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Learning to Read - How to do it better

Reading girl. Photo: Fotolia/Tatyana Gladskih

Reading girl. Photo: Fotolia/Tatyana Gladskih

Since before the PISA tests, we have known that children’s educational success depends – among others – on their social and cultural background. But how does this correlation come about? Potsdam educational researchers Nadine Spörer and Guido Nottbusch want to investigate this more closely. They explore how children’s reading skills develop and the roles that family and institutional learning environments play.

Kids love stories. “When you read something exciting aloud, they forget everything around them,” says Jenny Ziemann. She is a teacher at a nursery school in Potsdam and has even more tricks up her sleeve to interest children in books – especially those who receive little encouragement at home. The trick is to arouse their curiosity. “If they see a beetle in the garden, we look up its name in a nature book. And when we bake a cake, we look at the cookbook together.”

There are many different ways to prime children to learn to read: “Letters, syllables, and words are practically everywhere. You just have to draw attention to them,” says Ziemann and points to an “H” on a nearby bus stop sign. Many educators like her succeed in creating an environment in which children acquire language in a playful manner, expand their vocabulary, listen attentively, and learn to understand. Researchers call this a “positive learning environment” – which can stand in stark contrast to a child’s domestic environment. Not every family talks, tells stories, and reads aloud to their children enough. But can nursery school really make up for such deficits? And do disadvantaged children benefit from teachers’ stimuli as much as those who receive more attention and education at home? “Traditionally, the effects of institutional and domestic learning environments have been studied in isolation. We are interested in their interaction,” says Nadine Spörer, Professor of Educational Psychology with a focus on primary education at the University of Potsdam. Together with Professor of Pedagogy Guido Nottbusch, she is the first to look at differential effects: Do both environments shape children from different backgrounds in the same way and to the same extent? How do experiences at nursery school, school, and at home complement each other?

More than 3000 children interviewed

For their work, the two researchers used data from the National Educational Panel Study, which documents the development of more than 3000 children from nursery school to school – a wealth of information from and about adolescents, their parents, educators, and teachers. This allows researchers to analyze interconnections and interdependencies. Spörer and Nottbusch are particularly interested in the period from nursery school through 2nd grade. “In primary school pedagogy, we focus mainly on classroom conditions to develop more effective learning methods,” Spörer explains. “But we know that learning success also depends on previous experience in nursery school and at home, so we have to begin at a much younger age.” In their current longitudinal study, the researchers are, therefore, also looking at the effect of particular learning environments in preschool and how they influenced each other. They are searching for the levers that will enable them to better support children’s development at school. 

For Spörer, working with data collected by someone else is a new experience. While the educational researcher had to accept that she had no influence on the interviews, the Educational Panel Study does provide prepared data of a large sample collected over a long duration. “That’s the advantage. The study is so extensive that it provides a lot of information that interests us,” she explains.

The 3000 children included in the Panel were tested at various points in their development: How large is their vocabulary? How fluent are they? How much do they understand of what they take in? At the same time, their parents, educators and teachers answered questions about the concrete learning environments parallel. How many books and which toys are available to them at nursery school and at home? How do children and adults treat one another? What is the parents’ level of education? Is German spoken at home?

Compensating for what is lacking 

Spörer especially has in mind the needs of children with a migration background, whose first language is not German. However, socioeconomic hardship or having parents with lower educational qualifications may also negatively affect adolescents’ educational pathways. The researcher asks whether and how nursery schools and schools can compensate for what is lacking. Do disadvantaged children succeed in taking advantage of institutional education, or do their problems actually worsen over time? For Spörer, the diagnostic competencies of teachers and educators are key. They have to understand the specific situation of a child, recognize his or her capabilities, and provide targeted support.

Creating learning environments in which children from different backgrounds can develop equally well is also one of the goals of the Potsdam research group “Heterogeneity and Inclusion”, another participant in the project. The researchers will be able to unearth the huge data mine until 2018. Their newly gained knowledge will be shared in the German Research Foundation’s (DFG) priority program 1646, which evaluates datasets from the National Educational Panel, a nationwide network of 25 individual projects that the DFG hopes will boost empirical educational sciences. Never before have longitudinal studies in this form on individual educational pathways been done in Germany. The results are eagerly awaited and are to help document development patterns in children, youths, and young adults, design courses of action for educational policy, and – last but not least – better prepare prospective teachers for working with adolescents.

The Project

The project “Heterogeneity and Reading Competency: The Role of Institutional and Domestic Learning Environments” is part of the DFG priority program 1646 “Education as a Lifelong Process” and is being done in cooperation with the research group “Heterogeneity and Inclusion” at the University of Potsdam.

The Researchers

Prof. Dr. Nadine Spörer is Professor of Educational Psychology with a focus on primary education at the University of Potsdam. In her research she investigates the development of reading competency, the promotion of self-regulated learning, and the conditions under which inclusive education at primary school can succeed.

Universität Potsdam 
Strukturbereich Bildungswissenschaften
Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 24–25
14476 Potsdam
Email: nadine.spoerer@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Prof. Dr. Guido Nottbusch is Professor of Primary School Pedagogy in German at the University of Potsdam. His research focuses on acquisition of written language, reading competency, digital learning at primary school, the influence of capital and lowercase letters on reading processes, and the production of written texts. 
Email: gnott@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Antje Horn-Conrad
Translation: Monika Wilke
Published online by: Alina Grünky
Contact for the online editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Read this and other articles on research at the University of Potsdam in our research magazine  Portal Wissen