The Policies and Contexts that Frame English Education and Use in Iceland

  • Birna ArnbjörnsdóttirEmail author
Part of the Educational Linguistics book series (EDUL, volume 34)


This chapter provides an overview of the social, linguistic and educational policies that frame the use of English in Iceland. Icelanders have had easy access to English in their everyday lives, especially since WWII. English education begins early and, by the time of graduation from secondary school, Icelandic students have had up to ten years of English instruction. Educational and language policies are seen as dissonant with the complex language ecology of Iceland as they do not reflect the substantial presence of English in Iceland. National Curriculum Guides which categorize English with other foreign languages may constrain practice. The chapter begins with a short historical overview of contact with English. The historical account is followed by an introduction to prevailing Nordic and Icelandic language policies. The bulk of the chapter is devoted to educational policies, specifically, the National Curriculum Guides for English instruction for children at primary and secondary level. The chapter ends with a brief overview of studies on instructional practices and the educational outcomes of the policies and practices described. Findings suggest that children acquire much of their English proficiency outside the classroom.

1 Introduction

The linguistic repertoires of Icelanders are not well understood and nor are the linguistic spaces within which they function. This chapter provides a backdrop for the rest of the chapters in this book on the findings of the longitudinal project ‘English in a New Linguistic Context in Iceland‘, specifically those that pertain to attained proficiency and function of English (see Jóhannsdóttir, this volume; Ingvarsdóttir and Jóhannsdóttir, this volume; Jeeves, this volume; Edgarsson, this volume). Icelanders, although geographically isolated, have a tradition of language learning and foreign language encounters that goes back generations. In recent decades, English has been easily accessible and Icelanders’ general English proficiency is comparatively high. Iceland ranks among the top ten highest achievers on the 2015 international TOEFL exams (TOEFL 2016, pp. 14–15). English education begins early and, by the time of graduation from secondary school, Icelandic students have had up to ten years of English or even longer. This is in addition to massive exposure outside of school (see next chapter). Massive English exposure is reflected in students’ facility with understanding conversational English at a young age as shown by the studies reviewed in this chapter. However, language and education policies do not reflect this presence of English in Iceland and nor do National Curriculum Guides which categorize English with other foreign languages whose exposure is restricted to the classroom. The disconnect causes tensions that affect the implementation of English instruction and effectiveness of instruction in meeting the needs of students. This dissonance between language and educational policy and linguistic reality is the topic of this chapter which begins with a very brief historical overview of the presence of English in Iceland.

2 The Presence of English in Iceland

2.1 A Brief Historical Overview

Language contact in Iceland is not a new phenomenon despite the island’s geographical isolation. Contact with the outside world is well documented from the time of settlement in the ninth century. First, mutually intelligible varieties of a common Nordic language, Old Norse, were used to communicate with other Nordic people’s and even with the inhabitants of the British Isles and beyond. Danish became a second language in Iceland from the thirteenth century until it was replaced in the latter part of the twentieth century by a more distant Germanic cousin, English.

Iceland was a colony of Denmark from the last part of the thirteenth century up until independence in 1944 and Danish was to some extent the language of higher education, government and commerce in Iceland. Initially, the intense contact with Danish may have had some influence on the Icelandic language and its use. However, in the middle of the nineteenth century, under the influence of the Romantic movement, a fierce nationalism developed and successful efforts were made to “purify” Icelandic and bring it closer to the “classic models of Old Icelandic” (Hilmarsson-Dunn and Kristinsson 2009, p. 365). Icelandic was a written language from early on and most of the official government documents were written both in Danish and in Icelandic. A majority of the educated classes in Iceland had their schooling in Denmark and commerce was largely conducted in Danish. Danish was, in effect, a second language in Iceland for centuries although some doubt exists as to the extent to which the general population, especially outside trading posts, spoke Danish (Hauksdóttir 2013). Nevertheless, up until the 1990s, Danish was the first foreign language taught in Icelandic schools, popular magazines read by adults and children were mostly imported from Denmark (written in Danish), as were movies. Irrespective of the breadth or depth of Icelanders’ Danish proficiency, Danish was a constant presence in Iceland up until the middle of the twentieth century.

The first mention of English use in Iceland appears in diary entries and descriptions from the eighteenth century of meetings with visitors and explorers who traveled in Iceland (Einarsdóttir 2001; Agnarsdóttir and Stephensen 2010). Previously, commerce had flourished between the English and Icelanders during the 15th century, called the “English Century” by scholar, but no sources are available about the use of language while trading. The need for English proficiency grew around the middle of the nineteenth century as trade with Britain and British fishermen who fished in Icelandic waters increased again and more frequent steam ship visits brought more foreign travelers. As in other countries, increased trade with Britain enhanced the need to know English and Icelandic merchants found it advantageous to send their sons to Britain to study English language and culture. At home, adult education began to include English studies especially for those catering to British trade (Einarsdottir 2001). Emigration to America began in the 1870s, which strengthened familiarity with the English language in Iceland. The first Icelandic English dictionary was published in 1896 and an English bookstore was established in Reykjavík in 1927 (Jónsson 1976). By the turn of the twentieth century, Icelanders frequently sought their education in England. The consequences of the First World War, resulting in greater Anglo Saxon cultural influences throughout the world, extended to Iceland as well (Einarsdóttir 2001).

Contact with English amplified with the arrival of British soldiers in Iceland in the Second World War, especially in the geographic areas of Iceland occupied by the British. During WWII, around 25,000 English speaking soldiers became part of everyday life in Iceland followed by over 42,000 American servicemen. After WWII, the American presence continued until 2006. The British and American soldiers needed services and local business owners and shop assistants soon learned some English (Erna Vigfúsdóttir, personal communication). At the time, Iceland only had about 120,000 inhabitants (Kjartansson 2002, p. 220), so the influence of the occupation on everyday life in Iceland during the war was extensive. The American military base in Keflavík had its own radio and television stations that broadcast entertainment in English that Icelanders also listened to and which facilitated the spread of English and American popular culture until 2006 when the base was closed (Kvaran and Svavarsdóttir 2002). The next wave of English contact came in the fifties and sixties with the spread of Anglo-Saxon pop culture and goods worldwide. In Iceland, British and American movies, music, fashion and consumer goods quickly replaced Danish cultural influences and English replaced Danish as the perceived “threat” to Icelandic language and culture. Youth culture in Iceland, especially, reflects cultural references, translanguaging and general preference for, and familiarity with, Anglo-Saxon norms, values and behaviors. The sustained and intense presence of English language and culture over the last decades is reflected in Icelanders’ and other Nordic peoples’ confidence in their English skills (see the chapter “ English Exposure, Proficiency and Use in Iceland, this volume”) and this assumption has found its way into policy documents. Language policies common to all the Nordic countries are presented in the next section followed by Icelandic language policies.

2.2 A Common Nordic Policy

Given the presence of English in the Nordic countries, there is a prevailing ideology that Nordic peoples generally speak English well and that they are able to use English alongside their first language especially in business, education and scientific pursuits (Nordic Council of Ministers 2008). A Common Nordic Language Policy from 2007 asserts that the “Nordic countries are a linguistic pioneering region” (p. 95) with a rich tradition of learning multiple foreign languages. English has a special status in the Declaration, which advocates the parallel use of languages depending on circumstance. It states: “Nordic residents … have especially favourable conditions for developing skills in the parallel use of English” and local languages (pp. 93–94). The Declaration further encourages business and labor-market organizations “to develop strategies for the parallel use of local languages and English” (p. 94).

The positive view of multilingualism expressed in the non-binding declaration is problematic for at least three reasons. The first is the underlying assumption that Nordic residents have adequate English skills that enable them to choose which language to use for different linguistic practices is not supported by research. This is especially true for formal registers used in business and academic communication (Hultgren et al. 2014; Dimova et al. 2015). The second issue is the lack of clarity about what constitutes “parallel language use” making it difficult to support empircally. Hultgren (2016) points out that despite its universal acceptance it is not clear whether the term refers to practice, competence, policy, or individual or systemic language use (p. 2). Clearly any future investigation into parallel language use requires consensus about parallel language use means. Until this has been clarified it will prove difficult to develop effective national language and educational policies that aim to steer linguistic behavior of citizens (Hultgren 2016). In fact, and this is the third major issue, the progressive view of language reflected in the non-binding Declaration is not represented in current national policies making it unlikely to be realized (Hultgren et al. 2014). This is especially true for Iceland, a country with a long history of conservative language policies and practices aimed at steering language behaviors to protect the national language.

2.3 Icelandic Language Policy

The official language policy of Iceland is that Icelandic is the national language of Iceland including in government and in the education system (Article 8) and that the government should ensure that Icelandic is used at all levels of society for all purposes (Article 2).

Stjórnvöld skulu tryggja að unnt verði að nota hana á öllum sviðum íslensks þjóðlífs (2. gr. Málstefna 2012)

As an example, during early efforts to promote mother tongue education for immigrant children in Iceland in the first National Curriculum Guidelines (1999), the author was informed by the then Education Minister that this was not possible as, by law, there could be no teaching in languages other than Icelandic in Icelandic schools. Despite the official stance, however, English has increasingly become the medium of instruction at Iceland‘s universities (see the chapter,  Using English at University, this volume). Six out of seven universities in Iceland have language policies which state that Icelandic is the language of instruction, research and governance, with the stipulation that this may not always be true for graduate programs and research purposes where the use of English may be necessary (Kristinsson and Bernharðsson 2014; Menntamálaráðuneyti 2009, p. 48).

Although not an official policy, the Icelandic government has been cognizant of the need to promote efforts to translate the interface of computer software sold in Iceland into Icelandic. The government’s goal in 2009 was that all software interfaces would be in Icelandic by 2012 (Málstefna 2012). In 2012, 40% of schools in Iceland used English on their Windows operating systems despite Microsoft having made available interfaces in Icelandic. However, Apple has not translated its interface into Icelandic (Harðardóttir et al. 2012) and, as children increase their computer use, English exposure can only grow (Broddason 2006). Computer interface, despite official efforts is still a major source of English exposure for Icelanders.

There are no official policies that guide or govern language use in the work place with the exception of the non-binding Common Nordic Language Policy that encourages business to develop strategies for the parallel use of languages (p. 94). The fact remains that for more and more Icelandic companies, English is becoming the company language (Kvaran 2008).

Icelandic is the official language of Iceland and there is no reference to other languages in official language policy documents. The only mention of the role of the English language in Iceland in official documents appears in the National Curriculum Guides 2011a, b, where English is grouped with other foreign languages.

3 English in Primary Education

The Icelandic education system is three tiered and has separate Curriculum Guides for each level. Compulsory or primary education begins at age six. Prior to that, the vast majority of children have had up to four years of pre-school. Compulsory education ends in the 10th grade when students are 16 years old. Most students move on to secondary education from age 16–20, but about a fifth does not graduate (Statistics Iceland 2016). This section provides an overview of the educational policies that guide English education at the primary level in Iceland. The goal is to demonstrate that because of a dissonance between educational policy and linguistic reality, implementation of policies may not be as effective as intended in guiding educators to meet the linguistic needs of students.

English was first introduced as a subject at primary level in 1936. Before that, the notion was that children had to be proficient in their mother tongue before they were ready to learn a foreign language (Hauksdóttir 2007, p. 35). English instruction began at the 6th grade level in 1974 when English was introduced as a second foreign language after Danish. However, in 1999 English instruction began at 5th grade when it replaced Danish as the first foreign language taught in school. The responsibility of choosing instructional approaches and finding pertinent teaching material was left up to teachers (Menntamálaráðuneyti 1999). In 2010, English instruction was started in the 4th grade, while in 2016, at the time of writing, the onset of formal English instruction is even earlier with many pre-schools offering English programs. Thus, before entering the tertiary level, the average Icelandic student has studied English for at least seven years in primary school (Grades 1-10) and another three to eight semesters in secondary school (Grades 11–14), depending on the field of study. Each of the three educational levels has their own Curriculum Guides with a subguide for foreign languages. We begin with the Guide for the primary level.

3.1 The National Curriculum Guide for the Primary Level (1st –10th Grade)

The 1999 National Curriculum Guide had clearly defined curriculum goals for English at the end of 10th grade along with objectives and ways to attain those goals. Each school also had a school curriculum that aligned with the National Curriculum Guide. In the current Guide from 2011b, this detailed approach has been replaced by more general benchmarks for proficiency for all foreign languages based on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) (Mennta- og menningarmálaráðuneytið 2011b; Reynisdóttir and Jóhannesson 2013). A subsection of the Guide is devoted to the teaching and learning of foreign languages.

The Curriculum Guide for foreign languages (2013) in effect at the time of writing contains three benchmarks, or competency levels, in seven different skill areas: listening, reading comprehension, spoken interaction, spoken production, writing, cultural literacy, and learning skills at the end of the 10th grade. The competencies apply to both the foreign languages taught at this level, English and Danish, and reflect general traditional foreign language and culture competencies. The Guide, although thorough and broad, ignores the vastly different linguistic contexts in which children learn these two languages. In the introduction to the Guide, there is a short paragraph about the importance of English. It states: “English is the key language in higher education and science and therefore it is essential to have a good command of English right from the beginning … as most study material in Icelandic universities is in English” (Mennta- og menningarmálaráðuneytið 2013 p. 129). However, there is no reflection of this status in the competencies themselves, nor is there an acknowledgement of the rich English input Icelandic children receive from infancy. There is no special emphasis on academic English in the Guide itself despite the statement above (Guðmundsdóttir and Arnbjörnsdóttir 2014). On the contrary, about three times more space is devoted to the importance of learning Danish or other Nordic languages. The Guide states that in order to continue their English studies at the secondary level without remediation, students should have reached level 3 in the Guide or B1 on The Common European Framework of Reference (p. 127). The following section describes briefly the implementation of English language learning at the primary level.

3.2 Instruction at the Primary Level, 1–10th Grade

Studies of formal English learning spaces including instructional practice, educational materials and teacher preparation, find that traditional approaches prevail and that most English instructors have little formal training as English teachers (Kristjánsdóttir et al. 2005/2006; Ingvarsdóttir 2011a, b), and that English is taught for 2–4 h a week.

As a follow-up to the 1999 Curriculum Guide, the Ministry of Education commissioned a study on the implementation of the then new Guide in practice. Participants were 788 students in the 5th, 9th and 10th grades and 23 teachers in eight primary schools in Iceland. Data were collected through mixed methods that included surveys, interviews and class observations (Kristjánsdóttir et al. 2005/2006). The main findings were that, although innovative communicative approaches exist, instructional practice and assessment was largely traditional, teacher-centered with little opportunity for students to practice productive skills (Kristjánsdóttir et al. 2005/2006, p. 11). These findings are supported by later studies (Ingvarsdóttir and Jóhannsdóttir, this volume; Jeeves, this volume).

In most primary schools, there are four lessons of English per week in grades 9 and 10. The lower grades have two lessons per week but these may be combined so that many students have English only once a week (Kristjánsdóttir et al. 2005/2006). English instructional materials are, for the most part, chosen by the Icelandic Curriculum Center (Námsgagnastofnun) and are not usually written especially for Icelandic students. The older students are not satisfied with the study materials, a view that is also expressed by some of the teachers (Kristjánsdóttir et al. 2005/2006).

In the Kristjánsdóttir et al study, a third of the 23 participating teachers was certified to teach English and most of those taught in the Reykjavík area. In the younger grades, none of the teachers had certification in English teaching. By 2014, only about 5% of teachers in Iceland’s state schools were without teacher certification (Statistics Iceland 2016). No numbers were available about certification of those teachers who teach English specifically.

In-service training for Icelandic teachers appears to be haphazard, unstructured and voluntary. There is no requirement for further professional development upon completion of initial certification, which hampers growth in professional knowledge and adoption of new methodologies and approaches (Ingvarsdóttir 1999). Funding allocated for general in-service training by the government has, to a large extent, gone to fund “study trips” abroad. These trips, organized by individual schools, do not always focus on specific subjects or on instruction and “have limited value for professional or school development” (Þorsteinsdóttir and Þorsteinsson 2014, p. 521).

These earlier studies highlighted that practices were teacher centered and that there were insufficient opportunities for students to produce English in the few hours a week allocated to English instruction. The lack of in-service training reported in these studies does little to enhance the likelihood of teachers adopting more student centered instructional practices. The next section addresses the educational outcomes of the system described above.

3.3 Educational Outcomes – Icelandic Children’s English Proficiency

The history of standardized testing in Iceland is not long and there seems to have been a philosophical and political aversion to the notion of such examinations as a means to gauge the outcomes of the Icelandic educational system. Over the last few years, however, there have been efforts to introduce standardized tests in Iceland. Currently, the outcome of primary education is measured by means of optional National Exams in Icelandic, Mathematics and English (Námsmatsstofnun 2016). English proficiency is only tested at the end of primary school in the 10th grade while the other subjects are also tested in the 4th and 7th grades. The frequent changing of the evaluation instruments, by which competencies are measured, makes any comparison between years and tests difficult (Egilsdóttir 2012).

The current Guide provides a description of a learner’s competence rather than a target benchmark of mastery to be attained at the culmination of a specific school level. The description includes ability ratings given in letters, A, B, C, and D. Students who receive a grade A-B in English at the end of the 10th grade have reached competency level 2 (CEFR, B1/B2) required to continue English studies at secondary level without remediation (Mennta- og menningarmálaráðuneytið 2013, p. 138).

In 2014, over 60% of Icelandic students in the 10th grade were found to be at level 2 (B1/B2) in English upon completion of their compulsory education (Námsmatsstofnun 2016). This seems paradoxical when measured against the instructional picture presented above. However, it seems clear from other studies, that this proficiency may be attained outside of school (Jóhannsdóttir, this volume; Jeeves, this volume) and that conversational English skills, especially receptive skills exceed the proficiency goals of the National Guide.

Three major studies of Icelandic children’s English proficiency have been conducted over the last decades that demonstrate this fact. These studies are comparable as they used similar methodology and measurements and give a good overview of English proficiency and use by children over time (Torfadóttir et al. 2006; Jóhannsdóttir 2010; Lefever 2010). Two studies are presented here and the third, and most recent, is presented in the next section. The first study is a survey of 275 young Icelanders’ English proficiency conducted in 2006. Participants were fourth graders from eight schools with no English instruction and fifth graders in the first year of instruction from eight schools in and outside of Reykjavík (Torfadóttir et al. 2006). Results showed that on average the score was 72% correct answers on the comprehension test. In the 5th grade the average score was 77% with a score of 80% correct for boys and 74% for girls. The overall score for the 4th grade was 69% with only a slight difference between boys and girls (Torfadóttir et al. 2006, p. 16). These findings are important as they demonstrate that the children score high on English tests prior to onset of formal English instruction suggesting that their English proficiency was attained extramurally.1 This comprehension test gives an indication of receptive proficiency. A further twenty children were also tested for their productive skills in the form of short conversations about familiar topics. The majority of the children were able to take part in simple conversations with prompts (Torfadóttir et al., p. 31). The researchers concluded that the children had “considerable” communicative skills in English (p. 31), that their English was close to the target and that they had exceeded the 1999 Curriculum goals then in effect for the 4th grade. In spoken conversational English, the children had attained the A1/A2 competence level of the CEFR.

In a follow up study of 182 third graders that replicated the 2005/2006 study, Lefever (2010) concluded that the 3rd grade students had also exceeded Curriculum guidelines for the 4th grade. Additionally, the participants had developed beginning level English literacy skills as measured by the Cambridge Examination for Young Learners who have received approximately 100 h of instruction. Lefever concluded that the 3rd graders’s conversational English skills were on par with A1/A2 on the European Common Framework (CEFR, Council of Europe 2014).

The same is not true for English literacy skills. In a more recent study, Egilsdóttir (2012) compared 9th grade students’ comprehension of three reading comprehension parts of the national English exams from the last three decades. Her participants were 146 9th graders in 2012 who completed three comprehension tests that had previously been administered in 1983, 1997 and 2008. The results were then compared to the original test takers’ scores from each of those three years. The results show a decline in comprension that correlated with text length and number of academic words as measured by the Academic Word List (Coxhead 2000). The longer and more academic the text, the less the 2012 students understood and the more frustrated they became. Egilsdóttir concluded that her participants from 2012 did not have a large enough vocabulary to support effective reading comprehension of academic texts. This conclusion is supported by a study by Fleckenstein (2016) of the average receptive vocabulary size of 66 10th graders using a vocabulary test designed by Nation (Nation and Beglar 2007). The overall conclusion gleaned from these studies is that students prior to the onset of instruction may have acquired some conversational skills, but at the end of primary school may lacking in formal academic English skills.

4 Formal English Instruction at the Secondary Level (11–14)

We now turn our attention to English education the secondary level. Earliest references to English instruction in Iceland are from the early part of the 19th century when the Danish linguist, Rasmus Rask, offered English instruction to the public. Formal English instruction began in Iceland’s only secondary school in 1847 (Einarsdóttir 2001). The first English language textbook was published in 1863 and the first Curriculum Guide for secondary education in 1904 included English as a subject (Einarsdóttir 2001, p. 5). In 1930, English instruction was offered to the public through Icelandic National Radio (Matthiesen 1930). In her description of the radio course, Matthiesen (1930) mentions several English language learning texts available in Icelandic book stores. The section begins with an overview of the Curriculum Guide for that level and then the implementation of the Guide is described along with the educational outcomes.

4.1 Curriculum Guide for the Secondary Level

The current Curriculum Guide for foreign languages at secondary level provides guidelines on foreign language instruction and applies to all foreign languages taught at this level: English, Danish, French, German, etc. The description of knowledge and skills at different competency levels applies to an individual student’s proficiency in all foreign languages regardless of level and linguistic context (Mennta- og menningarmálaráðuneytið 2011a). As with the primary level, there has been some criticism of this grouping as the status of English vis-a-vis the other languages is very different, to a point where English can hardly be considered a foreign language in Iceland (Guðmundsdóttir and Arnbjörnsdóttir 2014; Arnbjörnsdóttir 2007). The 2011 Curriculum Guide is broad and open to interpretation, especially the highest, third level which emphasizes general competencies, including reading and writing, without acknowledging the rich English input context (Arnbjörnsdóttir 2011) that affects English proficiency. Furthermore, the 2011 Guide does not reflect the fact that students go on to tertiary education in Iceland where over 90% of the textbooks are written for native speakers of English (Arnbjörnsdóttir, ( Using English at University) this volume). There is little reference in the Guide as to how secondary level courses should prepare students for university studies in English. As seen in the previous section, the goal for proficiency upon completion of primary level is B1with over 60% of students actually graduating with a B1/B2 level proficiency. This delineation continues at secondary level where Level 1 is partially comparable to European level B1, Level 2 is comparable to levels B1 and B2, and Level three in the Guide to C1. There is no recommendation as to what proficiency level should be the target at the completion of secondary level. The criteria are descriptions of competence in line with the European Benchmarks rather than target proficiency goals at the end of secondary education. The fact that the benchmarks are not target goals, added to the lack of standardized tests in English at the end of secondary school, makes it difficult to establish an overall competency goal at the end of secondary education. This has led to the development of entrance exams for some programs at tertiary level to gauge applicants’ English proficiency prior to entering University. Guðmundsdóttir and Arnbjörnsdóttir (2014) point out that the 2011 Curriculum Guide is general and open to interpretation. Implementation of the Curriculum Guide is left open to individual schools where cost may be the governing factor as to what type of courses are offered rather than adequate preparation for further education or the workforce.

All secondary school students take three semesters of English, regardless of concentration or which program of study they choose. Students pursuing a program with a focus on languages take more courses, both compulsory and optional English courses. Optional English courses are also available to students in other programs of study to some extent. Furthermore, as the Guide is vague and provides only three broad proficiency levels, it is unclear whether students are adding to their proficiency when taking optional English courses, which in practice seem mostly to be parallel in terms of proficiency level (Guðmundsdóttir and Arnbjörnsdóttir 2014, Arnbjörnsdóttir, ( Using English at University) this volume). Many students enter university with only the three required English courses taken in the first and second year of a four-year secondary school.2 Given the gap between the Guide and the linguistic reality of secondary students, it comes as no surprise that many students feel that their secondary school courses added little to their proficiency (Jeeves 2013), and that more than a third of students struggle with English at University, as reported in Arnbjörnsdóttir and Ingvarsdóttir (2010, 2015) and Arnbjörnsdóttir (chapter 8, this volume). The next section contains a brief description of instructional practices at secondary school level.

4.2 Curriculum and Instruction at Secondary Level (Year 11–14)

There is a dearth of studies of formal English education at secondary level in Iceland. Two of the chapters in this volume have this topic as their focus and therefore this section is somewhat shorter than the discussion about English teaching at primary level. Previous studies indicate that there is not in fact a great variety in instructional practice at secondary level. For example, Ingvarsdóttir (2007) observes that in secondary school, “the teaching was teacher and text-book-centered. Very little in the way of personalized instruction, project work, cooperative learning, other constructivist learning, or other constructivist methods to enhance student autonomy was observed” but there are exceptions (Ingvarsdóttir 2007, p. 337).

Ingvarsdóttir (2007, 2011a, b) reports that, although the 1999 Curriculum Guidelines emphasize student centered, communicative approaches, classroom observations only partially confirm that English teachers have adopted communicative methods (Ingvarsdóttir 2007, 2011a, b). Furthermore, very little effort was made to connect classroom English to students’ reality and there was very little awareness that extramural English could be an important source for classroom activity (p. 337). More recent studies of secondary school instruction confirm this view. For example, Árnadóttir (2014) examined whether Cooperative Learning practices were being implemented in the classroom and found hardly any examples of such practices. Furthermore, the group work that she did observe was unstructured and haphazard (See also the chapter “ Learning and Using English: The Views of Learners at the End of Compulsory Education” this volume).

English courses at the highest level do not seem to emphasize genre awareness nor academic discourse and vocabulary, or to prepare students for the next education level. An examination of four school curricula based on the general Guide from 2011 reveals upper level courses with an overrepresentation of literature courses at the expense of other genres (Guðmundsdóttir and Arnbjörnsdóttir 2014). Guðmundsdóttir (2015) continued this line of study and found great variety in the nature and amount of assigned reading materials at the transition between primary and secondary level, in the 10th grade and at the beginning of secondary school. The results indicate that there is extensive use of literary texts at both educational levels or, on average, 61% of all reading materials assigned in the EFL courses and that input of other genres, especially academic genres, is minimal. Guðmundsdóttir found that the type of literature assigned and amount of reading varied from 100 to 600 pages from course to course even at the same proficiency level. This calls into question students’ genre awareness and reading proficiency and to what extent they are prepared to tackle academic texts once at tertiary level. The consequences of this difference on students’ English reading fluency is unclear (Guðmundsdóttir 2015).

These findings suggest that there may be an overemphasis on literary genres over expository or academic genres and that teacher centered approaches lead to lack of participation by students. Students may therefore not have enough training in reading English and working with a variety of genres, e.g. academic texts, which await them at tertiary level.

4.3 Standardized Tests of English at Secondary Level

There is no tradition of standardized testing at secondary level. An effort to implement such tests was made in 2004 but they were only in effect for one year – in 2005. The tests were optional and hardly representative as those students intending to go on to university were likely to complete them. The tests from 2005 reveal that 1890 students opted to take the test with an average grade of 6.2 out of a possible grade of 10. No national standardized tests of students’ English proficiency are available at time of writing.

Other English proficiency studies reveal secondary school students’ higher receptive colloquial proficiency than formal productive English proficiency. Pétursdóttir (2013) found that her secondary school students’ receptive vocabulary far exceeded their productive capabilities, and that students’ productive lexical knowledge varied greatly. The nature of English proficiency of Icelandic secondary school students will be revisited in Edgarsson’s chapter (this volume) and Jeeves’ chapter (this volume).

5 Conclusions

This chapter is an effort to describe the official policy and educational backdrop that frames the formal and extramural acquisition of English in Iceland. Clearly, Icelanders, although geographically isolated, have a tradition of language learning that goes back generations. Icelanders have easy access to English historically and their English proficiency is comparatively good on an international scale. English education begins early and, by the time of graduation from secondary school, Icelandic students have had up to ten years of English or even longer. This is in addition to massive exposure outside of school (see next chapter).

Education policies do not reflect this presence of English in Iceland and nor do National Curriculum Guides which group English with other foreign languages. This grouping does not reflect the complex language ecology of Iceland. The goal of the subsequent chapters in this book is to do just that – to provide an illuminating picture of a linguistic society with a fully functional national language that has embraced an additional language – English – which has no official status other than that of a foreign language, even though, as many speakers claim, without it, it would be difficult to function in Iceland.


  1. 1.

    Extramural here means language exposure outside of the classroom (Sundquist and Sylvén 2016).

  2. 2.

    As of 2016, secondary education in Iceland has been reduced to 3 years. The consequences for English education are not yet clear.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of IcelandReykjavíkIceland

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