Conference report: Learning to Read: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Mainz, May 8-9; graduate student conference)

345e2136fdGuest post by Leonie Schwab, graduate student at the Institute for Book Studies, Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz

Reading is an essential part of our information culture. But how do children learn to read? As this specific topic is not part of the curriculum of the graduate degree in book studies at the University of Mainz, eight graduate students took the opportunity offered by the GLK to organise a conference. The goal of the conference was to gain insights into the processes and influences on the formation of a reader from the perspectives of scholars and practitioners alike.

The first day started with a historical overview of the reading situation around 1800. One could see right away that while there is a lot of research on the history of readerships as such, not much is known about the common reader and his or her reading socialisation; the focus is usually on places of learning (e.g. universities, monasteries). This predicament is currently the main focus of Nadine Pietzko’s research on the reading matter used in Swiss schools around 1800. It is part of a larger research project surrounding the “Stapfer-Enquête 1799”.

The second part of the conference focused on reading promotion (“Leseförderung”), which not only entails teaching pupils to read, but furthermore encouraging the joy of reading and a love of books. Stefan Salomonsberger from the “Abenteuer Buch” team explained the initiative’s way of introducing the book to children as a medium. To show that the book is more than just a text they introduce the children to the whole publication process, from text selection to production to marketing in order to turn the book into something desirable and away from the mere transportation object for texts. Tina Seibert (JGU Mainz) presented a number of reasons why an unproportionally large number of children with a migration background have serious problems during reading education. She showed that it is not them having a migration background, but rather a combination of several factors that are commonly attributed as having a negative influence on reading education. Such as a complicated social situation and a low education level in the family. She made clear that being competent in their mother tongue is a very important for these children to become competent readers (in German).

With Lukas Heyman a glimpse into a possible future was offered. Based on two studies – part of the research on digital reading for Stiftung Lesen – he focused on e-readers and tablets which as “cool” gadgets to read e-books on may motivate children who are reluctant to read. Especially fathers can be animated to read to their children when using book apps. This is a chance to offer children more male reading models.

Panel discussion. Copyright: Dominik Brinkmann

Jutta Bummel, bookshop Eulenspiegel, Alexander Dingeldein from Bücherbummler e.V. and Ulrike Oels, remedial reading teacher, formed the panel for the discussion led by Anke Vogel (JGU Mainz). All of the panellists are involved in various forms of reading promotion; and thus, ultimately, the discussion led to mutual agreement on the importance of reading education and on the need to provide children with a suitable reading environment from an early age on. They also voiced their wish for more professionalised “reading promoters” and for a larger variety of books to support reading promotion, e.g. bilingual books or plain language editions of children’s books. Furthermore, there appears to be a demand to increase the influence of male promoters as all panellists noted a female dominance concerning everything related to reading (mothers, nursery and elementary schools teachers, reading nanny projects, editors of children’s books, etc.).

The second day began with a talk by Doris Schönbaß from Salzburg who focused on the image and value of books and reading among adolescents. Books today are no luxury; in fact, school books are free of charge in Austria. This could however lead to the assumption that if there is no price then there is no value to it. Also, books are endorsed by grown-ups, in the form of gifts from relatives or parents. When children however ask parents for a technical gadget, a TV, or a laptop, they have to argue for it – which in the end may make any activity to fill their free time more interesting than reading and books. Schönbaß makes it clear, while there is a lot of competition for the book, this should not be the reason for simplistic statements such as “It does not matter what children read as long as they read.” This is especially true in the context of reading education as it tries to teach comprehension of complex text structures.

In his presentation, Michael Schikowski, blog owner of “Immer schön sachlich”, editor in Frankfurt and teacher at the University of Bonn, focused on the young male reader; he specifically pointed out that less boys than girls become frequent readers later on. Schikoswski stated that boys like their stories to include facts and are the ideal audience for non-fiction. Therefore Schikowski sees the reason for this differing development in the reading matter which is usually produced and chosen by a female figure and usually a literary text. So while the analysis of literary texts is an important part of reading education, it should not be the only reading that takes place in schools.

The conference concluded with the introduction of a new research project by Torsten Pflugmacher and Tina Hannes. Whereas all of the presentations before were about readers, Pflugmacher and Hannes are conducting research on non-readers. They aptly titled their talk: “Learning how not to read”. In their research, Pflugmacher and Hannes ask why people do not read – even though they are capable of reading – and which coping techniques they have developed in order to communicated about the unknown text in an educational or a social setting.

Overall, it was an enlightening conference while also repeating a lot of facts which are already known to scholars and practitioners. Nonetheless , the conference showed that there is still a lot of research to be done, and that the possibilities and the forms reading promotion can take on are endless.

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