Major Offensive to Combat Poor Literacy

Reading and writing
Reading and writing | Photo (detail): © ra2 studio - Fotolia.com

One in five Europeans has problems understanding the world of words around them. The“European Literacy Policy Network” (ELINET) now intends to devise standards and models to promote successful reading and writing in all age groups.

In their report on written language proficiency in European countries, published in 2012, the members of the “High Level Group of Experts on Literacy” set up by the European Commission 2011 formulate a “wake-up call”. “According to national and international studies”, explains the group, which is chaired by Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, “roughly one in five adults andone in five 15-year-olds lack the literary skills to successfully function in a modern society”. Yet the digital age, the report continues, demands increasingly advanced reading and writing skills, meaning that those concerned risk losing out in terms of social, cultural and economic participation.

Falling behind – in Germany too

In response to this alarming conclusion, the European Commission invited tenders for a network on “literacy policy”, which began its work in February 2014 with a major inaugural conference in Vienna. ELINET is intended to run for two years and is furnished with a budget of four million euros.“Everyone must be given the chance to acquire the basic skills that are needed in a literate society”, stresses Christine Garbe, professor of literary studies and literary didactics at the University of Cologne. She coordinates ELINET, which currently comprises around 80 organizations in 28 countries. Those from Germany include Stiftung Lesen (i.e. Reading Foundation), theLitCam (Literacy Campaign of Frankfurt Book Fair), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Lesen und Schreiben (i.e. German Society for Reading and Writing, DGLS) and the Bundesverband Leseförderung (i.e. Federal Association for the Promotion of Reading).

“Disproportionately often, the risk groups which remain below the minimum standard in terms of literacy come from poorly-educated and low-income families”, explains Garbe, going on to say that this stratum frequently also involves a migrant background. What is more, far more boys than girls are affected. However, it is not only numerous youngsters who need to catch up in terms of written language acquisition – even in a rich educated nation such as Germany. According to an OECD study from 2013, one in six adults in Germany has the reading level of a ten-year-old child.

Finding examples of good practice

It is not ELINET’s aim to gather further statistics. “Instead, we want to gather the data that is to be found scattered all over Europe in many individual studies and bring it together in the form of short and concise national reports”, explains Garbe. The focus, she says, is on determining“what is happening in the individual countries in terms of tackling the problem.”The network is designed to collate and recommend models for promising methods of promoting reading and writing in all age groups. Before this can happen, however, common criteria first have to be developed as to“what we define as examples of good practice. That is the biggest challenge”, the project’s coordinator asserts. To this end, a project team run by Booktrust in Great Britain is compiling a set of promising fundraising models. Another team, led by the Dutch Reading and Writing Foundation in The Hague, collects examples of good practice for generating awareness: “How can we organize campaigns or effectively target stakeholders with an interest in literacy policy?”, is the central question here.

After all, one key objective of ELINET – as Garbe explains – is to create a common European Internet platform on which work results can be put together and partners can present their national projects.

Promoting literacy begins at home

Measures recommended by the 2012 Literacy Report to combatpoor reading and writing skills include creating a literate environment, raising the level of literacy teaching and providing more reading support, and increasing participation and integration in all areas of society.
Those involved in ELINET already have previous experience in these areas. Christine Garbe, for instance, successfully coordinated the“Teaching Struggling Adolescent Readers” (ADORE) programme whose partners from Romania, Hungary, Estonia, Finland and Switzerland have now also joined the network. “For this programme we looked at 30 schools in 11 countries that offer good programmes at secondary level with a view to supporting poor readers”. That said, as a literacy expert she is convinced that encouragement must already start at home: “Successful acquisition of written language skills begins in the family”. In Germany, Stiftung Lesen works together with paediatricians within the framework of the “Lesestart” (i.e. Start reading) project. During mandatory medical check-ups of infants, doctors can ask specific questions of parents and supply them with picture books and helpful leaflets about promoting language acquisition and reading skills in early childhood.

A programme with a future

“Through ELINET we have learnt that such programmes also exist in countries like Italy and Croatia”, reports Garbe. Now similar schemes need to be identified all over Europe“ so that we can provide sound recommendations about what has the best chances of success in the area of early childhood education”. Of course, the project’s coordinator also does not believe that the ambitious ELINET objectives will be achieved within two years. Talks have been held with the members of the European Commission to determine how the programme might be developed beyond the project’s two-year term. “ELINET is a programme for at least a decade”, Garbe states confidently.