Studies show that language skills are a significant requirement for enabling children and young people to achieve their full potential at school, at university, in their apprenticeships and as a member of society. When it comes to providing language education, schools and kindergartens are faced with challenges. The number of children starting school without any knowledge of German is increasing. Many of them were born in Germany to immigrant parents and grow up speaking a language other than German. They can get by in German in everyday life, but have problems with the academic language required firstly in lessons and later in working life. Even amongst pupils who grow up with German as their native language, the need for language and literacy intervention is continuously growing.
In order to increase the educational opportunities for children and young people who qualify for language and literacy intervention, the Mercator Institute for Literacy and Language Education was founded in 2012 at the University of Cologne by, and funded through, Stiftung Mercator, an independent private foundation. It aims to improve language and literacy education throughout the entire education system, particularly in schools.
Train teachers for language-sensitive lessons
Teachers are key for language-sensitive lessons that are tailored to the individual needs of each pupil – and not just in German lessons, but throughout the entire curriculum. In order to better support teachers in this task, the Mercator Institute advocates embedding language and literacy education and German as a second language into all phases of teacher training – during lectures, the work placement and in further education.
Create well-founded knowledge of language education
How do children learn the German language? How do you determine that a child qualifies for language and literacy intervention in kindergarten? What support strategies work? There are still many research deficits regarding the answers to these questions, which is why the Mercator Institute funds projects dedicated to finding out the answers. Furthermore, we also carry out our own applied research.
Language and literacy education is the responsibility of a number of agents – from bodies for child and youth services to schools, ministries and authorities at both local and federal state levels. The Mercator Institute acts as a facilitator and a mediator. Via publications, events, collaborations and individual consultations, we support the transfer of good practices and academic expertise into educational policy and administration and back into practice. In this way, we want to initiate systematic changes so that consistent language education can be recognised and implemented throughout a pupil’s entire school career.
What we do
In order to achieve our main aim – better language education throughout a pupil’s entire school career – the Mercator Institute is active in four divisions. We fund research and teacher training projects, carry out our own research, support the qualification of the next generation of academics and teachers and advise agents with practical and educational administration backgrounds in implementing language and literacy intervention strategies.
The Mercator Institute supports 15 research and so-called development projects in 26 universities in six federal states. In total, the institute provides € 5.5 million worth of funds. Five research projects develop, test and evaluate language support measures, language-sensitive lesson concepts and diagnostic assessment procedures. All projects are interdisciplinary and are clearly orientated to classroom situations. Ten development projects focus on embedding language and literacy education and German as a second language into teacher training. For example, in North Rhine Westphalia, a module of every teacher-training course is ‘German for pupils with migrant backgrounds’. Eight projects at universities in North Rhine Westphalia focus more intensively on students gaining practical experience whilst studying and use synergies from the teaching methodologies of German and other subjects. In Berlin and Lower Saxony, all the teacher-training universities collaborate with each other to develop a coordinated concept for embedding language and literacy education and German as a second language into teacher-training courses. This initiative has the full support of state ministries.
In addition to research funding, the Mercator Institute also carries out its own topical research projects. These are coordinated by an interdisciplinary team of linguists, educationalists, psychologists and teachers and focus on teacher training, assessment and intervention as well as schools and lessons. The Mercator Institute informs decision-makers in politics, administration and in the field about current issues and insights into language and literacy education. The institute also acts as a media contact.
Supporting and qualifying the next generation
Numerous schools and universities have recognised that linguistic education plays a pivotal role and they are on the lookout for linguistic experts for research and teaching. For the next generation of academics, the Mercator Institute founded the Graduate Academy for Literacy and Language Education. Here young academics are supported in their doctorate and postdoctoral qualifications with further education, networking sessions, a mentoring programme and individual qualification opportunities.
For advanced teacher training, the Mercator Institute cooperates with administrative departments and establishments on a regional and state level to develop and implement further educational concepts. At a university level, teachers are trained to consciously perceive and address linguistic obstacles in their seminars.
Since the revision of the German teacher training act in 2009, the module ‘German for pupils with migrant backgrounds’ has become a core subject of the syllabus in North Rhine Westphalia. At the University of Cologne, this module makes up part of the Master of Education degree course. The Mercator Institute for Literacy and Language Education is responsible for the range of courses contained in this module, which attracts up to 1,000 students per semester. The teaching and research units are currently being developed, but lectures have been offered since the winter 2014/2015 semester. As part of the campaign for quality teacher training at the University of Cologne, the Mercator Institute is involved in developing and testing an inclusion module for trainee teachers and in implementing a strategy to support the next generation of academics in their research into didactics.
Collaboration and consultation
Translating language and literacy education into concrete strategies and concepts is a complex challenge. The Mercator Institute collaborates with state and federal ministries as well as with academic institutions and other stakeholders in order to develop solutions together. As a partner in BiSS (Bund-Länder-Initiative Bildung durch Sprache und Schrift) – a consortium of federal and state representatives promoting education through speech and writing – the Institute advises and assists disseminators from administrative and practical backgrounds in implementing and developing measures for language assessment and intervention. On behalf of the Institut zur Qualitätsentwicklung an Schulen Schleswig-Holstein (Institute for Quality Development at Schools in Schleswig-Holstein), together with the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education and in close collaboration with teachers, the Institute is also developing and evaluating a diagnostic assessment tool for reading and writing lessons in primary schools.