Looking at Language through School Subjects

With the project “Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen,” researchers from the Berlin universities want to convey learning material in the classroom in a way that also trains language skills

Dec 05, 2019

How glaciers shaped the northern German landscape, what nutrients are digested in the stomach or how physical forces work – on a single day at school, pupils have to deal with a very wide variety of subjects.

How glaciers shaped the northern German landscape, what nutrients are digested in the stomach or how physical forces work – on a single day at school, pupils have to deal with a very wide variety of subjects.
Image Credit: Bernd Wannenmacher

Are good German language skills a prerequisite for successfully completing school subjects such as mathematics and chemistry? Is it not just about equations and formulas? The importance of language skills was demonstrated by the Pisa study in 2000, as Daniela Caspari explains. For the first time ever, it was empirically proven that pupils of non-German origin performed significantly worse in the natural sciences than children with a native German background. “The study practically shook us awake,” recalls the Professor of Didactics of Romance Languages and Literatures at Freie Universität Berlin. It also showed that the reason for this difference in performance was not mathematical understanding, intelligence, or motivation, but actually a poorer command of the German language.

“Of course, pupils who have spent at least part of their childhood in Germany can often learn German better than we would learn a foreign language in a course. That it can go undetected that they do not even have a grasp on what we call a language of education.” Daniela Caspari

How glaciers shaped the northern German landscape, what nutrients are digested in the stomach or how physical forces work – on a single day at school, pupils have to deal with a very wide variety of subjects. They not only have to learn the material, but also many technical terms and specific linguistic devices. They learn to communicate about the subject in the so-called “language of education.” This language is the most important mechanism by which learning at school works, says Caspari. “Of course, pupils who have spent at least part of their childhood in Germany can often learn German better than we would learn a foreign language in a course. That it can go undetected that they do not even have a grasp on what we call a language of education.”

In order to address this problem, Berlin universities have focused on language acquisition in the training of teachers in all subjects. With the introduction of the Bachelor’s and Master’s teaching degree programs in the winter semester of 2006/2007, all teacher training students had to complete seminars in the field of German as a Second Language (Deutsch als Zweitsprache, DaZ). “This made Berlin the absolute pioneer in teacher training,” says Daniela Caspari.

The project “Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen: Innovationen für das Berliner Lehramt” [Languages – Create/Teach – Chances: Innovations for Berlin’s Teacher Training Programs], a joint project of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Technische Universität Berlin, trains future teachers. The courses in the areas of language acquisition, language development, and German as a second language have now been comprehensively examined and evaluated for the first time. The aim was to further develop teacher training in German as a second language and language acquisition.

“We were interested in the extent to which we could continue to work with the wealth of experience we had already gained at the three universities, what could be improved and what should be fundamentally modernized,” says Beate Lütke. The Professor of Didactics of the German Language/German as a Second Language at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin was local director of the project at her university as well as head of the overall project. In her subproject at Humboldt-Universität, she and her team focused primarily on the evaluation of existing training modules. They measured the students’ skills development and used interviews to determine their attitudes toward the topic. The student’s term papers in the Master of Education at the three universities was also evaluated. The papers dealt with the development of language-sensitive teaching material for the students’ respective subjects.

Beate Lütke says that the students surveyed have become more sensitive to the topic of language acquisition as they have completed their studies. “The Master’s students in particular were very aware of the topic and looked specifically at the linguistic heterogeneity in schools.” They became aware of the role played by language-sensitive teaching.

“Language sensitive” in this context refers to language that is not only used as a medium, but is also the subject of instruction. Subject-related and linguistic learning are thus linked to one another. For example, pronunciation errors are also corrected in geography classes, and common sentences and phrases used in lab reports are practiced in chemistry classes. In doing so, the teachers take into account the pupils’ unequal starting points. They must recognize the language barriers of the pupils and support them in overcoming them.

But how can prospective teachers be prepared for language-sensitive content teaching in their subjects? Language training in various teaching methodologies was examined in one of the subprojects, in which a team prepared existing teaching materials in a language-sensitive way. In this way, new teaching materials were created, and the prospective teachers received the appropriate methodological tools with which they could later independently design teaching content, says Thorsten Roelcke, Professor of German as a Foreign Language and Language for Specific Purposes at Technische Universität Berlin.

“We noticed that the apprentices had no reading strategies at all to read a complex legal text.” Julia Schallenberg

It was important to partner with schools, rather than simply carrying out research on teaching practices that have nothing to do with the needs of the schools themselves: “The cooperation with schools and teachers worked very well,” explains Julia Schallenberg. As a lecturer for language acquisition at Technische Universität Berlin, she helped develop materials. For example, she prepared a task in the field of construction technology in a language-sensitive way, in an area where the vocational apprentices had difficulties beforehand. First, she analyzed a task that involved extracting information from a legal text. “We noticed that the apprentices had no reading strategies at all to read a complex legal text,” explains Schallenberg. She expanded the task to include language support and approaches to understanding a legal text. Then, she reflected on the revised task with the apprentices: “Ultimately, even pupils with serious language problems were able to extract information from the text and did a good job completing the assignment, because they were given appropriate tasks that led them there.”

Schallenberg explains that one challenge for the researchers was to familiarize themselves with the subject areas with which they were not familiar. “I have familiarized myself with the basic knowledge involved in professional and vocational training and with the various areas of concentration, because nutrition science, for example, requires completely different skills than electrical engineering or metal technology.”

A focus in language acquisition is not only useful in teacher training programs. Even if they have been in the classroom for decades or completed their studies outside of Berlin, professional development in this field is useful. But then the question arises, how can the training and development courses be structured in order to avoid repetitions or gaps?

Researchers have been working on precisely this question in a project coordinated through Freie Universität Berlin. Their objective was to draw up a proposal for a training concept in order to convey the subject in the degree program, in teacher training, and in professional development of teachers. They also wanted to ensure that the different training phases worked together coherently. Among other things, sharing knowledge of structures and opportunities in this area is important in order to coordinate training and development better. The researchers involved in the subproject propose regular reporting on the three phases of teacher training by a coordinating body such as the Zentrum für Sprachbildung (center for language education).

The interdisciplinary and interuniversity cooperation in the project “Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen” worked well and was very intensive and fruitful, the researchers agreed. “We were indeed interwoven at all levels,” says Daniela Caspari, local director of the project at Freie Universität Berlin and head of the subproject “Sprachbildung in den Fachdidaktiken” [language education in teaching subject areas].

“The expertise of the three universities brings together a tremendous amount of knowledge, and that’s a huge gain.” Beate Lütke

Even after the end of the project, the researchers will stay in contact, meet at conferences, and plan events together. Daniela Caspari and Beate Lütke are sure of it. “Even if it is very time-consuming to work together across institutional boundaries in this way, we should not be afraid of that in the future, because the expertise of the three universities brings together a tremendous amount of knowledge, and that’s a huge gain,” says Lütke.

It is important to continue working on this topic, says Thorsten Roelcke. “We would all like to continue; not only for personal reasons, because we have often worked well together as a team, but also because it would make sense from a research perspective.”

Further Information

“Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen: Innovationen für das Berliner Lehramt”

The Mercator Institute funded the joint project of Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and Technische Universität Berlin, which ran from 2014 to 2017, with a total of 1.25 million euros for Literacy and Language Education. “Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen” was divided into three areas, each under the leadership of one of the three universities.

  1. Evaluation and further development of German as a second language modules, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
  2. Language acquisition in didactics for specific purposes, Technische Universität Berlin
  3. Development of a phase-overlapping training concept for language acquisition in the teaching profession, Freie Universität Berlin

The teaching material developed in the project “Sprachen – Bilden – Chancen” is available for download on the project website www.sprachen-bilden-chancen.de.