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Germany: Reading skills below European average, and dropping

May 16, 2023

Social status and whether German is spoken at home tend to be two key factors for why German fourth-grade elementary school children's reading skills are worse than the European average.

Children reading in a German elementary school. Archive image.
Image: Martin Schutt/dpa/picture-alliance

An international five-yearly study published on Tuesday suggests that German schoolchildren's reading skills at the end of the fourth grade (when a typical child in the German education system would be 10 years old) have deteriorated in the past 20 years and are inferior to kids in many comparable countries. 

What were the figures? 

According to the 2021 PIRLS international results in reading study (known in Germany by a different acronym, IGLU), 25% of German children do not reach what's deemed the minimum level to meet the academic challenges in store later in school.

Germany's education minister called this 1-in-4 ratio "alarming."  

When the study was first conducted in 2001, the figure was 17%, or less than 1-in-5. 

The report's authors say any child not meeting their minimum bar would have "considerable difficulties in almost all school subjects" in subsequent years unless they manage to make up the gap. 

Similarly, German children's average reading score of 524 points compared with an average of 539 in 2001 and of 537 during the previous 2016 study.

How do the figures compare internationally?

By comparison, the league leader Singapore's average score was 587, with Hong Kong next at 573. More than 60 countries, for the most part wealthier and better developed ones, participate in the PIRLS in all.

In European terms, also, Germany fared poorly against many of its peers — Finland's schoolkids scored 549 on average, as did Poland's, with Sweden on 544.

Most wealthier countries would reliably score in excess of 500, although one of Europe's worst performers was bilingual Belgium's predominantly French-speaking regions in the south of the country, at 494.  

Only three countries in Africa participated in the study, which showed that eight out of 10 South African schoolchildren struggle to read well by the age of 10. Morocco and Egypt also took part. 

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) is known by another acronym in GermanyImage: Marcus Führer/dpa/picture-alliance

Which contributing factors did researchers identify? 

Sociologist Nele McElvany led a team presenting their findings in Berlin on Tuesday. 

She identified four key factors that she said appeared visible from their study of the pure performance data — one of them temporary and specific to 2021, but three of them permanent and seemingly part of a longer-running trend.  

Asked about the impact of the COVID pandemic on schooling, McElvany said that surely had some impact on the 2021 scores. However she argued that the evidence pointed to a more permanent series of challenges. 

"COVID is certainly a part of the explanation this time," McElvany told German public broadcaster ARD. "But we must at the same time recall that this trend of a falling average reading competence in Germany has been observable since 2006." 

Berlin IGLU-Studie 2023 | Prof. Dr. Nele McElvany
Nele McElvany said that COVID, socio-economic standing, the language spoken at home, and even the amount of class time spent reading all appeared to be candidate explanations for at least part of the dataImage: Jürgen Heinrich/IMAGO

Though McElvany stressed that her work had focused more on processing the data than finding explanations, she did say some patterns seemed apparent. 

She alluded to the recurring trend of children from either wealthier or better educated backgrounds, or often both, tending to fare better in such studies, particularly at an early age — perhaps because of an additional headstart at home.

"There's also the changing face of our classrooms. We have more children in schools who do not speak German at home any more. For elementary schools this is not a new challenge, but it is a growing one," McElvany said.

Other countries with larger migrant populations and a growing trend towards multilingual cultures, like the Netherlands and Belgium, show comparable downward trends and, like Germany, larger-than-average discrepancies between the best- and worst-performing kids.

And McElvany questioned whether classroom lesson plans might play a role, too, saying her team observed a below-average amount of class time spent each week on reading or reading-related activities in German elementary schools.

She said German elementary schools would spend in the region of 140 minutes a week on such activities, compared to averages of around 200 minutes in comparable OECD and European countries. 

'Welcome class': Ukrainian students attend German schools 

Politicians voice alarm

German Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger said the findings should be a wake-up call. 

"The IGLU study shows that we need a course correction in educational politics urgently," Watzinger said. "It is alarming if one quarter of our fourth graders are considered weak readers."

Stark-Watzinger then cited a special government project, called the "start chances program" if directly translated from German, that aims to improve educational opportunities for children from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. She said that the government was trying to offer "sustainable" support. 

The study is the latest of several comparable ones pointing to similar developments. In 2022, another study by the Humboldt University in Berlin — called the IQB-Education Trend — found deteriorating elementary school scores in maths and German.

Other politicians in the ruling coalition parties also saw an opportunity to discuss their plans to help some 4,000 disadvantaged kids get better educations. 

SPD leader Saskia Esken told the AFP news agency that "we cannot accept the correlation between social backgrounds and academic success."

An educational policy spokeswoman for the Greens, Nina Stahr, called the study "yet another warning signal for educational politics at all levels," and urged German states and municipalities to start thinking about how to implement the still-nascent federal government plan. 

Nadine Schöne of the opposition CDU said she believed Education Minister Stark-Watzinger needed to deliver "concrete measures" in order to "live up to her federal reponsibility for education." 

The socialist Left Party's Nicole Gohlke, meanwhile, argued for "sufficient financing, a hiring offensive, and a targeted widespread language and literacy proficiency program."

msh/jcg (AFP, dpa, KNA)