Literacy has been an important factor in building societies based on welfare, democracy and human rights around the world. In Norway in the late 19th and the better part of the 20th century, there was a strong movement to educate and alphabetise all parts of the population, not just the elite.
In the beginning, poverty and lack of a public educational system were the major obstacles, but since World War II the Norwegian educational system has provided first seven, then nine and now ten years of comprehensive school for all children. One might think that this would solve the problem of illiteracy in Norway in the foreseeable future, however this is not the case. In the course of the last ten years, there has been a significant decrease in reading skills and voluntary reading activities among Norwegian youths. It might look like the modern youth learns the alphabet, but refuses to use it.
Prosperity and a proper educational system do not guarantee a reading population. On this background, major forces in Norwegian cultural life, with the support of publishing houses and government authorities, organised a national reading campaign to make the Norwegian population read more books.
Inspiring and encouraging the love of reading – not moralising
The best way to learn to become literate is not to be told the importance of reading. The best way is to enjoy reading in itself. Children and young people who read books and comic books for the sake of entertainment, are also capable of reading official documents, textbooks and newspapers.
As mentioned above, reading skills have decreased in Norway in the last few years. The problem is not a lack of schools and education, as was earlier the case. Children and young people learn to read, but their reading skills are used to such a limited degree that many of them are in fact functionally illiterate. Rather than moralising and trying to force young people to read more, we feel that we can make up for these reading difficulties by inspiring and encouraging the love of reading.
We see the distribution of literature and of purely enjoyable reading as a method to overcome the illiteracy in a welfare state such as Norway.
!les works a lot with people’s, and especially young people’s, attitude towards literature. Teachers, parents and other adults with authority are not necessarily the ideal sources of inspiration when it comes to motivating young people to read. Above all, young people listen and look to other young people.
In order to make the youth read – of their own free will – you need other young people who can talk about books and recommend literature. !les has made this the basic principle in an ongoing campaign in Norwegian schools, called ‘Lesestafetten’ – the Reading Relay. In the Reading Relay youth recommend books to younger. The relay baton is passed on from county to county each month. The county library contacts participating high schools and comprehensive schools and gives them various tasks. The high school students each choose a book to read and later present it to a class in comprehensive school.
This campaign is beneficial to both the mediators and the receivers.We are consciously exploiting the gap between two school levels. The older students act as role models for the younger ones, as well as being much closer to the adult world.When they show up and recommend a book, it motivates the younger pupils to start reading. Simultaneously, the older students develop an awareness of their own reading, without the feeling that they are the subject of a ‘campaign’.
In three years about 100,000 Norwegian kids and youth participated in the Reading Relay, an action supported by the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority.
Each autumn !les presents excerpts from new Norwegian and translated literature for young adults, to pupils in comprehensive schools. In 2003 150,000 pupils received their own personal pocketbook with excerpts of some of the best recent books for young adults in Norway and in the world today.
The schools have been the main arena for the efforts and work of !les. In Norwegian schools the pupils are under equal terms, and the possibilities for mass communication are extensive. Projects and plans presented by teachers are not necessarily met with joy and excitement among pupils, and it seldom inspires them to indulge in similar activities after school.
The role of the reading campaign in Norwegian schools has been to represent something different. Throughout the six years we have presented campaign tXt to pupils in comprehensive school, we have striven to establish a system that does not resemble the canon presented in textbooks and education. Participation and involvement is steadily increasing, and no child will pass through the Norwegian school system without having read and owned a book. tXt is financed by Norwegian authorities and has the support of the Norwegian publishers and writers.
Through the six years tXt-campaigning 340,000 Norwegian pupils have participated.
Reading and text is about language. One of the main objectives of !les’ efforts to make people read books, is to give them a better awareness of themselves and their role in society. Language is a tool that provides an individual with means of development, and it is a condition for democracy and the constitution of social individuals. These possibilities change when the conditions of a language change. In Norway, as in most other small cultural circles in the world, the main challenge when it comes to language is the significant influence from American culture and language – on society in general, and on young people in particular.
On this background, !les collaborated with The Norwegian Language Council, translators, writers and the Ministry of Education and formed the campaign Norvengelsk – or Norwenglish – in the spring of 2002. 50,000 pupils in comprehensive school participated in a campaign by reading and evaluating new translations from English to Norwegian. They were presented with a brand new literary text containing a number of American slang words and expressions. The pupils were encouraged to find or make Norwegian words to replace the Americanisms. The best translations were rewarded. The campaign was a success, and !les is currently considering introducing it as a permanent initiative.
!les as a guide into the world of fantasy and knowledge
The organisation !les has focused on enjoyment and delight in the transmission and diffusion of literature in schools.We are convinced that this perspective must be present in order for literature and reading to survive in a time when the children of Western civilisation are being overwhelmed by computer games, films, and other forms of ‘fast entertainment’.We make use of competitions as a means of enticing those who are initially uninterested to sample the texts we have chosen. By doing this, we reach more than merely those who come from homes with books and have parents who introduce them to literature.
Literature contains a myriad of lives and experiences. Every child, youth and adult should have the possibility to share this world. There isn’t any person in the world that couldn’t gain wisdom and pleasure from it. !les wants to be a guide into this world of fantasy and knowledge.
In short this is the main principle of !les.We collaborate with teachers, librarians, booksellers, writers and publishing houses to encourage as many as possible to read. Although we emphasise play, enjoyment and delight, we are also mindful of the social significance of reading and literature, and the fact that reading will always be a quiet and time-consuming activity. Reading a book will never be like playing a computer game, and it will always be more important. Reading is a serious business, but this does not necessarily mean that it should be communicated in a serious and solemn manner.
About Foreningen les
Foreningen !les was established in 2001, following a pre-project that started in 1997. The organisation is a private initiative, and it is partly financed by membership fees and contributions from the participating organisations, and partly through government funding. In 2003 the organisation had an annual turnover of about 2 million NOK, and reached more than 200,000 young Norwegians.
!les is expanding, and is planning a national reading year in 2005, the centennial of the state of Norway. The organisation is founded upon the experiences of similar campaigns in other countries such as Lësrørelsen in Sweden, Stiftung Lesen in Germany, and National Literacy Trust in England.
For more information:
www.foreningenles.no (mainly in Norwegian)
Translated by Kari Joynt Portrait by Martin Haweks
Illustration by Nina Eikeskog