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There is a high demand for reading promotion programmes

The Institute for Reading and Media Research of the German Reading Foundation


Dr. Simone C. Ehmig

Dr. Simone C. Ehmig, © Stiftung Lesen

The Institute for Reading and Media Research (Institut für Lese- und Medienforschung) at the German Reading Foundation (Stiftung Lesen) conducts basic and monitoring research in the areas of reading and media use. It collects findings from media studies and most of all, it organises projects in its own right. The online magazine "Bildung + Innovation" talked to Dr. Simone C. Ehmig, who manages the Institute, about its tasks and objectives and about the changes in reading behaviour in recent years.

Ms Ehmig, you are managing director at the Institute for Reading and Media Research at Stiftung Lesen, the Reading Foundation in Germany. What is the background to the Institute’s inception?

Ehmig: The Institute was established because the relevance of research has increasingly been made evident for reading promotion. The importance of monitoring research has become recognised: we need to find out how effective projects are in the domain of reading promotion and how they can be further optimised. At the same time, we are concerned with fundamental research, in order to locate problems, contact the right persons and define possible approaches.

What are the Institute’s tasks?

Ehmig: In our fundamental research, we take into account all aspects of reading and media use. We conduct monitoring research on two levels: on the one hand, we evaluate entire funding programmes and concepts, in order to find out whether and how they work. On the other hand, we evaluate individual projects.

What projects does your work focus on, and what do you wish to achieve?

Ehmig: Our fundamental research mainly focuses on studies of reading, reading education or reading to children. In 2008, for instance, we conducted a large-sccale representative survey of reading in Germany. Since 2007, we have been cooperating with Deutsche Bahn (national rail company) and the “Zeit“ publishing house in a study on reading to chhildren in the family. In 2007, we interviewed fathers and mothers – and we found that a large proportion of parents never or hardly ever reads to their children. A survey that questioned the children in 2008 revealed that fathers hardly ever read to their children, and particularly boys thus scarcely regard their fathers as role models with respect to reading. In 2009, we interviewed those fathers who do not read to their children about their reasons, and discovered that they have clearly defined ideas about gender-specific roles. This year, our survey highlighted parents with migrant backgrounds – here, we detected similar patterns as in German fathers and mothers. However, we have learned that it is necessary to differentiate as to countries of origin, educational backgrounds etc when considering measures for promoting reading (together),. Principally, our fundamental research serves to describe reading and media conduct. We embed these findings into the context of general media use.

The evaluation studies focus on the effects and effectivity of measures. In the field of media education, it is particularly important to find out whether what we think we ought to be doing does actually meet our expectations. We thus monitor measures, sometimes across a longer period of time. For instance, we are presently monitoring reading media clubs that are operated by Stiftung Lesen in ten schools in Germany and ten schools in Isreal, respectively, over a period of two years. Reading media clubs provide extracurricular opportunities for children and young people, particularly from difficult backgrounds. They provide free access to reading and other media sources, thus creating access to a balanced and sensible media use. The study precisely reveals effects of the Clubs on reading conduct and motivation, but also on learning conduct. Effects on social conduct are presumably even more far-reaching and sustainable, as well as effects on self concepts and confidence of the respective children. Other evaluation studies are focusing on projects with journals and newspapers, which are conducted by publishers in schools. We can thus reach a differentiated account of what is achieved by delivering periodicals or newspapers to school classes over a certain period of time.

How has reading conduct developed in recent years?

Ehmig: Changes in the reading behaviour of adults mainly relate to reading strategies. More and more people do not read a book cover to cover, but browse through it and occasionally return their attention to it. Other people read several books in parallel, and refer to one or the other depending on situation. These patterns of use are likely affected by the use of other types of media, i.e. digital media, to which the use of printed media is adjusted. We did not find any change of conduct in those people who read frequently. This small core of avid readers remains constant.

One fourth of the population in Germany never reads books. This figure alone displays the high demand for reading promotion measures. We can see that many children and young people keep a distance to reading. In many cases, they access electronic media more readily, such as television, computers etc. Reading often ranks low in the list of preferred pastimes. This is partly due to reading socialisation in the family. Reading is highly esteemed in ssociety – more than 80 % of the people whe interviewed believe that reading promotes the development of a child, but few parents actually act upon this. Only about one third of the parents influence what, or how much, their children read.

What is the role of the digital world regarding the changes in reading conduct?

Ehmig: In the digital world, several distinct media compete with the “classic media”, In many cases, however, reading is required for using digital media, too. Reading promotion needs to be concerned with integrating reading into the complex worlds of today’s children. We also need to find out how we can include electronic media into our reading promotion concepts. For example, we are currently studying how e-books and e-readers might make reading more appealing for those children and adolescents who would never touch a printed book.

Generally speaking, the concept of reading has changed with the development of new media. Stiftung Lesen thus does not only think of reading in terms of books, newspapers and magazines. Anyone who searches information on the internet, writes an e-mail or chats is also a reader. At first sight, these seem to be different activities and in our daily routine, we hardly connect the term “reading” to working on the computer. However, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have provided evidence that the underlying processes are highly similar. Accordingly, in reading and media use research, we will have to deal with an altered concept of reading, and implement it in our studies, particularly regarding methodological aspects of conducting surveys.

What is the significance of extracurricular reading opportunities as compared to promoting reading in the family?

Ehmig: Extracurricular measures and measures outside the family might compensate for deficiencies in reading socialisation at home. Families with a lower level of education and low socio-economic status, families where the parents do not read themselves, and where fathers hardly ever read to their children, show particular deficiencies that can only be addressed with limited success, even by measures reaching into the family. Schools focus on educational priorities, and naturally they concentrate on reading competence. Notwithstanding, an enjoyment of reading and motivation to read are equally important, and they can in many cases not be acquired in a curricular setting alone. It is thus important to provide incentives for children to read in other settings, too, to engage children in reading and instil a joy in reading. The broad range of opportunities existing in Germany, which range from kindergarten to libraries and private initiatives, thus provides a good framework for addressing children who would otherwise never be inspired to read.

How important is it for your Institute to work with partners?

Ehmig: At different levels, cooperation with partners is very important. On the one hand, we have partners who collaborate with us in the field of research, such as the Center of Educational Technology in Tel Aviv, in the case of schools in Israel. Another example of our scientific networking concerns this year’s 6th Round Table on Reading Promotion. Stiftung Lesen conducted this event with more than 30 multipliers from the field of reading promotion and educational policy in Ulm. The location of this convention was determined by a highly beneficial contact we had established with a ggroup of neuroscientists and cognitive scientists at Ulm University. The Round Table Reading Promotion is an annual national platform that has focused on specific aspects of reading promotion since 2005. This year, we investigated the brain processes that are connected to reading. Many findings from our own studies correspond to neuroscientific findings. For instance, they provide evidence for the fact that language is better understood, and children can access reading easier, when positive emotions are involved. This confirms the importance of an enjoyment of reading, an aspect that is fundamental to the work of Stiftung Lesen. We can find similar results in our studies on the projects involving newspapers and journals in the school classroom. As long as they experience joy and fun, the young people show an increasing interest in reading. Most of all, however, a positive concept of reading is thus promoted, which is probably sustainable and continues to affect later adulthood. We generally find it very important to keep in touch with colleagues from other disciplines because different perspectives can be mutually inspiring.

On a second level, of course, our own colleagues from the field of reading promotion are important partners to our Institute for Reading and Media Research. We collaborate closely, and reading promotion and reading research are intricately interlocked,. Many of the projects contain an aspect of research as well as the perspective of promotion. A current study on volunteers reading to children, for instance, consists of several phases: fundamental research is followed by the development of measures and their subsequent evaluation, etc...

On a third level, we also have partners sourcing our work. On the one hand, we are financed by public bodies. Large part of our projects is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), while other projects are supported by other public institutions. We occasionally have commercial business partners, e.g. when evaluating projects in the field of reading promotion where Stiftung Lesen collaborates with private business partners, e.g. Nestlé or Arvato.

What are your plans for the future?

Ehmig: The Institute for Reading and Media Research is stil fairly new. We will follow several paths in the future. On the one hand, we consider the Institute as a place where research findings are brought together. In terms of a competence center for reading, we wish to gain an overview of, and provide information on, activities in the areas of reading and media research and respective findings. On the other hand, we will focus on specific target groups in the studies we conduct in our own right, even more so than we have done so far. In this case, we need to take some fundamental considerations concerning the term of “reading” into account. We need to differentiate this term as to its content and methodology, and clarify what is meant. As the director of the Institute, I consider the development of methodologies in particular as one of our prevailing tasks. We need valid assessment procedures in order to assess new developments in a changing world of media. We whish to take perspectives into account that we have not considered so strongly yet, but at the same time we wish to continue the research tradition we have already begun. We are very pleased to find that by certain measures, we are able to improve the image of reading particularly with children and adolescents from difficult backgrounds. In many cases, effects are sustainable and last far beyond a project’s limited period of duration. Whenever children and adolescents reflect upon a project in a positive way at a later stage, they are far more likely to have positive feelings about reading as adults than if they had negative or no memories of reading as children.

Dr. Simone C. Ehmig, born 1964. Studied Journalism, German Literature and Linguistics and History of Art in Mainz. 1989 Magister Artium based on a study on the integration of quotes from politicians in the news magazine “Spiegel”. 2000 doctoral thesis on the role of historical events that determined the generation shift in German journalism. Many years of research and lectureship at Mainz University and publications and talks on political communication, Risk and health research, Research on journalism and development of method. 2007-2009 Head of a department for applied research in health communication, Università della Svizzera italiana Lugano. Since November 1st,2009 director of the Institute for Reading and Media Research, Stiftung Lesen.

Interview: Petra Schraml, 25.11.2010
© Innovationsportal

Translated into English by Gwendolyn Schulte (DIPF)