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Education Worldwide

Interview with Prof. Dr. phil. Gudrun Marci-Boehncke

Professor for German Literature and Didactics at the Pedagogical University of Ludwigsburg



Professor Marci-Boehncke believes that reading should be perceived from the perspective of associated media right from the start, and that reading promotion should set in right after birth. Since October 2001, the mother of three has been professor for German literature and its didactics at the Pedagogical University of Ludwigsburg and director of the Centre for child and youth literature as well as head of the research centre for youth, media and education. She tells us what she would most wish to do with an educational budget of a million euros.

Ms Marci-Boehncke, how did you come across the subject of reading promotion?

I came across the field of reading promotion through my professional interest as a professor for child and youth literature at Ludwigsburg University: I believe that schools in particular need to get young people interested in reading. Moreover, the promotion of reading is also a strong concern of mine in my private life as I am a booklover, and mother of three.

What do you believe are the main problems of reading promotion in Germany?
One of the problems is that the subject of reading is nowadays discussed in a context of moralising about media. On the one hand, books are considered as “morally good” and we usually mean books when talking about reading promotion. On the other hand, these are opposed by those kind of media that absorb time and keep children from reading by consuming their time with “worse occupations“.
I believe that this moralised view of media does not do justice to current developments. Nowadays, reading does not only refer to the reading of printed material, it also implies reading on the Internet, reading teletexts, reading e-books. Many media require reading, including films. The codes are different here, but they too require and train an understanding of literature and they imply a creative handling of subjects and symbols that constitutes the basis of the enjoyment of reading. Nowadays this takes place in many different ways. It would nevertheless be wrong to conclude that children consequently read less.
When looking at figures recording the attractiveness of reading, we can observe that this activity remains constant in absolute terms while the time windows for the occupation with other media change in relation.

What would you accordingly wish for as regards a modern approach to reading promotion?
I would wish for considering reading promotion against the background of a conjunction of media right from the start, thus reading and the promotion of reading would no longer be viewed as an activity performed by geeks. It is important to include reading in other media context into the concept of reading promotion and to adjust the image to the modern world of media. I believe that students from general secondary schools do very well at reading certain kinds of material that are not included in our reading assessments. Particularly poor readers need to be encouraged and supported in their interests and the kinds of material they can read. In many cases, low achievement or the refusal to achieve are rather due to a lack of confidence than an “educational fate”.

At what age should reading promotion begin, and why?
In my view, reading promotion should set in right after birth. Children experience their first rhythm and a fixed time structure with musical clocks, thus actually experiencing literary patterns. I began looking at picture books with my children as soon as they concentrated on objects, that is at a crawling age of three months. The chewed at leporellos, looked at pictures and practiced a certain ritual. This is something that can be done even before an understanding of stories, contents and contexts sets in. I believe that public bodies should begin with reading promotion at the stage when children enter day care centres. No matter if a child is one and a half or three years old – as soon as a child is in public care, reading promotion should be part of the setting.

How do families nowadays influence the reading habits of children?
Parents act as role models and they pass their own esteem of reading on to their children. Literary education includes not only reading books but also reading at the computer or reading a newspaper, listening to music attentively or watching a movie and understanding it. Parents should provide their children with opportunities to come into contact with diverse reading media and first and foremost, they should talk to their children about what they have read. I consider the communication following from the reading of a book or watching a film as a crucial factor leading to an esteem of literary education. If parents educate their children in this value-oriented way, chances are high that the children will continue to practice this cultural technique later in their lives. Parents are extremely important because they are the first instance of socialisation that is active right from the start. I think the Stiftung Lesen and its initiative “Lesestart“ are on the right path when appealing to families at the earliest possible stage. It is important to contact parents as early as possible and continue to stay in touch, to show them their opportunities and to encourage them. Many parents are concerned about promoting reading with their children because they do not perceive themselves as active readers. It is thus very important to assert the confidence of those parents who have a limited interest in reading themselves, and who do not rate their own competencies very high. They can nevertheless contribute a lot to letting their own children become readers.

Many children look forward to starting school and in the beginning they are eager to learn the alphabet. But towards the end of primary school they no longer enjoy it. Where does this tendency grow from?
I think several reasons can be given. First, the reading competence of children at year 4 is sufficient for general use. Similar to swimming, they can stay above water, they get along and they will no longer drown – so why should they train all the details? For many children, the reading stage they have acquired by the fourth school year is sufficient for their orientation and participation in society. But if they no longer have the opportunity to experience the joy of delving into a good piece of literature, the activity of reading may soon move to the background.
Furthermore, children at year 4 have a broader sphere of mobility and they take part in other leisuretime activities which they prioritise. In this respect, reading gets a raw deal in our mobile society. We should be able to taka a more relaxed look at this. From a pedagogical perspective, we should of course consider that something may be going wrong as regards reading promotion at school. As a mother, I can add that I had already read three “Harry Potter” books to my son by the time he started school when he was six. Hence I was absolutely sure he was interested in literature. But then he started reading these very simple texts in his first readers that do not challenge the children’s intellect. This practically put him off reading altogether. I think that apart from actually teaching children to read, more focus should be directed towards offering the children literature that is challenging and meets their individual stage of development. It is still important for teachers to read to the children. This also needs to be practiced more often in teacher training – this concerns the selection of literature as well as the actual reading scenario.
There is a high predominance of female teachers here who often turn their own literary preferences into teaching subjects. A teacher once told me she was not interested in adventure stories herself, hence she was not able to deliver them in lessons. The “Erfurt reading survey“ supports such observations. Teachers should be continually kept up to date on children and youth literature and the current interests of children. The continuous teacher training in reading didactics should be mandatory. Texts such as “Rolltreppe abwärts“ were good in their time, but they are far too old. Many teachers use familiar texts rather than something new and argue that these are new to the respective students anyway. Teachers, particularly female teachers, must moreover take into account that boys have other methodological and didactic preferences than girls.
In the fourth school year, peer group competition rules among the boys. Adolescence sets in and competing becomes a focal issue. Dealing with books as a partner in communication is not oriented towards competing. However, at this age boys have a strong preference for anything to do with who is the strongest”. I believe there is no need to panic but to realise that there are stages in development when boys in particular do not read books, but rather play football. But they learn to read discontinuous texts and if the parents have laid a sufficient fundament in early childhood, the children will at one time take up reading again.

Imagine you had an educational budget of a million Euros at your disposal. What would you prefer to use it for?
Let’s take your one million Euros as pars pro toto: several ideas come to my mind. One would be to have Thomas Gottschalk (famours TV presenter) present the German Children’s Literature Prize in a concert hall, invite a class of general secondary school students and a heavy metal band as well. Perhaps this could also be performed open air at Loreley, with a reading night in camping tents.

Interview: Andrea Steinbrecher, Stiftung Lesen

Translation: Dr. Gwendolyn Schulte, DIPF