Education and Language

The demand is huge – literacy for German as a second language

Since 2005 immigrants have been required to participate in German courses.  Photo: Matt Jeacock © iStockphotoSince 2005 immigrants have been required to participate in German courses.  Photo: Matt Jeacock © iStockphotoIn the past, illiterate immigrants rarely found their way into a German course. If they learned German at all it was mostly in an unstructured and informal oral environment. Things have changed dramatically since immigration law reforms were introduced in 2005.

Since 2005, new immigrants as well as those already living here have been required to participate in government-sponsored German courses. The 600-hour integration courses introduced at that point didn’t meet everyone’s needs, however, so special types of classes were created, among them 1,200-hour programs for immigrants with literacy problems.

War kept them out of school

There are no statistics regarding the share of immigrants with special literacy needs, but the fact that 13.9 percent of integration course participants in the first three quarters of 2010 were in so-called literacy programs shows that the figure is not small. Since 2005 a total of 65,645 people have taken part in such courses. The actual demand for them may be larger, however. Since literacy courses are not available everywhere, increasing numbers of people with real reading issues are ending up in the standard courses.

37 percent of literacy course students are purely illiterate.  Photo: Nicole S. Young © iStockphotoAccording to the Integration Panel, a survey commissioned by the Federal Office for Immigration and Refugees (BAMF), 37 percent of literacy course students are purely illiterate. These people never went to school in their home countries and can therefore not even ready or write in their own languages. The reasons can be war, political unrest, child labor or social tradition. Girls are most often the ones who are kept out of school.

The course is an opportunity

It follows that nearly two-thirds of the participants are women. Many of them have been in Germany for decades but first start attending classes when the children are out of the house. “These students are very motivated,” says Alexis Feldmeier from the University of Bielefeld. From his experience as course director, “they see the classes as a chance to maybe achieve something for themselves, on their own.”

Even those who had the chance to attend school for a short time in their home countries are often not versed enough in literary language to use it in everyday life. Forty-two percent of attendees belong to the functional illiterate. Feldmeier points out that from a teaching methodology perspective, it would be more sensible to teach these people to read and write in their mother tongue first. But this has not been the case since the integration courses were introduced. Heike Roll and Karin Schramm, who teach German as a foreign language even talk about a “relapse into monolingual German literacy courses that thwart the official line of the Federal Republic to strive for European multilingualism.”

Nearly two-thirds of the participants are women.  Photo: selimaksan © iStockphotoTwenty-one percent of the course participants need no literacy programs in their mother tongue. These students went to school for several years in their home country, but learned to read and write a non-Latin-based language such as Arabic. So now there are classrooms where people who have never sat in a classroom and can’t write at all sit next to people who have had eight or nine years of schooling.

Creating phonological awareness

It is not only this configuration in the classroom that creates challenges for teachers. Illiteracy unfortunately plays virtually no role in the standard methodology for German as a foreign language (GFL). “We are pursuing a completely different objective, namely learning to read and write. This objective is not part of GFL,” says Alexis Feldmeier, who created the Concept for a Nationwide Literacy Course for the BAMF that formed the basis for a program that has been in place since 2009.

Using the example of pronunciation lessons, he describes the special challenges for teachers: “The main thrust of the literacy course in the first 400 to 500 hours is to establish a phonological awareness; the ability to recognize a rhyme or the initial sound of a word, and to be able to segment a word by its syllables, as in ‘mar-me-lade’. These skills are already prerequisites for standard GFL and not part of the pronunciation classes.”

Reference materials are being created

There are also classrooms where sit people who have never sat in a classroom.  Photo: ene © iStockphotoA variety of places like the Herder Institute in Leipzig offer literacy classes, but since the beginning of 2011, GFL teachers typically have to raise the fees of €750 themselves. Due to the low wages in adult education, many of the students can’t afford it so it is questionable whether the course will take place at all.

It is not only the methodology that teachers were (and still are) required to possess or acquire for their courses either. In the past, learning materials often demanded a degree of improvisational skill, but help is on the way here. A number of large educational publishers are bringing reference materials to market in 2011 that are specifically designed for literacy courses. Well educated teachers and tailored materials, however, will not change the fact that students only reach a maximum language skill level of A2 on the European reference table – it is difficult to achieve more in 1,200 hours. Feldmeier criticizes the system in that, “the students aren’t challenged enough to even fulfill the requirements for naturalization.” The requirement there is proof of B1 skills.


Alexis Feldmeier:
Alphabetisierung von Erwachsenen nicht deutscher Muttersprache. Leseprozesse und Anwendung von Strategien beim Erlesen isoliert dargestellter Wörter unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der farblichen und typographischen Markierung von Buchstabengruppen. (Dissertation at the University of Bielefeld, 2008)

Henrike Pracht:
Alphabetisierung in der Zweitsprache Deutsch als Schemabildungsprozess: Bedingungsfaktoren der Schemaetablierung und -verwendung auf der Grundlage der usage-based theory (Münster et. al., 2010)

Heike Roll/Karen Schramm (Hrsg.):
Alphabetisierung in der Zweitsprache Deutsch (OBST – Osnabrücker Beiträge zur Sprachtheorie, Heft 77, 2010)

Nina Rother:
Das Integrationspanel. Ergebnisse einer Befragung von Teilnehmenden zu Beginn ihres Alphabetisierungskurses (Working Paper 29 of the BAMF-Forschungsgruppe, 2010)

Christoph Brammertz
is a communications specialist and German scholar. He works as an online editor for “Schulen ans Netz e. V.” (Schools Go Online) in Bonn and lives in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2011

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