New method revolutionizes reading comprehension

Study shows: struggling students can improve their reading by one to two grade levels over a nine week period. Some students have not learned how to read fluently, or how to understand the content of written texts by the time they graduate. A new method has achieved remarkable success with this particular group of learners: teaching units in secondary and comprehensive schools improved student’s reading skills by one to two grade levels within nine weeks.  The highly promising training program was developed at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg; it could revolutionize reading instruction for struggling students.    

Hamburg-Wilhelmsburg is a so-called problem neighborhood. German class is about to start for the 9th graders. The teacher places the boom box on the table and inserts a CD. The forceful voice of actor Oliver Törner  fills the room. “I was walking slowly and quietly along the empty corridor.  Somehow I was proud of myself.  I had things under control … I had it worked out … in my head I was getting my story straight: ‘Actually, we had wanted to go see Paranoid Park, but then Gerold got out because he wanted to meet up with some girls at a party at Oregon State College. So I just drove around the city. I spent the night at Gerold’s house. The next morning I went home.’  That was story and I was going to stick with it. If they arrest me, then, well, they arrest me….” 

The students bend their heads over the books. Silently their lips form words while they listen to a recording of chapter 62 from the young adult novel, Paranoid Park, written by Blake Nelson. For the last three weeks they have been working their way through the gripping novel. Most of them are eager to know how the story further unfolds. “Originally many of them believed that ‘reading was a gay thing,’” said Dr. Steffen Gailberger. “But this defensive reaction disappeared pretty quickly.  By now, some of the students are even hanging around after the sixth period so that they can finish the chapter to the end.”

The German literature professor at Leuphana University of Lüneburg is the father of the so-called “Lüneburg model.” This reading promotion program is based on an approach that has never been tried before in Germany: by reading along with audio books school children can dramatically increase their speed and fluency.  After all, these last two factors are important preconditions for understanding written texts and for reading competence in general.

“Someone who has to guess each word that he or she reads no longer has the capacity to understand the actual content,” Gailberger explained. “Furthermore, sometimes slow readers cannot remember the beginning of the sentence by the time they have worked their way through to the end.” He reaches into his attaché case and pulls out an article that is printed as a mirror image. “If you had to try to understand what is going on in this text,” he says. “You would have a hard time.  Struggling students have similar difficulties reading a text with normal print.”

Listening to an audio book provides remedial help – and in a spectacular way, as Gailberger demonstrated in his recent dissertation. He has now summarized his experiences with students in a book (Steffen Gailberger: Lesen durch Hören: Leseförderung in der Sek. I mit Hörbüchern und neuen Lesestrategien; Beltz-Verlag, 128 Seiten; ISBN: 978-3407255624). The study presents results from five different eighth and ninth grades classes in which the students’ reading level, before the training program, lagged about two grade-levels behind. The results of the study were unambiguous: over the course of four twenty-minute lessons per week students raised their reading speed on average by twenty percent within six weeks – this corresponds directly to the two grade-levels that these young readers lagged behind. One class even improved its reading by three grade levels.

Reading with a pen in hand improves comprehension

But do the students also actually understand what is going on the text? “They need additional skills especially when faced with complex texts,” the German professor said. “This is why we added a second important building block to the audio book section, which we have dubbed ‘reading with a pen in hand.’” In this three-week instructional unit, students learn how to identify key words on their own which helps them to follow a story’s narrative thread. “As far as reading comprehension is concerned, after three weeks of using our training method, the students’ learning progresses an entire grade level,” Gailberger explained. “A basic precondition for this kind of improvement is having good reading fluency, something we can achieve with the help of audio books.”

The former secondary school teacher started using audio books while preparing for his own exams. “If you have to pour over four Fontane novels in very little time, a good CD can be a big help,” he said. “I had been thinking of using this method for teaching German already as a student.” The idea is, of course, not totally new.  Audiobooks to improve reading comprehension in the United States have been around since the 1980s. The idea simply had never received much attention in Germany.

Initially, he met with a lot of skepticism during his visits to schools. The teachers told me: “That sounds great, but you don’t know my students,” he remembers.  Reading is not a high priority among students with non-academic backgrounds.  Nevertheless, he has always managed to motivate his classes. Gailberger even has written proof: In his dissertation he demonstrated how much fun eighth and ninth graders have with the audio book method. “Their sheer joy at reading was at the level of advanced high school students,” he said. “Even those who refused to join in at the start were eventually thrilled to read an entire book. It is important for their self-confidence to feel that they are part of the reading world.”  

One unexpected consequence of this new enthusiasm for reading is demonstrated in an anecdote from one of the comprehensive schools he visited: after the end of the instructional unit, the number of thefts from the school library significantly went up.


Dr. Steffen Gailberger
The Institute for the German Language,
Literature and Didactics

Mr. Gailberger is currently a visiting professor at the University of Oldenburg.