The Computer as Reading Instructor | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 08.09.2004
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The Computer as Reading Instructor

Although they can't read and write, that doesn't mean illiterates can't learn. But many are too ashamed to take a course. That's why a new German initiative offers instruction over the Internet.


Learning the ABCs with the PC

Some four million people in Germany are illiterate. Even though they went to school, they never learned to read or write properly. For most of them -- adults who have gotten through life with a series of complex compensation strategies -- admitting illiteracy is a difficult hurdle to overcome. Only 20,0000 of the country's so-called functional illiterates (excluding foreigners who never went to school) have actually taken advantage of reading courses offered by outreach programs throughout the country. The rest are often too ashamed to admit their problem by seeking help.

In order to combat illiteracy, a new initiative is being launched in Germany to teach reading and writing anonymously via the Internet. On Sept. 8, International Literacy Day, a special Web site goes online to provide individual instruction which serves either as a complement to classroom teaching or as a primary learning source for those not enrolled in a course. Called "Alfa-Portal Literacy Learning," or Apoll for short, the site is financed by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research.

Less pressure on the PC

"The biggest problem for a functioning illiterate is to out oneself, to take the first step of signing up for a course," said Christian Fiebig, director of the Apoll project. "Through the E-learning portal, we offer the possibility of learning anonymously without having to out oneself," he told DW-WORLD. In the future some 17,000 instruction exercises will be available on the site for illiterates to set up their own individual learning plan.

The only prerequisite is that the Internet user recognize the address of the Web site, (in English: I want to learn to write), and save the URL as a favorite to visit over and over again. Once at the site, they will be guided through a special tutorial that reads all the instructions and texts out loud.

Learning any time at any pace


Reading is a pleasure illiterates never get to appreciate

The E-learning page asks each illiterate to evaluate their own skills and then conducts a short test to determine placement within the online course. Before instruction begins, the computer program asks each participant what their goal is: whether they want to be able to read and fill out official forms and deal with bureaucracy, read books or simply improve daily life. Each literacy participant receives an individually outlined program of instruction and exercises to complete for the week.

In the early stages of instruction audio clips and little pictures assist the literacy learner. Later, short news texts and stories will be provided as practice. The Apoll program offers participants the possibility to set the pace and learning intervals according to their own time frame, Fiebig explained. Of course that means the illiterate sitting at home in front of the computer requires a good deal of self-discipline. For this reason Fiebig and his colleagues strongly encourage the E-learning participants to take a parallel classroom course.

To encourage learning and motivate the often frustrated participants, the Apoll project also offers telephone advice and provides a forum for learners to communicate with one another via Voicemail.

Adult learners

According to Fiebig, working with the computer and Internet is not a problem for the majority of illiterates. "The computer and especially the Internet are new types of media, and our target audience is very open to them." A study conducted recently showed that one-third of all illiterates in Germany have a computer and Internet connections, albeit mostly for entertainment purposes.

Fahrplan in Frankfurt

Reading a train schedule is a real challenge for Germany's illiterates

The majority of literacy learners are adults, equally divided between men and women. Most of them are between 30 and 45 years old, said Fiebig. Once they reach their mid-adult years, "the difficulties and suffering connected to illiteracy become so significant, that illiterates no longer advance at work or are unable to follow what their children do in school," said the Apoll director. "We also know that illiteracy isolates," Fiebig added -- 51 percent of the target learners are singles.

Expanding the literacy program

In the long term, Apoll hopes to expand their E-learning programs for foreigners living in Germany, who never learned to read and write in their native language, let alone German.

Because illiteracy is a world problem, and one which is particularly acute in developing countries, the Institute for International Cooperation (IZ) in Bonn is considering exporting a computer-supported initiative to combat illiteracy in developing countries. If created, it could be Germany's contribution to the United Nation's decade of literacy, which the organization established in 2003. At the moment, an E-learning project similar to the Apoll project is in the works in India.

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