Abstraction and authority in textbooks : The textual paths towards specialized language

Abstract: During a few hours of a school day, a student might read textbook texts which are highly diversified in terms of abstraction. Abstraction is a central feature of specialized language and the transition from everyday language to specialized language is one of the most important things formal education can offer students. That transition is the focus of this thesis.This study introduces a new three-graded classification of abstraction including the levels of specificity, generalization and abstraction, based on a discussion of the concept of abstraction. The investigations performed, based on this classification, show that texts from different subject areas display distinct patterns of abstraction. The Swedish literary texts had the lowest degree of abstraction, the social science texts had an intermediate degree and the natural science texts were the most generalized and abstract. The results also show that the degree of abstraction in the textbook texts increases in later grade levels.The thesis presents a new way of analyzing shifts between levels of abstraction and their functions. Interestingly, the texts with a medium degree of abstraction, the social science texts, are the ones with the greatest variety in shifts. The functions of the shifts differ with respect to cultural domains. The shifts in the Swedish literary texts in general belong to the everyday domain while the shifts in the natural science texts belong to a specialized domain. The shifts in the social science texts had features of both domains.A secondary aim of the thesis is to develop the understanding of the relationship between author and reader in the texts. The results from my investigation of modality in the Swedish textbook texts confirm the earlier findings from English and Spanish textbooks. In comparison to other text types, textbook texts present knowledge in a more authoritative and less modalized way.From time to time, abstraction is described as a feature that hinders students accessing texts. Some researchers even suggest a removal of features of specialized language in textbook texts, in order to increase students’ understanding. However, in a society where specialized knowledge is necessary, the access to specialized texts is important. A democratic view of education and school mandates that children and adolescents have the opportunity to encounter and learn to encounter specialized language in school. In analyzing the texts special attention is paid to the relationship between the texts, the contexts of use and the student readers.