IPA past President, Ana María Cabanellas, shares her first post for the IPA’s literacy working group within the Inclusive Publishing and Literacy Committee.

I have been part of IPA for a long time and I am very happy to be able to collaborate with IPA’s Inclusive Publishing and Literacy Committee, presided by Michiel Kolman, and with Gvantsa Jobava that leads the committee’s literacy working group.

Last month, publishers and booksellers in Germany were calling for an urgent, coordinated ‘National Reading Plan’ to combat educational shortfalls. To find out more we spoke to Kaspar Pflaum, Head of reading Promotion (Leitung Leseförderung) at our member, the German Publisher´s association (Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels).

Ana María Cabanellas (AMC): Post Covid 19 many countries’ educational systems are struggling following disruptions in process, curricula, family life, and student development. Is this the case in Germany?

Kaspar Pflaum (KP): Our association has always been very active in promoting reading and literacy and this is why we have been observing the latest developments with great concern. The problem, as such, is nothing new: Since 2016, several studies, like the IGLU Study on reading skills among elementary school pupils, revealed that one fifth of all 10-year-olds in Germany lacked the ability to read and comprehend texts. Unfortunately, the pandemic has also left clear traces in Germany and the dramatic findings even worsened during COVID-19.

AMC: Are there studies to show the situation of the educational system in your country?

KP: A recent study led by the Centre for Research on Education and School Development (IFS) at TU Dortmund University showed the negative effects of the Covid pandemic on the educational system in Germany. The study asserted that the average reading competence of students in fourth grade is significantly lower than the reading competence of their peers before the pandemic. Expressed in learning years, children are missing about half a learning year on average after COVID-19-related restrictions on schooling.

AMC: What are the challenges for the schools?

KP: There are multiple challenges for schools, both during and after the pandemic. Deficits in digitization, poor technical equipment and school closures were decisive factors during the pandemic. According to a recent survey among school administrations (Deutsches Schulbarometer) German schools are currently facing key challenges: Shortage of skilled teachers, learning gaps and limited admission capacities for refugees (e.g. from Ukraine) and a huge increase in mental health problems and anxiety disorders among students of all ages. Another concern is that we need to overcome social inequalities in access to education and reading.

AMC: Do you think that Reading can be part of the solution to this disruptive situation?

KP: Yes, we think reading is the key to many challenges our society has to face. First of all, studies show that reading is beneficial to boosting the development of language and reading skills of children, can help to overcome the social gap, and that reading can be a life-changing power. Furthermore, reading not only playfully opens up new worlds and perspectives for children, but it enables them to understand the interrelationships in the world from a well-informed and empathetic perspective. Ultimately literacy is essential to democratic societies because it is fundamental for the ability of people to educate themselves, to form an independent opinion and to actively participate in society.

AMC: Some time ago your association signed the ‘National Reading Pact’ initiative. Can members do something in the sense of a plan that can be implemented nationwide?

KP: Yes, that is what we believe. Motivated by the worrying evidence mentioned above, we joined forces with Stiftung Lesen (German Reading Foundation) to find ways to make a lasting difference. On March 3, 2021, at the National Reading Summit, Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels and Stiftung Lesen launched the joint initiative – the National Reading Alliance. The National Reading Alliance aims to stimulate improvements in reading promotion and literacy work all over Germany. To achieve this, all relevant stakeholders from politics, society and literacy campaigns have to be brought to one table. There are already many excellent and committed projects in place, many of them driven by volunteers and originating in local communities. But what we lack is a targeted, comprehensive nationwide strategy, which should culminate in a national reading plan.

AMC: What are the consequences of the disruption of the educational system, for educational publishers?

KP: In Germany, school education is a matter for the federal states. A commission made up of all groups in society decides on the approval of textbooks in each federal state. Educational publishers are experts at developing the right product for each of these very specific markets. At the same time, they are oriented towards international standards and offer a large and growing variety of digital media. Due to the Covid-related learning gaps, the so-called afternoon market is also booming, i.e. the sale of learning materials that can be used to catch up independently.

AMC: In my opinion, this situation is rather common to many countries. It is good to see that Germany is taking measures to change this and we can learn from them and their experience.