Recent Research Findings: The Education Research Perspective Language, Education – and Success?

Language, Education – and Success?
Language, Education – and Success? | Illustration: Melih Bilgil

How important are linguistic skills for academic success – and indeed for social participation? This is a key question in education research into language development and involves a quest for answers and new insights.


Education researchers focusing on the area of language development are attempting to discover why some children and young people – even after years of attending school – do not learn the language used at school and in the classroom to a sufficient extent to achieve success and thus obtain an important foundation for social participation. They are also asking what the education system, the individual school or the individual teacher can do to promote successful language development. In this context, it is important to ascertain which factors influence linguistic development at school age and above. The latest education research findings in this field are presented below.

What effects do individual and social circumstances have on language development in the context of educational institutions? And what influence do teaching and classroom practices have on such development? In seeking answers to these key questions, education researchers also take into account the findings of neighbouring disciplines (see info box at the end of article).

The central focus is the fundamental role language plays in conveying educational content. For example, education researchers have discovered, looking among other things at the PISA studies, that the ability to successfully solve problems in the sciences and mathematics depends to a major extent on a student’s level of reading proficiency (Klieme et al. 2010). Almost every school subject is communicated via language, with tasks and their solutions being presented in the form of written text. It is thus virtually impossible to understand something without an understanding of language. In addition, the more advanced a person’s educational biography is, the more important their language skills and knowledge become for learning as a whole.

Education research also reveals that education systems generate unequal educational opportunities despite actually being supposed to help everyone equally to achieve the best possible success in education. In this context it is important to track down the systematic causes for this undesirable outcome.


Education research has revealed that varying degrees of educational success are due in part to factors related to the learners’ backgrounds. For instance, children from socially and economically disadvantaged families are less likely to enjoy a successful educational career than children from well-off families. According to international comparative studies, this dependence of educational success on socio-economic background and on the family’s educational level is particularly pronounced in Germany (OECD 2014).

Learners’ linguistic prerequisites for education are closely intertwined with these factors related to background. This is particularly striking in the context of migration. In Europe, it is common for migrants to continue using their original languages even across several generations, with the result that their children grow up in multilingual environments. Whether this puts them at a disadvantage in terms of education is a classic question which arouses the scientific curiosity of education researchers (Gogolin/Neumann 2009). Findings here are ambivalent. On the one hand, young people who (also) speak a language at home other than the language generally used at school tend to perform less well in studies than children of the same age living in a monolingual environment. On the other hand, studies show that there are advantages to living in more than one language. Multilinguals have for example the ability at an earlier stage and to a greater extent than monolinguals to distinguish between the form of an utterance and its content. Because they have to decide which language to use, their cognitive skills receive special training – which benefits their language learning abilities and their learning in general (Bialystok/Poarch 2014).   

In view of this, education researchers are attempting to clarify why advantage is not taken of the resources that multilingualism obviously offers in the teaching and learning of language – and how the potential of multilingualism can best be exploited to benefit education processes. This places the focus of education research not only on the individuals and their linguistic prerequisites for education, but also on the institutions of education themselves. They have a considerable bearing on language development: through curricula and catalogues of learning targets and skills; as a result of the way schools and lessons are designed; through methods of diagnosing language abilities and their development, and not least as a result of the qualifications and activities of teaching staff.


One of the goals of education research is to gauge the impact of such influences and to obtain empirically founded evidence which will allow practices to be designed that will help reduce those factors with a negative influence. One of the ways this can be done is by developing tests and diagnostic procedures and by designing education in such a way that it benefits language learning.

Developing tests and diagnostic procedures:

It has been demonstrated that beneficial language practices must be tailored to the existing linguistic abilities of the learners. But what abilities are these exactly? It is not easy to assess this in an appropriate manner because – unlike in tests focusing on specific learning targets – there is no means of determining the linguistic input which learners have received.

Numerous methods – most of which evolved out of practical experience – are used to decide for example which ability group or remedial set learners should be assigned to. In very many instances, however, these are methods that have no sound scientific basis and whose quality has not been properly validated. The results they achieve are unclear and arbitrary in terms of their relevance to and importance for linguistic development. Nonetheless, such methods frequently prove highly effective in practice. They can determine whether a learner is provided with remedial tuition or not and whether his or her performance is correctly assessed – or whether an inappropriate procedure has been followed, thereby resulting in an erroneous judgement.

One important objective of research is thus to develop and assess the quality of methods with which to measure existing linguistic ability and carry out ongoing language diagnosis. From the perspective of education research, diagnostic methods must meet strict quality requirements. At the very least, they must be:
  • “objective”, that is to say their results must not be dependent on the way the method is carried out and analysed;
  • “reliable”, that is to say free of random errors and stable when used at different times;
  • “valid”, that is to say they actually measure what they purport to.
Developing diagnostic procedures which also adequately indicate the course and progress of learning entails particular challenges: after all, this is the information that is needed to assess whether the teaching on offer has been appropriate. So far, there have been particularly intensive activities aimed at developing instruments which can be used at the pre-school or school-entry level (Neugebauer/Becker-Mrotzek 2013). However, the first verified methods are now also available which are suitable for the pedagogical monitoring of language development in the school context and which are designed to be used by teachers. One example are the Niveaubeschreibungen Deutsch als Zweitsprache (Language Level Descriptors for German as a Second Language), which allow skills and the acquisition of skills in German to be monitored in a structured and systematic way during the teaching process. These can be used by teachers of all subjects. The monitoring results in “language profiles” being drawn up for the students, highlighting their strengths and weaknesses in German. They are suitable as a basis for planning lessons which build on the students’ existing strengths with a view to reducing their weaknesses.

Designing education to benefit language learning:

The starting point for studies aimed at laying the foundation for designing education in such a way that it benefits language learning can for example be the question of how language requirements change during the course of a person’s educational biography. As school subjects become more differentiated and the complexity of the content to be learnt increases, the linguistic communication of the subject matter in the classroom becomes more specific and more demanding. In other words, learners have to satisfy higher linguistic requirements in order to keep up. Questions that remain unanswered in this context are the extent to which understanding the language used to communicate the lesson content is sufficient for successful learning – and which learning activities demand that pupils themselves be able to actively produce the forms of language in which the subject matter is presented. It is not merely a question of being able to produce the surface structure of the linguistic devices that are necessary for instance to appropriately formulate an answer to a question. Rather it is important also to clarify the extent to which active linguistic engagement with the subject matter helps the student to reach a deeper understanding of it – and thus to learn more successfully. One particular facet of this problem involves determining its consequences when it is an educational requirement for children or young people to be bi- or multilingual in order to tackle the tasks in question.

One important source of insights into these questions is the accompanying research conducted during school trials and model programmes. Two examples are programmes such as “Förderung von Kindern und Jugendlichen mit Migrationshintergrund” (i.e. Promotion of Children and Young People from Migrant Backgrounds, FörMig) and “Bildung in Sprache und Schrift” (i.e. Education in Language and Writing, BiSS).

The FörMig programme was concerned in particular with ensuring “consistent language education” at transitional points in a student’s educational biography. The central question was how to foster the language abilities of bi- and multilingual children and young people – that is to say those overarching skills which are a basic prerequisite for educational success (Gogolin et al. 2013). It was discovered that steps taken to create an environment that is generally conducive to language learning have a favourable effect on language development. It would appear that it is not individual remedial support that is decisive but a systematic and continual focus on the language side of learning in all lessons, regardless of subject. To create such an environment, teachers of different subjects have to work together, and they need to have the support of the head teacher. A good basis for this is to jointly develop a language education concept that is also transparent for pupils and parents. It appears to have little impact when aids or teaching material are made available from outside. If material and lessons are jointly designed by the teaching staff (for example by those who teach in the classes of a particular year), on the other hand, this greatly benefits the creation of a school environment that is conducive to language learning. This requires external support: for example, time has to be found for cooperation; most importantly, however, its success depends on the teachers involved having thorough and in-service training.

The FörMig model programme has come to an end; many of its results are being followed up on and further developed in the BiSS programme. Education research into language development is thus a vital field of research in which important insights have already been gained about the conditions needed for language abilities to thrive – despite many questions still remaining unanswered.

Basic findings from neighbouring disciplines

Research into language development from an education science perspective also draws on basic findings from other disciplines. Specifically, these are the following:
Psychology and psycholinguistics: These disciplines aim first and foremost to unravel the mysteries of individual language acquisition in early childhood. “Exceptional cases” are of particular interest here. One key question, for example, is how children develop who suffer from language development disorders. Another important question concerns the particular features of the development of children who grow up bi- or multilingually (Weinert/Grimm 2012).
Language didactics: When it comes to specifically influencing language learning at educational institutions – that is to say at nurseries, schools and universities – this is done primarily from the perspective of the language didactic disciplines. In many cases, they focus on the teaching of the main language used in schools, i.e. in Germany on the teaching of German. Another area of activity is to engage with the individual foreign languages that are taught, one of which may be German as a foreign language (GFL).
Language teaching research and educational linguistics: Non-language-specific questions relating to the teaching and learning of individual languages are dealt with by language teaching research (Burwitz-Melzer et al. 2013) or educational linguistics. Their focus is for example on language development and language learning in children who grow up and live with a language other than the language used in school while at the same time acquiring experience with this language in their everyday life – for instance German as a second language (GSL).
Sociology and sociolinguistics: These disciplines study non-language-related life circumstances which have an impact on language development. These include the social and economic conditions in which children grow up and live, and the consequences of migrating to a region in which a different language is spoken. The focus is on determining which circumstances favourably influence language development, and which are more likely to give rise to disadvantages.



Bialystok, Ellen; Poarch, Gregory: „Language Experience Changes Language and Cognitive Ability” In: Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft 17 (3) 2014, 433–446.

Burwitz-Melzer, Eva; Königs, Frank G.; Riemer, Claudia (Hrsg.): Identität und Fremdsprachenlernen. Anmerkungen zu einer komplexen Beziehung. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag 2013.

Gogolin, Ingrid; Lange, Imke; Michel, Ute; Reich, Hans H. (Hrsg.): Herausforderung Bildungssprache - und wie man sie meistert. FörMig Edition Band 9. Münster: Waxmann 2013.

Gogolin, Ingrid; Neumann, Ursula (Hrsg.): Streitfall Zweisprachigkeit. The Bilingualism Controversy. Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag 2009.

Klieme, Eckhard; Artelt, Cordula; Hartig, Johannes; Jude, Nina; Köller, Olaf; Prenzel, Manfred et al. (Hrsg.): PISA 2009. Bilanz nach einem Jahrzehnt. Münster, New York u.a.: Waxmann 2010.

Neugebauer, Uwe; Becker-Mrotzek, Michael: Die Qualität von Sprachstandsverfahren im Elementarbereich. Eine Analyse und Bewertung. Mercator-Institut für Sprachförderung und Deutsch als Zweitsprache; Universität zu Köln, Köln 2013.

OECD: PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do – Student Performance in Mathematics,Reading and Science (Volume I, Revised edition, February 2014). Paris: OECD Publishing 2014.

Weinert, Sabine; Grimm, Hannelore : „Sprachentwicklung“. In: Lindenberger, Ulman; Schneider, Wolfgang (Hrsg.): Entwicklungspsychologie. Weinheim: Beltz 2012, 433–456.