Learning to read in Germany — with a personal mentor | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 14.04.2019
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Learning to read in Germany — with a personal mentor

Many pupils have trouble with reading comprehension. As a result, they're at risk of becoming disconnected from society at a young age. Germany's MENTOR association takes a simple but effective approach to helping them.

Lina is reading quickly and fluently. The schoolgirl's text is all about spring, nature budding and sprouting, everything turning green. The snow has melted, and this is the time when the plants start to… what's the word again? Is it "auftauchen," appear? Not quite. It's "auftauen," to thaw, explains Lisa's mentor. In her day job, Karen Gartner is a banking professional. She chats with her mentee about plants growing and blossoming.

This little scene, published on the website of MENTOR, a German not-for-profit organization that provides learning support with reading, shows that reading is more than just the art of deciphering words and sentences. A great deal more.

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"Reading is also about gleaning information from texts," Margret Schaaf, the president of MENTOR, told DW. "Reading means collating information and understanding the content of texts. Our key objective is teaching children how to do that."

One-fifth of all schoolchildren read poorly

MENTOR was founded in 2003, when Otto Stendler, a bookseller in Hanover, noticed that many children were having difficulty with their reading classes at school. He and his wife invited two children to read with them, and that was the start of MENTOR. The organization has continued to grow; it currently has around 11,500 reading assistants working around the country.

A child reading (picture-alliance/dpa/T. Eisenhuth)

For some children, leaning to read can be a challenge

The assistants have a great deal to do. The most recent IGLU (International Elementary School Reading Study) published in December 2017 revealed inadequate reading comprehension in one-fifth of all 10-year-olds living in Germany. Germany has dropped right down the international rankings — from number five in 2001 to number 21 just 15 years later. Children in Germany aren't necessarily reading worse, but other countries — Latvia, Hungary or Lithuania, for example – have invested so much in enabling their children to read well that they have jumped up the table. What the study does show is that poor reading skills are not inevitable.

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However, if people don't receive this help when they're young, they may find themselves disadvantaged for life, says Schaaf. "They’re lacking a basic skill that they need to get by in the modern world." Poor reading ability initially leads to bad grades at school, but the long-term consequences are more far-reaching: "A person who can't read has no access to texts or books. They don't understand them. So they don't stand a chance in any subject, and this continues into later life. People who don't participate in the modern flow of information become disconnected from society in all kinds of ways. That concerns us, and that's what drives us," says Schaaf.

Schools rely on support from mentors

The mentors work with pupils at different levels, according to their needs. "Some need help reading groups of letters and putting them together to make words," says Schaaf. Children like this need a lot of training, to enable them eventually to put their energy not simply into reading the words, but also into engaging with the content of a text: "Above all, these children need support in understanding words and texts. They need to learn how to extract information from texts and put it together. It's only then that they're able to access the content."

A grandmother uses a laptop with her granddaughter (imago/Westend61)

Improving reading comprehension helps children remain connected to society

Although MENTOR has a lot of volunteer reading assistants, Schaaf says it's still not enough, as many schools have also made cuts to their promotion of reading. Many have also had to take on extra work related to integration and inclusion, but are not adequately equipped, with either personnel or materials. New forms of leisure behavior also make a difference, in particular the time children spend online. "The consequence of all this is that teachers in schools are constantly asking us if we have any more mentors."

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However, the mentors don't teach groups. They only ever work with one pupil at a time. "Our mentors will then meet that child for one class every week," Schaaf explains. "Two classes would be better, but that's hard to achieve in practice." The important thing is that the children have regular sessions. "It's about consistency. It's very important that you're available for the child to talk to on an ongoing basis. Because it's only then that the child experiences care and attention in a way that makes them receptive to learning — in various forms, not necessarily just reading."

Reasons to volunteer

There are volunteer reading assistants working in many countries, says Schaaf. "After all, there are children all over the world who have problems with language and reading. From that point of view, I think there's basically a need for children everywhere to be given the chance to access education, especially when going to school is not in itself a guarantee."

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MENTOR hopes to attract a lot more volunteer reading assistants in Germany. "I can't think of any reasons not to do volunteer work of this kind," says Schaaf. "Because it’s very straightforward — and very fulfilling, too."

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