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Division into literary levels will help improve literature teaching

20 May 2008

Good literature teaching is important for pupils in secondary school. Sadly the subject has been faced with various problems for a long time. For example, there’s very little known about the literary development process of HAVO and VWO pupils and there are regular doubts about whether the pupils are acquiring sufficient literary knowhow. ‘Because there is as yet no theory about the right approach to teaching literature, both teachers and pupils are in the dark about choosing books’, is Theo Witte’s opinion. He has developed a method that does justice to the differences between pupils. Witte will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 29 May 2008.

It is often thought that pupils have a negative attitude towards reading. According to Witte, in practice it’s a different story. Before the introduction of the ‘second phase’, pupils just had to read a lot of books, instead of having to understand them properly. Witte: ‘In such cases the pupils read pages rather than a work of literature. But it’s not about quantity – four books a year can be enough, so long as they are the right books at the right time.’

Qualitative method

Based on the practical knowledge of teachers in secondary education, Witte developed a method defining six levels of literary competence. They start with the empathetic reading of ‘Het verrotte leven van Floortje Bloem’ and go up to the ability to interpret and value Vondel's ‘Lucifer’. This can help identify possible comprehension problems in the texts and clarify which knowledge and reading skills a certain literary text requires.  

Carefully weighed booklist

In order to improve the quality of literature teaching, Witte proposes a national catalogue comprising about two hundred books. These books would naturally cover all six of the levels, and each book would also be provided with literary and didactic information for the teacher. ‘Although you might think that this would limit the teachers in their choice, that is not actually the case’, thinks Witte. ‘A catalogue like this offers lecturers something concrete and is also an accessible, reliable and inspiring guide for pupils’.

Too optimistic

The division into various levels enables teachers to determine the level of their pupils better. Teachers currently have a too optimistic expectation of the start and finish levels of their pupils. Thus nearly half of the pupils in HAVO/VWO 4 do not satisfy the starting norm. They thus start their literature education with a handicap whereby they are insufficiently prepared to comprehend simple literature for adults. The finishing level of many VWO pupils is also often far below the level that teachers want to reach.

Better insight

According to Witte’s research, pupils also undoubtedly benefit from the clear division into levels. What exactly is expected from them thus becomes much clearer. It also prevents a pupil with a high literary competence reading a book that is below his or her level. And pupils with a lower starting level are not demotivated by reading literary works that are currently beyond their understanding. Witte: ‘Some pupils even developed a competitive spirit’.


It goes without saying that there are other factors that can also stimulate or restrict the literary development of pupils. For example, it is important to set pupils an assignment based on the book read that will set the pupil off in a certain direction. Witte: ‘A general assignment on the theme, for example, is not enough guidance, whereas an assignment about the motives of a character will lead to a better understanding much faster.’ The active exchange of reading experiences can also be an important stimulus.

Curriculum Vitae

Theo Witte (1952) studied Dutch at the University of Groningen and will be awarded his PhD by the Faculty of Arts. He conducted his research at the department of Teacher Training of the University Centre for Teaching and Learning Groningen (UOCG), within the programme Teaching and Teacher Education. His thesis is entitled ‘Het oog van de meester’ [The Master’s Eye], available from Eburon Delft. Witte is a researcher and teaching methodologist at the UOCG.

More information

- Theo Witte, e-mail: t.c.h.witte

- On 26 May, Stichting Lezen [The Reading Foundation] is organizing a forum discussion about this thesis. It will be held in the afternoon at the De Rode Hoed in Amsterdam. Please contact Stichting Lezen, Mirjam van Vliet or Desirée van der Zander, (020) 623 05 66, , for more information.

Last modified:30 November 2017 4.03 p.m.
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