Calls for language tests starting in kindergarten have been backed by Germany's education minister. Last month's PISA study found that 21% of 15-year-olds in Germany struggle to read and comprehend texts.
Federal Education Minister Anja Karliczek, who only has consultative powers because Germany's 16 regional states have prerogatives over education, told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that Germany needed a "new culture" of language and remedial reading assistance.
Although a PISA study showed that Germany scores above average among the 35 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations, to remain innovative over the next 10 years, meritocracy was not enough, she said.
"For this purpose the children's capabilities must first be tested in kindergarten. That leaves time for children who have needs to be especially helped," she Karliczek, a Christian Democrat (CDU) like Chancellor Angela Merkel in cabinet.
"The next assessment should take place on [primary] school enrollment; then must be repeated in [later] school years. Practice, practice, practice presumably only helps the end effect — even if it sounds old-fashioned," Karliczek added, referring to language and literacy acquisition.
"We need a new culture of reading and especially language development in general," she said.
Language advancement research
Conceding that under Germany's post-war constitution, education is under the remit of each state government, Karliczek said her Federal Ministry for Education and Research would nevertheless contribute by searching for the best methods for language advancement.
That was one of the ideas, she said, behind her ministry's call for a "national education council," which was rejected in November by states such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg over moves to standardize university entrance exams.
'No place' at school
One of the loudest CDU advocates of language testing among Germany's population of 83 million, in which one in five has a migrant background, was issued by Carsten Linnemann, the deputy leader of CDU Bundestag parliamentarians, last August.
Linnemann told the Düsseldorf-based Rheinische Post newspaper: "To spell it out plainly: a child who hardly speaks or understands German has no place [initially] in a primary school," suggesting that pre-schooling should be extended and enrollment delayed.
First learnt German in first grade
Berlin city-state's senator for civic and international matters, Sawsan Chebli, said the capital already provided remedial language assistance and tested preschoolers lacking kindergarten experience before their school enrollment.
It was important that children spoke German by the time they began school, Chebli told Berlin-Brandenburg RRB-Inforadio, but Linnemann's statement must not result in the "sidelining" of children with migrant or refugee backgrounds.
"That [discrimination] must not happen," said the center-left Social Democrat (SPD), adding that the focus must be on participation, equal opportunity, and "the future of this country."
Chebli, who was born in Berlin to Palestinian refugee parents who arrived from Lebanon, said she first learnt German properly during her first primary school year.
Now speaking five languages
She was also "eternally thankful" that at home her parents spoke Arabic with her.
Alongside German acquired at school, she now speaks five languages, which is a "great enrichment," said Chebli, who is also a member of 34-member steering committee of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
ipj/stb (epd, dpa, AFP)