BiPeer Project: Facilitating German reading skills in bilingual primary school children by peer learning

Introduction

Already in primary school, immigrant children of Turkish origin show lower reading competence in German than their classmates. The BiPeer project explored ways of supporting German reading skills among Turkish-German bilingual primary school children using peer-learning methods. In such programmes, two children (i.e. peers) work together according to structured procedures. Intervention studies have shown that peer learning supports school competences such as reading, in particular among children with a low socio-economic or migration background. Research on group composition in peer learning has thus far focused mainly on gender, age and proficiency levels. Although communication skills are essential for successful peer learning, the linguistic background and language usage of bilingual peers have been seldom investigated as group composition variables. When paired together, a bilingual child can benefit from the extensive vocabulary of a monolingual child in the language of schooling. If two bilingual children use both their languages ​​while learning together, this could ease communication during the peer-learning process and potentially lead to improved reading comprehension. This study therefore examined the extent to which the reading skills of Turkish-German bilingual 3rd and 4th graders could be improved via a peer-learning programme (research question 1). Furthermore, we investigated whether the language background (research question 2) and the language spoken during the peer interaction (research question 3) assist learning during the course of the intervention.

What was investigated and how?

BiPeer examined these questions as part of a peer-learning intervention study with 164 monolingual German and bilingual Turkish-German 3rd and 4th graders. A particular feature of this study was that the three reading intervention groups were compared with three control groups. In the control groups the children also worked in tandems, but practiced arithmetic rather than reading. The research questions of this study can thus also be examined with regard to arithmetic.

Intervention

The students participated in 12 peer-learning training sessions, which took place twice a week in the afternoon for 45 minutes per session. With regard to reading, the training included reading in pairs with three reading strategies: clarification of word meanings, summary, and prediction. The arithmetic training comprised mental arithmetic and three strategies: compensation strategy, simplifying strategy, and indirect addition. The contents of the twelve sessions were pre-structured in order that the procedures would be similar for all participants. During the sessions, the children took on alternate roles as tutor or tutee.

Each tandem was accompanied by a trained instructor. The instructors in RG3 and AG3 were also Turkish-German bilinguals. In order to encourage the participating students to communicate in Turkish, selected aspects of instructions, conversations and games were introduced in Turkish by the relevant instructors.

Test and questionnaires

The testing of reading and arithmetic skills took place before, during and immediately after the intervention, and then again about six weeks later.

Besides questionnaires and self-developed strategy tests which check how well the practiced strategies can be applied, diagnostic tools such as standardised tests for reading and arithmetic, Turkish vocabulary, and intelligence were used (e.g. ELFE 1-6; HRT 1-4; WWT 6-10; CFT 20-R). Some intervention sessions were also recorded using voice recorders, allowing for detailed analyses of the languages used during peer interactions. Furthermore, the students’ parents were interviewed by telephone regarding background data such as language acquisition and language use within the family.

Results

Despite the relatively short duration and extra-curricular setting, the reading and arithmetic strategy interventions can be said to be successful. Children who participated in the reading intervention improved their reading comprehension over the course of the training and significantly more than those who took part in the arithmetic intervention. Likewise, children who took part in the arithmetic intervention improved their use of calculation strategies and, again, more so than those children who participated in just the reading intervention (research question 1).

The language background does not appear to be relevant to learning achievement: bilingual children learn equally well with monolingual as with bilingual peers (research question 2).

Yet, based on analyses thus far, a beneficial effect of bilingual communication could be discerned in the arithmetic intervention: tandems that were permitted to make use of German and Turkish showed significantly higher improvement in calculation strategies than tandems that did not have this multilingual option (research question 3).

What does this mean for educational practice?

Peer learning constitutes a promising approach in improving reading and arithmetic skills among bilingual primary school children. For contexts in which German (i.e. the language of schooling) is used exclusively for communication, it does not seem to matter whether bilinguals work with monolingual or bilingual peers. Other factors should therefore be brought into focus when it comes to group composition. Peer learning presents a way of integrating heritage languages into regular classrooms without requiring any additional language skills from teachers. Bilingual communication during the learning process has no disadvantages for bilingual children and even seems to have benefits with regard to calculation strategies. Explicit encouragement (e.g. through games in the heritage language) appears to lead to acceptance of the heritage language in the learning process. Furthermore, explicit opportunities for integrating multilingualism in peer-learning settings should be developed together with the participating children.