Norway teen literacy

Boys are catching up to girls in English proficiency, but not yet in Norwegian

Photo: allison.johnston / Flickr
Norwegian boys are exposed to English through video games.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Reading and writing are the first two of the three Rs, the basic skills of literacy on which all education builds. Yet around the world, reading and writing skills are declining. That trend has caused alarm at the international level and now is much studied, as in the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competences.

In multicultural Europe, declining literacy is an acute challenge, as it weakens second-language skills now essential in education and work. In Norway, for instance, admission to higher education now requires proficiency in Norwegian and English. A college or university student is expected to function in at least two languages. Similar requirements apply in some professions, like healthcare and the oil and gas sector.

Speculation is rife on the underlying causes of the decline in reading skills, though evidence suggests that the ongoing shift from reading on paper to reading on screen is one cause. The European Union accordingly initiated Europe-wide research on the impact of digitization on reading, called E-READ, a four-year international program from 2015 to 2018, involving universities in 26 countries, led by the University of Stavanger.

Two more recent Norwegian research programs have probed causes of literacy declines, focusing on English as the most prevalent second language. First, researchers at the University of Oslo assessed the first-vs. second-language reading skills of 10,000 pupils in upper secondary schools (equivalent to U.S. high schools). Their principal finding, published in English this past October, was that the gender difference in skill is changing. Girls have long been more proficient than boys in reading first-language Norwegian and second-language English. But now boys have caught up and are almost as proficient as girls in reading English, though not in reading Norwegian. The cause identified was that boys are more absorbed than girls in computer games, in which English is the default language.

Second, researchers at the Norwegian Social Research institute looked at the effects of two extracurricular activities, sports and computer gaming, on performance in three school subjects: mathematics, Norwegian, and English. Overall, they found that girls outperform boys. For all pupils, participation in sports was found to have a positive effect on performance in school subjects, while computer gaming was found to have a negative effect on mathematics and Norwegian and a lesser negative effect on English.

Further reading:
• Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC), a cyclical, large-scale study under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

• “E-reading probed: is it effective? International research in e-reading led by University of Stavanger,” Norwegian American, Feb. 11, 2015, link:

• “The complexity of second language reading: Investigating the L1 (first language)-L2 (second language) relationship” by Lisbeth M. Brevik, Rolf Vegar Olsen & Glenn Ole Hellekjær, Reading in a Foreign Language, Vol. 28, No. 2, Oct. 2016, link:

• Idrett, dataspilling og skole—konkurrende eller “på lag” (Sports, computer games, and school—competitors or “on the same team”) by Mira Aaboen Sletten, Åse Strandbu & Øystein Gilje, Norsk Pedagogisk Tidsskrift (Norwegian Journal of Pedagogy), No. 5, 2015, link: (in Norwegian).

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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