I. Pieper

Reading within language as a subject: a key-area within the broad aim of
making ready for the knowledge society
Irene Pieper
Institut für deutsche Sprache und Literatur,
Universität Hildesheim
A. Introduction: reading within LS
Reading has long been considered a key area within LS. Curricula usually focus on reading as
a specific area of learning or domain of competences, often next to writing, speaking and
listening, reflection upon language. Research on the socialisation in reading and on the
acquisition of reading competences has long pointed out, that there are various agencies that
influence these processes. Especially the family is considered a very important environment
for decisive encounters with text from a very early age on. Nevertheless, formal reading
instruction is largely taking place in school and it is within LS that the aim of sound abilities
in the area of reading comprehension is most explicitly put.
What is most essential within reading? I would like to offer first a rough decription not from
the curricula but from a catalogue that offers an attempt to define a minimum standard:
In order to arrive at a clear description of what students who leave school at grade 9 or 10 and
aim at vocational training should be able to perform an initiative of the "Bundesanstalt für
Arbeit" and other bodies in Germany developed criteria. These criteria describe basic skills in
maths, language and economics (see: Nationaler Pakt für Ausbildung und
Fachkräftenachwuchs – Kriterienkatalog (4/2006))
For reading the minimum standard quite simply reads:
„Die Jugendlichen können Texte lesen und verstehen.“ The young adults can read and comprehend texts.
Indicators for the standard are:
- she/he masters basic reading skills
- she/he can work out the meaning of words
- she/he can reconstruct the core meaning of a text and can retrieve information from it
according to a specific goal
- she/he knows and makes use of methods of textreception: make notes; summarise texts and
- she/he can make use of various sources of information.
Though we will probably agree upon the basic standard “can read and comprehend texts” we
will at the same time acknowledge that it will have to be worked out what this means. The
indicators at least mention procedures that are meant to be performed.
A.1: Being able to read is more than mastering strategies
What is to be achieved in the field of reading? Especially since PISA the notion of reading
literacy has been prominent in Europe and beyond:
“Reading literacy is understanding, using and reflecting on written texts, in order to achieve
one's goals, to develop one's knowledge and potential, and to participate in society.”
Accordingly, reading literacy has been named a key-competence within knowledge-based
societies. The acquisition of knowledge is very often based on the use of text in a broad sense
– including texts that operate with different sign systems (combination of text and
diagrams…). A competent reader is – according to the PISA-definition – able to make use of
text with regard to goals she or he sets herself/himself including the development of
knowledge. She or he can make use of texts so as to be able to participate in society and
culture. The contexts of reading are formulated in an abstract manner. Their specific form will
depend on individual tasks the reader sets herself/himself. It is already clear from this
definition that a narrow approach which isolates reading strategies from the “what” and “what
for” does not cover the whole field of reading literacy. It is especially within LS that a broad
spectrum of reading activities is aimed at.
A central task within the teaching of reading strategies is to enable students to use them in
accordance with specific texts and reading goals. One of the hardest issues is to work out
which tool to use for which purpose. Thus, metacognition, which offers access to experience
previously made and to actual behaviour, plays a key-role.
Within the current context it might be worthwhile to point out that applying strategies is not
an aim in itself. It should serve the purpose of the construction of meaning and of making use
of texts for other purposes.
A.2: Reading for pleasure and study: Learning to read is often linked to encouraging broad
reading activities beyond school contexts.
Within many European countries it is broadly accepted that within the subject attempts should
be made to encourage students’ reading beyond school and for pleasure. Thus, the program of
study of the National Curriculum for England states: “during key stage 3 and 4 (age 14 and
15) pupils read a wide range of texts independently, both for pleasure and for study. They
become enthusiastic, discriminating and responsive readers, discriminating layers of meaning
and appreciate what they read on a critical level.” (NCfE, 34)
To support reading practices for personal enrichment also reflects the conviction that reading
motivation is an important factor for entering into the process of constructing meaning from
text and for the development of reading competences. As part of LS this also means that a
wide range of texts should be offered with regard to both theme and formal features.
A.3 Variety of genres: Introducing students to various genres is a common aim of reading
education and should enable them to tackle texts in manifold contexts and for manifold
purposes more and more independently
Making students aware of genre-specifics is an important aspect of reading education from
primary onwards. However, a central task is to avoid schematic use of genre-knowledge that
does not help the interpretation of texts.
A.4: Progression: A reading-curriculum has to care for the development of content knowledge
(genres but also content related to language in a broader sense), the acquisition of procedures
and strategies and the development of dispositions and attitudes over the years and also over
the bridge between primary and secondary education
The LS-curriculum also has to address the issue of progression: to arrange a reading
curriculum in a cumulative manner depends on careful diagnosis. In general the thematic
scope as well as the complexitiy of the texts which are read will differ and broaden. However,
text complexity again depends on context (abilities and interest of the reader; ways of
introducing the text in class; specific aims that are followed). Examples of fascinating
interactions on complex literary texts even in primary education illustrate how relative the
criterion “text complexity” is.
B: Integration of knowledge
Thus, for the context of a European framework of reference it has been pointed out that a
narrow view on competences in the sense of refering to a set of strategies only is insufficient.
Instead it has been stressed that a connection is needed of “knowledge, skills and
attitudes/dispositions as components and cultures developed by schools” (Coste et al. 2007,
I have slightly adapted a table of Tina Samihaian to the case of reading (see Samihaian 2006 /
Coste et al. 2007)
subject: LS
dispositions and
(specific methods
and strategies)
reading (texts
and media from)
content related to
text (various
pragmatic and
various cultural
texts from
various domains
of knowledge;
texts) including a
knowledge of
(grammar and
reading strategies
and methods for
text reception in
a variety of
contexts and for
a variety of aims
contexts of
learning that
have a potential
for encouraging
creativity and
critical thinking,
and for
participation in
learning to learn
(methods and
strategies; self
procedures based
on using
in learning
C. An example from a German textbook / grade 9
The example I propose here should illustrate how the various aspects of knowledge form an
integrative part of reading competence.
Bertold Brecht: Mr Keuner and the flood tide
Mr Keuner was walking through a valley when he suddenly noticed that his feet were walking
through water. Then he realized that his valley was in reality an arm of the sea and that high
tide was approaching. He immediately stood still in order to look around for a boat, and he
remained standing as long as he hoped to see a boat. But when no boat came in sight, he
abandoned this hope and hoped that the water would stop rising. Only when the water reached
his chin did he abandon even this hope and begin to swim. He had realized that he himself
was a boat.
The stories by Bert Brecht on Mr Keuner are often dealt with in German classrooms. This one
I personally consider as being less tough than others. It is read as a parable and in the case I
refer to used to introduce students in grade 9 / age 15 to this genre. At the same time it is used
to enhance discussion on human existence in society. The chapter is called “Do I know what
man is?”, the sub-heading: “What to do?”. The issue is identified as being relevant to 15-year
olds, but as is often the case in school contexts, a task introduced by the institution...
What do students learn when dealing with this text?
Students should – that is the suggestion here – follow the chronology of what is told: What
does Keuner do first, what then? Students are also asked to note the reasons for his behaviour.
The last sentence of the text is read as a key to the understanding of the message.
One could call this method: close reading and it forms part of the skills in the domain.
It is encouraged by the short length of the text that does not allow for skimming or even
summarising the text – which are very important skills in other contexts.
Via close reading students could realise that the text does not make use of much description
but sticks to the essential. This may be read as a key also to the parabolic character of the text.
Students can identify key words that are repeated (water, valley, boat, hope). They can work
out especially that Mr Keuner’s hopes are insisted upon (4). Why doesn’t he go straight back
when he realises that high tide is approaching? Instead he is passive and only gets round to
save himself after giving up hope.
The last sentence identifies Keuner with the boat he had been waiting for, thus surpassing the
concrete reference of ‘boat’, and can serve as a key to developing correspondences between
what is said and what is meant.
Here students as well as all other readers will have to make inferences and develop an
interpretation: The parable hints at correspondences between what is said and what is meant
(knowledge on content, related to text-genre). But the latter is not made explicit in the text.
What kind of situation could one think of? The didactic genre of the parable will draw
somehow on the human condition within society.
Thus, the parable invites to identify a situation the text might in fact be talking of. It does,
however, not only ask for such an identification.
A discussion in the sense of “reflecting on written texts” might well focus on the Brechtian
way of problematising “hope”. Normally with positive connotation and considered a strength
hope here is a trait that has to be given up before the individual can solve the problem and
avoid catastrophe. Students could certainly elaborate on that and the parable would offer a
context of learning that encourages reflection (disposition and attitudes).
One could go further and link the reading of this text to context knowledge which could be
offered on Brecht and his materialist worldview. This would certainly be appropriate in upper
secondary. Various modes of text could be used to introduce this context – posing other
challenges of reading comprehension to the students.
Students could finally reflect on what they did in order to interpret the parable. Such a
metacognitive process would help for dealing with more texts of the genre in the future but
also, in more general terms, for dealing with indirect modes of speech in various contexts, for
example in the field of political rhetorics.
C. Texts and reading competences in LS
The example I elaborated upon can be considered as being rather at the heart of the subject
especially in those contexts where literature forms an integral part of the LS-curriculum. The
text is not only read as an example of the genre but also as a text that should be reflected upon
in relation to value driven concepts.
For quite some time the variety of texts has been broadened, since PISA also stressing noncontinuous texts. This definitely enlarges the scope of reading instruction within LS. The
same textbook I draw the example from includes a chapter on nature where the issue of
climate change is tackled via several diagrams on emissions in international comparison.
It could well be argued that broadening the scope of texts calls for approaches in school that
explicitly cross the border domains in such a way that domain specific language competences
are identified as being an issue in other subjects, too. The following example will deal with
the case of reading in a language-across-the-curriculum approach.