English in Elementary Schools - Anja Steinlen - E-Book

English in Elementary Schools E-Book

Anja Steinlen



An increasing number of multilingual students, often with a migration background, are attending elementary schools in Germany these days. Also on the rise is the number of schools offering a bilingual program, where content subjects such as science and mathematics are taught in a foreign language. This book explores minority and majority language students' German and English reading and writing skills in elementary schools which offer either regular English-as-subject lessons or bilingual programs with varying degrees of English intensity. The focus is on effects of foreign language input intensity with respect to students' language background, gender, cognitive abilities, and socio-economic background. This book also provides recommendations for English reading and writing activities in the elementary school classroom.

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Anja Steinlen

English in Elementary Schools

Research and Implications on Minority and Majority Language Children’s Literacy Skills in Regular and Bilingual Programs

Narr Francke Attempto Verlag Tübingen



© 2020 • Narr Francke Attempto Verlag GmbH + Co. KG Dischingerweg 5 • D-72070 Tübingen www.narr.de • [email protected]


Das Werk einschließlich aller seiner Teile ist urheberrechtlich geschützt. Jede Verwertung außerhalb der engen Grenzen des Urheberrechtsgesetzes ist ohne Zustimmung des Verlages unzulässig und strafbar. Das gilt insbesondere für Vervielfältigungen, Übersetzungen, Mikroverfilmungen und die Einspeicherung und Verarbeitung in elektronischen Systemen.


ISBN 978-3-8233-8451-9 (Print)

ISBN 978-3-8233-0252-0 (ePub)


Acknowledgements1. Introduction2. Literature review2.1 Definitions2.1.1 L1 reading2.1.2 L2 reading2.1.3 L1 writing2.1.4 L2 writing2.1.5 Some problems relating to phoneme-grapheme correspondences in German and English2.2 Regular elementary school English programs in Germany2.2.1 Controversial views on EFL reading and writing in elementary school2.2.2 Curricula for English-as-a-subject relating to reading and writing2.2.3 English textbooks2.2.4 Studies on FL reading in regular EFL programs2.2.5 Studies on FL writing in regular EFL programs2.3 Bilingual programs in Germany2.3.1 Differences between bilingual programs and EFL programs2.3.2 Different bilingual programs: CLIL vs. IM2.3.3 Intensity of different bilingual programs2.3.4 Bilingual programs as “elitist” programs2.3.5 Curricula for bilingual teaching in Germany2.3.6 Teacher supply for bilingual programs in Germany2.3.7 Supply of materials for bilingual programs2.3.8 Assessment in bilingual programs2.3.9 Studies on L1 and FL reading and writing in bilingual programs2.3.10 L1 reading and writing in bilingual programs2.3.11 FL skills in regular vs. bilingual programs2.3.12 FL reading and writing in bilingual programs with different FL intensity2.4 Multilingual background2.4.1 Facts and figures2.4.2 L2 literacy (German)2.4.3 L3 literacy (English)2.5 Gender2.5.1 L1 literacy skills in regular programs by gender2.5.2 L1 literacy skills in bilingual programs by gender2.5.3 FL literacy skills by gender2.5.4 The interaction of gender and minority language background in language learning2.6 Cognitive variables (with a focus on nonverbal intelligence)2.6.1 Nonverbal intelligence and bilingual children2.6.2 Literacy skills by nonverbal intelligence2.7 Social background2.7.1 L1 literacy skills by SES2.7.2 FL literacy skills by SES2.7.3 The interaction of SES and language background on literacy skills3. Research questions4. Method4.1 The schools and their programs4.1.1 The Bili-50 program4.1.2 The EFL-program4.1.3 The Bili-20 program4.1.4 The Bili-70 program4.2 Test material4.2.1 Control measures: Family background and cognitive background4.2.2 English tests4.2.3 German tests4.3 Subjects5. Results5.1 Within-group comparisons5.2 Between-group comparisons6. Discussion6.1 Effectivity of the FL programs6.1.1 German6.1.2 English6.2 Language background6.2.1 German6.2.2 English6.3 Gender6.3.1 German6.3.2 English6.3.3 Interaction between gender and language background6.4 Control variables6.4.1 Cognitive background6.4.2 Social background6.5 Summary, limitations and future studies6.5.1 Summary of results6.5.2 Limitations6.5.3 Future studies7. Recommendations for teaching reading and writing in the FL classroom7.1 Starting with FL literacy activities as early as possible7.2 Creating a literacy-rich environment7.3 Scaffolding for FL reading and writing activities7.3.1 Verbal scaffolding7.3.2 Content scaffolding7.3.3 Learning process scaffolding and procedural scaffolding7.4 Regular FL literacy activities7.5 Awareness-raising literacy activities7.6 Relevant and authentic literacy activities7.7 Some notes on FL spelling7.7.1 Invented spelling7.7.2 Spelling activities7.7.3 The role of spelling errors in the FL classroom7.7.4 Teaching spelling rules7.8 Teacher feedback on FL students’ writing7.9 Conclusion on recommendations8. Conclusion9. References


I would like to acknowledge a debt of gratitude to a great number of friends, family and colleagues who made it possible for this work to be carried out and who did not cease to offer their encouragement and support.

First, I would like to thank the committee members Thorsten Piske, Thomas Herbst, Eva Breindl (Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg) as well as Jens Möller (Christian-Albrechts-University Kiel) and Angela Hahn (Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich) for evaluating my work.

Although I claim as my own any deficiencies of this study, much of what it contains of value must be credited to Thorsten Piske. It has been a great pleasure to work with you over these many years. I would like to thank you for your friendship, your support and encouragement, your critical questions, your constructive feedback, and for countless stimulating and inspiring discussions.

I would also like to thank Jens Möller (CAU Kiel) who has been with this project from its very beginning to the very end. His team has always been very helpful, and I am particularly grateful to Anna Zaunbauer and Johanna Fleckenstein for many valuable discussions (about this topic and much more).

Andrea Abele-Brehm was my mentor in the ARIADNE mentoring program at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg (2013-2015). Thank you for the right words at the right time and your advice regarding my first regression analyses.

This project would not have taken place without the three elementary schools, namely the Muhlius Schule in Kiel (Ulrike Gerdes and Henning Roose) and the Platanus Schule Berlin (Dr. Karin Krüger and Zoia Grüning). In the Hügelschule in Tübingen (Eva Herzog and Jutta Friesch), we have been able to conduct tests annually since 2012: thank you so much for your ongoing support and patience! In particular, I would like to express my gratitude to the teachers of the three schools who tirelessly strive for supporting the children in their classes! You make this world a better place!

After the tests had been carried out, the research assistants (Lea Pöschik, Jessica Schmidt, Anna Schrötter, and Johannes Schürmann, to name just a few) at Thorsten Piske’s Department for Foreign Language Education (Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany) always made sure that the data was ready for further analyses. I would have not been able to process these large amounts of data without you. Thank you!

A good number of people also contributed substantially to the end product of this research: Nina Rogotzki has been my never-tiring proofreader for many years, and there is hardly any manuscript that did not go through her hands (or eyes) – thank you for many insightful comments on style and logic, and thank you for being my partner in crime on various trips to South America (and elsewhere).

Henning Wode (CAU Kiel) was the first source of inspiration, as he was the one who directed my attention to bilingual school programs. In 1995 I set foot in a bilingual elementary school for the first time and helped with collecting data on the infamous “Frog” story. Thank you for supporting me ever since! I am also grateful for the fact that the “Wode Clan” (Petra Burmeister, Kristin Kersten, Annette Lommel, Thorsten Piske, Andreas Rohde, to name just a few) has been successfully collaborating over the years.

I would like to thank the Narr Verlag, in particular Kathrin Heyng and her team, respectively, for their support of this book. In addition, I would like to extend my thanks to Keeley Madison for proof-reading the manuscript.

Nothing would have been accomplished without my family. I would particularly like to thank my husband Jörg Wettlaufer for being the constant source of support, stability and love that helped me carry this project through to completion. I would also like to extend my gratitude to my mother for her never-ending belief and trust in me; and to Clemens, who lets me see the world with different eyes.

Large parts of this and other manuscripts were written on countless train rides (“Thank you for travelling with Deutsche Bahn”) and also at the Bakery Küster, Windausweg in Göttingen: I would like to thank the staff for the friendly atmosphere and the endless supply of tea.

This book is dedicated to the children for their enthusiastic participation, their endless curiosity and willingness to learn. You are our future!

No wo/man is an island. Thank you all for all kinds of support and encouragement!


This book deals with the development of literacy skills in elementary schools in Germany1, which offer English programs with different degrees of intensity, ranging from regular programs (with English-as-a-subject for two hours per week) to bilingual programs, in which one subject or several subjects (such as science, math, or music) are taught in the new language (in this case English). Literacy skills (i.e., reading and writing skills) constitute the focus of this book because they play a key role in the acquisition of academic knowledge and participation in education and society. Of special interest are minority language children (sometimes also called “children with a migration background”) who have often been reported to constitute an “at-risk group” in terms of academic achievement in school.

In second and foreign language research, various factors have been claimed to affect language learning (e.g., Kersten, 2019, for a review). These effects are often subdivided into child-internal and child-external factors. Child-internal factors, for example, may include language skills (i.e., knowledge and proficiency in the first, second and any additional language), gender, cognitive skills (e.g., nonverbal intelligence, working memory, phonological short-term memory, phonological awareness, executive control) as well as personality factors (e.g., traits, attitudes, motivation). Child-external factors involve the learner’s family/social environment (e.g., parental education, socio-economic background, early cognitive stimulation, cultural capital), the environment in which the language is learned (which, for the educational context, may refer to educational policies, administration, program intensity and duration, teachers and classmates) as well as language input (provided by the teacher at school, which may vary in terms of quality). All these internal and external factors (and many more) affect children’s development in any language.

However, a great number of studies have shown inconsistent results regarding the impact of individual factors. For example, some studies have reported gender to play an important role in (foreign) language acquisition (e.g., BIG-Kreis, 2015), while others have not (e.g., Schmenk, 2002). Inconsistencies have also been reported with respect to students with a minority language background (who often have a migration background). In some studies, such students performed lower on foreign language tests (e.g., Elsner, 2010), while in other studies they performed just as well as comparable majority language peers (e.g., Kessler & Paulick, 2010). It is the aim of this book to disentangle some of these effects and to describe their impact in more detail, especially with regard to German and English reading and writing skills in the elementary school context.

Therefore, the purposes of this book are a) to provide a summary of the research covering minority language children and language learning in various elementary school programs with different degrees of foreign language intensity; b) to introduce new, unpublished data to extend said research findings; and finally, c) to present recommendations regarding foreign language reading and writing activites in the elementary school classroom. The outline of this book is as follows:

Chapter 2 presents a comprehensive literature review on the reading and writing skills of elementary school children. Characteristics of reading and writing in different acquisition settings are illustrated in chapter 2.1. Chapters 2.2 and 2.3 compare the curricular guidelines of regular and bilingual programs, as well as the supply of staff and materials in such programs; it also presents findings of empirical (often large-scale) studies on L1 (first language) and L2 (second / foreign language) reading and writing skills in Germany and elsewhere. Furthermore, in chapters 2.4, 2.5, 2.6, and 2.7, respectively, studies are reviewed which examine the effects of children’s language background, their gender, their cognitive background, and their social background on their reading and writing skills in German and English.

Chapter 7 is devoted to recommendations for teaching reading and writing in the FL elementary school classroom. Many of these recommendations include ideas for the literacy-rich classroom, such as different types of scaffolding to facilitate students’ reading and writing output, as well as awareness-raising activities, which are embedded in authentic and relevant contexts (chapters 7.1 to 7.6). As spelling often is a neglected area in FL classrooms, chapter 7.7 deals with invented spelling, spelling activities, the role of spelling errors and teaching spelling rules, including recommendations on how to give feedback on student writing (chapter 7.8). Many of the recommendations for reading and writing activities presented in chapter 7 are not only aimed at teachers in FL classrooms, (in particular bilingual ones) but also at those teaching German-as-a-second / foreign language to students with family languages other than German, because in both contexts the focus is on fostering the target language while teaching subject content.

A brief conclusion is presented in chapter 8, and references are listed in chapter 9.

2.Literature review

The focus of the following literature review is on children’s language background (reviewed in chapter 2.4) and their institutional environment (i.e., program intensity, see chapters 2.2 and 2.3), because the present study deals with the linguistic development of minority and majority language children in elementary schools with different degrees of English intensity. However, other factors are also included. Chapter 2.5 reviews effects of gender on elementary schoolers’ development of German and English, and chapter 2.6 focuses on students’ cognitive skills, with special reference to nonverbal intelligence. Finally, chapter 2.7 deals with effects of students’ family and social environment, particularly with those relating to the parents’ educational background. As this study focuses on reading and writing, definitions and models of L1 (first language) and L2 (second / foreign language) reading and writing are provided at the beginning of chapter 2 (i.e., in chapter 2.1).


In this section, the terms “reading” and “writing” are defined, and reading and writing skills and processes are described in relation to L1 and L2 acquisition. Note that in this section, the term “L2” subsumes both second and foreign language acquisition. Minority language students’ foreign language reading and writing skills (which often constitute their L3) will be discussed in chapter 2.4.

Literacy is traditionally defined as the ability to read and write, but this concept has evolved in meaning. The modern meaning of the term has been expanded to include the ability to use language, numbers, images, computers, and other basic means to understand, communicate, gain useful knowledge, solve mathematical problems and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture (e.g., UNESCO, 2012). However, in this book, the term “literacy” will refer only to reading and writing skills.

2.1.1L1 reading

Reading as such is nowadays understood as a comprehension process that occurs when the reader extracts and integrates information from the text and combines it with what is already known (e.g., Koda, 2005: 4). According to the OECD (2000: 21), reading literacy can be defined as the ability “to understand, use and reflect on written texts in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate effectively in society”. These comprehension skills depend, among other things, on reading speed, which requires a high degree of short-term memory. Other determinants of reading competence include world knowledge, the ability to rapidly access lexical items, broad and in-depth vocabulary knowledge, reading motivation, a positive attitude towards reading, knowledge of text features, reading strategies, and other basic cognitive skills (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF, 2007).

The reading process is characterized by an interaction of top-down and bottom-up processes (see e.g., Frisch, 2010; Thaler, 2012). In the latter, the reader recognizes meaning from the written text and moves from the individual parts to the whole, i.e., from letter, to syllable, to word, to phrase, to clause, to sentence, to paragraph and to the text (Grabe, 2009). In addition, meaning is derived via top-down processes with the reader at the center of the reading process: in order to infer meaning, s/he uses general background knowledge, world knowledge and thematic knowledge, formal schemata (e.g., knowledge of text genres and text structures), content schemata (e.g., knowledge about the time in which a text was written), and finally scripts (i.e., knowledge about typical processes, e.g., how to check in at a hotel). These two processes continually interact: “The ‘construction’ of meaning that occurs in reading is a combination of ‘bottom-up’ processes […] and ‘top-down’ ones […]” (Ur, 1996: 141).

L1 reading comprehension is generally preceded and affected by reading fluency. At a reasonable reading rate of approximately 250-300 words per minute, a reader is using very fast and efficient word recognition skills on the sublexical, lexical, and connected text levels, combining information from different sources while reading under rather intense time constraints (Grabe, 2010). That is to say, fluent reading includes both word-level reading skills and language processing/comprehension skills (e.g., Jenkins, Fuchs, Van den Broek, Espin & Deno, 2003). In general, reading fluency is associated with the ability to read rapidly with ease and accuracy, and to read with appropriate expression and phrasing. It involves a long learning process, and text comprehension is an expected result of fluent reading (see, e.g., Grabe, 2009).

Several developmental models of L1 reading have been put forward, most notably by Frith (1985) and Ehri (1995, see Kennedy, Dunphy, Dwyer, Hayes, McPhillips, Marsh, O’Connor & Shiel 2010 for a detailed review). Frith (1985) differentiated three stages, namely the logographic, alphabetic and orthographic stages. In the logographic stage, children use visual or graphic features to read words, while in the alphabetic stage, grapheme-phoneme relations are used to process words. In the orthographic stage, children are finally able to use spelling patterns. Ehri (1995) proposed a similar developmental model which comprises four phases of reading development to identify the significant advances that occur as children learn to read. The four phases are pre-alphabetic, partial alphabetic, full alphabetic and consolidated alphabetic. During the pre-alphabetic phase (which corresponds to Frith’s logographic stage) children rely on selected visual features (and not on letter-sound connections) to read words. Although they are essentially non-readers, they may ‘read’ environmental print from the contextual clues they notice. As children then learn the names and sounds of letters, they progress to the partial-alphabetic phase where they form connections between only some of the letters and sounds (often just the first and final letter sounds). During this phase they cannot segment sounds and will have difficulty decoding unfamiliar words, i.e., they do not have full knowledge of the alphabetic system yet. When children have reached the full-alphabetic phase, they learn sight words (i.e. words that are commonly used in reading and writing) and make connections between letters in written words and the corresponding sounds in speech; however, they use mainly grapheme-phoneme correspondences to identify words. Finally, the consolidated-alphabetic phase represents the children’s growing knowledge and use of specific orthographic patterns, as well as knowledge of morphological patterns and syllabic units.

Such models (as proposed by Frith, Ehri and others) have also been criticized because the order of the stages is fixed and identical for all children; because no stage can be skipped so that proceeding to the next stage results only from mastery of the previous stage; because performance in the middle of each stage is homogenous; and because progression is characterized by qualitative changes, as processing strategies seem to differ radically from one stage to the next (e.g., Sprenger-Charolles & Casalis, 1996).

2.1.2L2 reading

Unlike L1 reading and writing, reading and writing in an L2 always involves the interaction of different languages. As Koda (2007: 1) points out, this “dual-language involvement implies continual interactions in between the two languages as well as incessant adjustments in accommodating the disparate demands each language imposes”. In other words, L2 reading and writing are inherently more complex than L1 reading and writing.

In Grabe’s view (e.g., 2009; 2014: 10ff.), differences between L1 and L2 reading center around the linguistic resources that are available to the L2 reader. For example, L2 readers have limited L2 language skills (i.e., knowledge of grammar, vocabulary and discourse structure) when they begin reading. Furthermore, L2 students have less experience with reading exposure in the L2 and consequently less practice in L2 reading. In addition, L2 readers need to develop somewhat distinct cognitive processing which involves two language systems, using a joint strategy system, (e.g. Koda, 2005). Interference from the L1 (i.e., cognitive skills, strategies, goals and expectations) may affect L2 reading and either facilitate or hinder its outcomes. Finally, L2 readers rely on different combinations of general background knowledge when reading in the L2 because “world knowledge” (e.g., social and cultural assumptions in texts) may vary between L1 and L2 reading experiences.

So far, L2 reading comprehension has been studied more frequently than L2 reading fluency, and there are far fewer studies dealing with reading fluency in the L2 than in the L1 (e.g., Grabe, 2010). Determinants of L2 reading fluency seem to be the same as those for L1 reading fluency and include automatic word recognition, a large recognition vocabulary, skilled grammatical processing, and automaticity and chunking (i.e., the detection of larger units). Several studies have shown L1 reading fluency skills to affect L2 fluency skills, and L2 reading comprehension to affect L2 reading fluency and vice versa, although the effects so far seem to be rather moderate (see e.g., Grabe, 2010: 73).

Stages in L2 reading seem to parallel those in L1 reading. For example, Verhoeven & Van Leeuwe (2012) extended to L2 reading the Simple View of Reading Framework from Hoover and Gough (1990), which places reading comprehension as a product of word reading (decoding) and listening comprehension. Verhoeven & Van Leeuwe (2012) found that the word decoding skills of L1 and L2 learners (in the long run) seem to develop at more or less equal rates, probably due to the fact that many L2 learners have already acquired essentials of the target language in the domains of phonology and orthography. The same seems to apply to reading fluency: for example, O’Brien & Wallot (2016) reported that the transition from fluent reading of words to texts emerges roughly at the same time for the L1 and the L2, namely in grade 4, i.e., around age 10.

Following Frisch (2013), there are currently three models to account for the relationship between L1 and L2 reading, namely the Interdependence Hypothesis, the Threshold Hypothesis and the Transfer Hypothesis. According to the Interdependence Hypothesis (e.g., Cummins, 1991), the development of L2 reading is affected by the cognitive and general linguistic skills in the L1, and in particular by L1 reading skills. Many studies have shown that cognitive, linguistic and reading skills in the L1 predict L2 reading skills (e.g., Van der Leij, Bekebrede & Kotterink, 2010) and that there is a high correlation between L1 and L2 reading skills (e.g., Skutnabb-Kangas & Toukomaa, 1976). The Threshold Hypothesis posits that “some minimal threshold of proficiency in the L2 must be attained in order for the reader’s first language reading skills to transfer to reading in the second language” (Carroll & Grabe, 2010: 223). Thus, a certain level of L2 proficiency is necessary before L1 reading strategies and skills can be utilized effectively in L2 reading. An important prerequisite is a learning context that promotes overall L2 language proficiency, at least for lower-level students. So far, however, empirical data are scarce regarding the nature of such a threshold. Finally, language proximity and language distance of the two involved systems are important components of the Transfer Hypothesis (e.g., Koda, 2008: Transfer Facilitation Model) to account for cross-linguistic transfer in reading. In Koda’s view, transfer is “an automated activation of well-established first-language competencies, which is triggered by second-language input” (Koda, 2008: 78). Transfer from L1 to L2 may also occur cross-modally (e.g., knowledge of L1 spoken language may be transferred to L2 reading development), for example, when L1 phonological awareness predicts L2 word recognition. Thus, transfer not only includes a set of rules but also any form-function relationship that the L2 users have acquired in their L1, which may be utilized in their L2 as well.

2.1.3L1 writing

Writing is a complex task which requires the coordination of fine motor skills and cognitive skills and reflects the social and cultural patterns of the writer’s time. Dyson & Freedman (1991: 58) define writing as “a process-oriented, goal-directed and problem-solving process, which involves the writer’s awareness of the composing process and the teacher’s or peer’s intervention at any time needed”. Writing relies on many of the same structures as speech within a language system, such as vocabulary, grammar and semantics, with the added dependency on a system of signs or symbols, often (as in the case of German and English) in the form of a formal alphabet.

The writing process has been characterized in several cognitive models as a complex process with several feedback loops (e.g., Grabe & Kaplan, 1996). In simple terms, the text is planned, formulated and revised several times in accordance with the writing goal. A monitor controls for language (i.e., for linguistic-stylistic means) and content. Finally, the writer’s environment affects this process, in particular with respect to the writing task, the audience and the writer’s personal requirements (e.g., Thaler, 2012). Writing thus depends to a large extent on reading skills, because the process of composing a text always involves reading and rereading of the unfolding text (e.g., Myhill & Fisher, 2010).

Other fundamentals of successful writing include a positive attitude towards writing, topic knowledge, the ability to rapidly access lexical items, knowledge of text features, writing strategies, cognitive skills, visual-spatial performance and, in addition, spelling skills and strategies (see Myhill & Fisher, 2010). During their development, children progress from the level of copying familiar structures to recognizing and reproducing text structures. With respect to the elementary school context, evaluations of writing proficiency usually rely on components such as spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar (e.g., Rathvon, 2004).

There are many models which illustrate the development of L1 writing. The classical model by Hayes & Flower (1980) describes writing as consisting of three primary processes—planning, translating (i.e., the production of text), and reviewing—all operating under executive control within the constraints of the external task environment and the writer’s long term memory. Although the model has been revisited and revised over the years (Hayes, 1996, 2006), it has retained its cognitive character as well as its influence on the field. Berninger & Swanson (1994) revised the Hayes & Flower (1980) model to highlight the challenges that young or immature writers come to face during writing. According to the authors, two sub-processes at the translating level are particularly challenging for developing writers, namely transcription (e.g., handwriting and spelling) and text generation at the word, sentence and discourse level. As long as these processes (plus higher order executive processes such as planning and revising) are not automated, they compete for limited working memory resources during writing, and such competition for resources affects young writers’ products (e.g., De La Paz & McCutchen, 2016).

Since spelling has been mentioned to constitute an important part in assessing young learners’ writing, one of the many stage models for spelling development (e.g., Bear & Templeton, 1998; Gentry, 2000) is presented in the following: Peregoy & Boyle (2013: 208ff.) differentiate four developmental stages or levels, namely the prephonetic, phonetic, transitional, and conventional level. Prephonetic spelling consists of letters or letter-like forms which do not yet represent speech sounds, i.e., children do not yet understand the alphabetic principle that a letter or letter sequence represents a speech sound. Next, children move through the phonetic spelling level, which is characterized by one-to-one correspondence between sounds and letters. Transitional spellers then extend their knowledge beyond the phonetic aspects of spelling and begin to include conventional spellings that are not strictly phonetic and may be spelling 60 to 90% of words correctly in their writing. Finally, at the conventional spelling level, most words are spelled conventionally and correctly.

2.1.4L2 writing

Similarly to L2 reading, L2 writing differs from L1 writing. Learners have been found to be less efficient and slower in L2 than L1 writing (e.g., Cook & Bassetti, 2005). The reasons for these differences are manifold, ranging from differences in the writing systems of the L1 and the L2, to comprehension and memorization problems due to insufficient L2 word decoding. L2 texts are also often shorter and include more errors than L1 texts. Many of these errors are due to L1 transfer, which may be orthographic, grammatical, lexical or discourse-related (e.g., Leki, Cumming & Silva, 2008). Among others, predictors of successful L2 writing include L2 proficiency, the type of orthographies involved and (as in L1 writing) phonological awareness, rapid naming, and verbal memory (e.g., Geva, 2006). Other, less language-related factors relate to topic familiarity and mode, i.e., the type of writing involved (e.g., Hussein & Mohammad, 2011).

Regarding the development of L2 writing, Peregoy & Boyle (2013: 210) point out that for young learners, it is very similar to L1 writing (with the prephonetic stage being skipped). In other words, children’s L2 writing also progresses from words and sentences to texts. There are, however, restrictions in children’s L2 text production due to their limited knowledge of L2 grammar, vocabulary and idiomatic expressions. Furthermore, L1 spelling strategies will transfer partially to L2 writing, relating to, for example, the capitalization of letters (Odlin, 1989, see also Steinlen & Piske, 2020). It has been emphasized by many authors that the more children read or are read to in the L2, the easier it will be for them to write (e.g., Krashen, 1982; Peregoy & Boyle, 2013).

In the past, the analysis of L2 writing has often been restricted to the analysis of accuracy, whereas nowadays evaluations of elementary schoolers’ L2 texts mainly focus on the same components as that of their L1 texts, namely spelling, punctuation, vocabulary and grammar, which constitute the main sources of transfer (e.g., Pinter, 2006). For example, young German learners of English often use German spelling for English words (e.g., *<häpi> instead of <happy> and German words and German syntax in English sentences as in *<I have im October birthday> (e.g., BIG-Studie, 2015; Burmeister, 2010; Rymarczyk, 2010, 2016). Such interferences exist particularly for writers with low levels of proficiency in the L2, who often rely heavily on their first language resources (see more on foreign language spelling in the elementary school classroom in chapter 7.7).

2.1.5Some problems relating to phoneme-grapheme correspondences in German and English

English and German belong to the West Germanic language family and share many similarities regarding phonology, spelling, morphology, lexis, syntax and the alphabet as their writing system, and are, therefore, characterized as typologically similar languages (e.g., Genesee & Jared, 2008; Frisch, 2013). However, contrastive analyses also recognize many differences in these areas (see König & Gast, 2009 for a detailed description of these linguistic differences). The English spelling system, therefore, poses many problems for beginning learners whose L1 is German (e.g., Frisch, 2013). For example, the German writing system is rather transparent (shallow) with relatively regular phoneme-grapheme correspondences (following the Orthographic Depth Hypothesis, e.g., Frost, 2005). In German, the letter combination <sch> usually corresponds to the sound /ʃ/ (e.g., Schuh, Tisch, Asche). English, though, exhibits many irregular phoneme-grapheme correspondences and it is, therefore, considered a deep (opaque) writing system. For example, the sound /ʃ/ may be spelt <sh> (shoe), <ti> (nation), <ch> (machine), <s> (sure), <ss> (issue), <ci> (social) or <ce> (ocean), to name just a few (e.g., Eckert & Barry, 2002).

The different orthographic characteristics of German and English often lead to interlingual transfer in the spelling performance of students learning English. In particular, the deep orthography of the English language also influences the less complex German written language, and transfer effects are assumed (and found) because students apply specific spelling strategies of their L1 to the target language. Such strategies may include the phonemic route to spelling (where the L2 words are spelt like they sound, e.g. *<schur> instead of <sure>), the visual route to spelling (where the L2 words, particularly familiar and high-frequency ones, are retrieved as a whole, using visual imagery of the word, e.g. <the>) and the use of metalinguistic knowledge, which includes knowledge about the L2 and its irregularities and regularities, for example when two words share the same root but are pronounced differently (e.g., <sign> and <signal>, e.g., Frisch, 2013; James & Klein, 1994; Reichart Wallrabenstein, 2004).

In sum, this chapter provided information with respect to the development of reading and writing skills in the L1 and in the L2. The examples above also point to the complex (and also crosslinguistic) relationship between reading and writing (see e.g., Schoonen, 2019 for a review), which will certainly affect the outcomes of any (foreign) language literacy test, including the ones presented here.

2.2Regular elementary school English programs in Germany

In the school year 2019/20, over 2.9 million students attended one of the 15,431 (private or public) elementary schools in Germany (Statistisches Bundesamt, 2020b). Since 2004 foreign language (FL) teaching has been compulsory in elementary schools in Germany; however, there are differences across the Federal States in terms of the beginning year and the number of weekly lessons in the foreign language (e.g., Fleckenstein, Möller & Baumert, 2020; Hempel, Kötter & Rymarczyk, 2018). For example, the first foreign language is introduced in Baden-Württemberg in Year 1 (until 2019) but in Berlin-Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein in Year 3. In most schools, the FL is taught between one and two hours a week (e.g., Börner, Böttger, Kierepka & Lohmann, 2017; Fleckenstein et al., 2020; Hempel et al., 2018). In the following, elementary schools in which a FL (such as English) is taught as a separate subject are referred to as schools with a regular / mainstream / traditional / conventional FL program.

Traditional FL teaching at school is characterized by a course-oriented approach, in which the foreign language itself is the subject of study. The primary goal of FL lessons is to master the new language as faultlessly as possible. Foreign language skills (including vocabulary and grammar) are usually taught and practiced with the help of textbooks and other materials, which present selected subject matters (Wolff, 1997). Thus, the acquisition of the FL does not happen naturally but through prefabricated and systematized foreign language input (e.g., Burmeister, 2006; Möller, Hohenstein, Fleckenstein, Köller & Baumert, 2017b).

According to Kolb (2012: 32), there are five objectives of EFL (English as a foreign language) teaching at elementary schools. These include attitudes towards language learning (to develop a “positive mind-set” (Schmid-Schönbein 2008: 37) for foreign language learning in general); intercultural learning (to promote an open and tolerant attitude towards other languages and cultures and prepare the children for intercultural encounters); language and cultural awareness (to raise children’s sensitivity for differences among languages and cultures); language learning competence (regarding, for example, learning strategies and techniques); and language competencies, i.e., basic communicative competence in the foreign language (relating to the five skills of listening, speaking, reading, writing and mediation). The language competencies acquired at elementary level correspond to the level A1 of the Common European Framework of Reference (Council of Europe, 2001, 2018) with a focus on listening and speaking (see Chapter 2.2.2). They are assessed in familiar communicative situations of language use in order to increase children’s self-confidence, employing assessment tools such as pen and paper tests as well as observation sheets and language portfolios (e.g., Kolb, 2012).

2.2.1Controversial views on EFL reading and writing in elementary school

For many years, there has been a controversy regarding the introduction of FL reading and writing in elementary school. FL literacy skills played only a minor role in the curricula of the Federal States of Germany, and, consequently, literacy activities in the target language were often neglected (or not carried out at all) in elementary school FL classrooms. Critical views which have been put forward on introducing FL reading and writing during the elementary school years include the following arguments (see e.g., Doyé, 2008; Frisch, 2013; Legutke, Müller-Hartmann, Schocker-v. Ditfurth, 2009; Piske, 2010, 2017a, b; Treutlein, Landerl & Schöler, 2013 for more details):


Given the already limited time of exposure, it is irresponsible to familiarize learners with English spelling. The focus in elementary EFL is, therefore, on developing oral and not written communicative competences (i.e., the primacy of oral skills).


Due to the irregular grapheme-phoneme relationships in English, EFL reading and writing tasks put excessive demands on learners (particularly on weak ones), who already have to cope with literacy development in their first language or in the majority language.


Competences in FL reading and writing may be misused as an additional criterion to select learners for transition to different secondary school types (i.e. Haupt-/Mittelschule, Realschule, Gymnasium).


Due to interferences, the introduction of the English writing system may negatively affect the acquisition of written (and oral) German.

Many of the arguments listed above have been invalidated in a number of studies (see Piske, 2010 or Frisch, 2013, for a review). Nowadays, there is a strong tendency to offer a greater number of reading and writing activities the EFL classroom (see e.g., Burwitz-Melzer, 2010; Diehr & Rymarczyk 2010; Frisch, 2013; Legutke et al., 2009; Piske, 2010, 2017a, b; Rymarczyk, 2016):


The learners want to write in English and do so independently and quite naturally, without their teacher asking or supporting them to do so, for the same purposes as they use this skill in their L1.


If prevented from writing, learners may get used to wrong spellings, which may be difficult to change (fossilization). Therefore, it is better not to withhold the correct spelling of words.


Not only are learners interested in writing, but they are also able to identify, understand and become aware of the different principles on which different writing systems are based, provided the explanations are age appropriate.


Integrating reading and writing supports learning, i.e., it appears to be easier for some L2 learners to identify word boundaries or to remember words or phrases if they have seen them in their orthographic form.


Writing activities increase the diversity of teaching methods in the EFL classroom.


Children will start to develop an awareness for individual sound segments such as vowels and consonants only when they learn to read and write alphabetic symbols.

The controversy about whether to introduce English reading and writing in elementary school seems to have subsided in recent years. Nowadays the focus is rather on the question of how to introduce the English writing system. However, there is a dire need for studies relating different approaches to outcomes in L2 reading and writing. For the German context, Frisch (2013) examined effects of different methodological approaches (i.e., the Phonics and the Whole Word Method) on L2 reading, which is discussed in greater detail in chapter 7.1.

2.2.2Curricula for English-as-a-subject relating to reading and writing

As noted above, FL reading and writing used to play only a minor role in the elementary school curricula of the Federal States of Germany. Nowadays, though, the target level for functional communicative competences (including FL reading and writing) at the end of grade 4 is generally aimed at level A1 (Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs, Kultusministerkonferenz, KMK, 2013a). This competence level describes an elementary use of language, i.e., the students can communicate in a simple manner, and understand and use everyday expressions and very simple sentences (cf. Council of Europe, 2001, 2018). With respect to literacy skills, level A1 students

can understand very short, simple texts a single phrase at a time, can pick up familiar names, words and basic phrases and can reread as required (Council of Europe, 2001: 68),

can recognize familiar names, words and very basic phrases on simple notices in the most common everyday situations (ibid.: 70),

can write a short simple postcard (ibid.: 83), and

can copy familiar words and short phrases e.g., simple signs or instructions, names of everyday objects, names of shops and set phrases used regularly (ibid.: 84).

The situation of elementary school English in the three Federal States of Baden-Württemberg, Schleswig-Holstein and Berlin-Brandenburg, where the elementary schools in the present studies are located, may be characterized as follows: In Baden-Württemberg, English-as-a-subject was offered from grade 1 onwards (until 2019). According to the curriculum (2004) for English (which is relevant for the collection of data for the present study), reading and writing activities did not start before grade 31, with the focus on oral skills in the first two grades; and competence levels were not specified (Ministerium Baden-Württemberg für Kultus, Jugend und Sport, 2004). From 2016 to 2019, English reading and writing activities were also included in grade 1 and 2; and level A1 was to be attaineded at the end of grade 4 (Ministerium Baden-Württemberg für Kultus, Jugend und Sport, 2016a). Since 2019, elementary schools in Baden-Württemberg offer English-as-a-subject only in grades 3 and 4 (Ministerium Baden-Württemberg für Kultus, Jugend und Sport, 2020). In Schleswig-Holstein, English-as-a-subject is introduced in grade 3, and reading and writing are subordinate to listening and speaking2; level A1 is expected at the end of grade 4 (Ministerium für Bildung, Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kultur des Landes Schleswig-Holstein, 2007). Finally, English-as-a-subject is introduced in grade 3 in Berlin-Brandenburg. FL competence levels are not specified for elementary schools but level A2 should be attained in grade 8 (Senatsverwaltung Berlin für Bildung, Jugend und Sport, 2006). Depending on their level, students in Berlin at the end of grade 4 can read, copy and write very short English words or texts that they are familiar with, similar to level A1.

2.2.3English textbooks

The use of literacy activities in the elementary school FL classroom has been examined by Hempel (2016). Based on interviews with almost 150 English elementary school teachers in Germany, she found that 98% of these teachers used a textbook, usually Playway, Ginger, or Bumblebee. An analysis of these textbooks revealed that the activities in these books are mainly geared towards speaking (55%) and listening (26%); reading and writing activities are rather underrepresented (1% and 9%). This parallels the role of literacy activities in the different curricula of the Federal States of Germany for the subject English, in which reading and particularly writing still play only a minor role.

In her analysis of English textbooks for elementary schools, Burwitz-Melzer (2010: 110) pointed out that textbooks nowadays include a greater number of tasked-based reading and writing activities than older versions. However, in her view, textbooks still do not sufficiently explain how to teach reading and writing; and they neither offer any literacy methodology based on any learning theory, nor any systematic strategies for reading and writing, which may support teaching and learning. Although certain levels of competence should be reached at the end of grade 4 (namely A1), textbooks do not provide sufficient guidelines as to how this goal could be reached, particularly with respect to the heterogeneous FL level in class. According to Burwitz-Melzer (2010) there is still considerable room for improvement regarding literacy instruction in English textbooks and in the respective guidelines for teachers of English as a subject.

2.2.4Studies on FL reading in regular EFL programs

In empirical research, an increasing number of studies have examined the influence of written language on foreign language learning in elementary schools in Germany, but the focus has been more on reading (comprehension) than on writing. These studies have been largely conducted in only one Federal State of Germany (e.g., EVENING for Nordrhine-Westfalia, or Rymarczyk, 2011; Steinlen & Piske, 2018 for Baden-Württemberg), with the exception of the BIG-Kreis (2015), which assessed students’ FL competence in different Federal States. Unfortunately, many findings were not related to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR, Council of Europe, 2001, 2018) and/or statistically analysed.