, however, that such expectations regarding the research design have to be discussed and resolved during dialogues among members of the research group, the national reference groups, and at the planned conference, which shall also invite an international keynote for external feedback and perspectives.

Funding strategy

Regarding the funding strategy, we will use MultiL1 to apply for funding at national research councils and other agencies that explicitly call for Nordic/international collaboration between Nordic researchers for the purpose of addressing an international audience. Further, we will address funding agencies that support the development of schooling in national and/or Nordic contexts. Currently, the former Nordic research council, NORDFORSK, has been closed down. That is why we focus on national funding. However, we argue that the funding strategy is flexible and robust in the sense that if only some of the applications are granted funding the project can still be realised on a large Nordic scale because the applications will be designed in a way that co-fund researchers from the other Nordic countries. In Table 2, we outline our funding strategy in a systematic way.


Funding programme

Amount of money




DFF Project 2-funding




Lyst til læring

Approx. DKR 4 million



Max. DKR 700,000


Approx. DKR 4–5 million

Autumn 2017



Autumn 2015


Open. Will be applied for in spring 2017.

Danish Council for Independent Research | Culture and Communication (DFF)



Egmont Foundation






Max. NOK 10 million


Max. NOK 10 million

March 2017



June 2017

Norwegian Research Council (NFR) [1]




Swedish Research Council/UVK

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond

Max. SEK 10 million

Max. SEK 5–7 million

March 2017


February 2017

Swedish Research Council

Riksbankens Jubileumsfond


Consortium application/Academy Project[2]

The Swedish Association for Literature (SLS) in Finland


350 000



400 000

September 2017


Autumn 2016

The Academy of Finland



[1] Norwegian Research Programme for Educational Research, FINNUT, has as a criterion that funding will only be given to a project with partners in international collaboration and collective publishing. Due to this criterion, MultiL1 will work to increase the chances of obtaining funding. See
FRISAM is funding projects in social science:

[2] Academy Projects at The Academy of Finland have a criterion that funding can be applied by a consortium comprised by a cohort of several projects located at different research contexts (e.g. different universities). A consortium is a time-limited cohort of independent projects which collaborate on and work with a shared research plan.

Table 2. Funding strategy in the four countries

Final notes on the PI and the project’s potential

We believe that the project design, including the organisational structure, will facilitate interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration, which has the potential to strengthen both the research environment at the Faculty of Humanities at SDU and help develop a strong and convincing research application that could attract external funding. The PI holds a special position for leading the project. In the last 10 years, Elf has participated in several research and development projects addressing the question of how and why to teach Danish and L1. In recent projects, he has collaborated with Nordic researchers comparing Danish with other Nordic ‘L1 subjects’ (Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish). He has also contributed to national and international research and policy discussions on multimodal literacy practices in L1 and other subjects, and has been part of the FKK-funded Writing to learn, learning to write project  (2011–2015), led by professor Ellen Krogh, SDU), that focuses on communicative developments in society that are leading to an expanding notion of literacy. Currently, Elf is a co-editor of the journal L1, the most prestigious international journal in the field (BFI: 2), and he has been co-organising the international conference on L1 research IAIMTE 2015 which took place at SDU in June 2015. He has project leadership experience from other projects and has taken the Copenhagen Business School programme on Research Project Management. The MultiL1 project draws on Elf’s research portfolio and his network, and will involve colleagues from both the FKK project and other colleagues at IKV, SDU, involved in media literacy research, including a PhD student who could be recruited for a post doc.


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