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Navigating through the Text – Researchers have studied the efficiency of reading strategies

Picture: Fotolia/Ermolaev Alexandr

Picture: Fotolia/Ermolaev Alexandr

Literary texts have a firm place in many people’s lives. It is impossible to imagine German school lessons without them. Can students, however, comprehend and interpret novels, stories, and novellas? The PISA Study in 2000 addressed this question in depth and came to a negative result for Germany. Education experts and teachers were shocked. Much effort has since been made to improve the situation. Although the PISA Study of 2009, which focused on reading competence, showed some progress, experts are still not satisfied. Adolescents still struggle to adequately comprehend texts. These reconfirmed deficits are a challenge for didactics research. Potsdam researchers addressed this issue in a recently concluded empirical project “Reading Strategies for Comprehension of Literary Texts ”. Its result makes you prick up your ears. The method most frequently used at German schools to “decipher” literary texts performed the worst.

Prof. Dr. Martin Leubner, literature educationalist from Potsdam, and his colleague Prof. Dr. Anja Saupe from Leipzig analyzed over 500 text interpretations of 10th graders. Students at 10 secondary schools in Brandenburg were prepared for the tests during two specific lessons. They were trained to use certain reading strategies. They had exactly 45 minutes to read short prose works by Gabriele Wohmann, Peter Stamm, Nadja Einzmann, or Thomas Hürlimann, apply the respective strategies to the text, and answer questions . After the subjects had analyzed the texts, they had to write their own free interpretations. “We wanted the students to not only choose the correct answers from given suggestions but also to formulate their own text interpretations and make a productive contribution.”

The researchers were less concerned about testing concrete performances. “We asked ourselves which ‘instruments’ can contribute to the learning process and make students successful readers,” Leubner explains their intention. In short, the project connected aspects of performance and learning – and differed from common studies from the very beginning, which usually measure only performance.

The findings surprised even the project initiators. There are usually three models of plot analysis taught in school. The most widely used one, according to the study, has been the least successful, in which students analyze the plot of narrative texts by determining the individual parts of the plot, its climax, and turning points. 33% of students using the “climax method” recognized no central text elements. “We did not expect that,” Leubner says. “The complication strategy worked much better. Its results convinced us.” Only 18% of the secondary school students recognized no central text elements essential for understanding the text. The third reading strategy – close reading – resulted in 27% of students recognizing no elements. “Less than 20% is already an acceptable rate for educationalists, especially if students are using this method of text comprehension for the first time,” the expert for literature teaching methods says. “We can hardly recommend a method to teachers that produces no or very poor results.”

The complication method, based on a theory developed for fairytale research, seems the best choice. The protagonists of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White face difficult situations – complications – that they master in different ways. Narratologists and linguists discovered this buildup and resolution (of complications) in everyday stories in the second half of the 20th century. The respective structure is often not superficial and is therefore called “deep structure” in the field. Readers have to not only examine the plot’s surface but also draw conclusions from elements of the “text’s surface” to understand its “deep structure”.

“Since this is not always easy, the method of examining parts of the plot, climax, and turning points has entrenched itself at schools,” Leubner says. “Although there have been problems defining the terms used, it somehow works in school practice. Now we see that you can do better than with the climax method although our ‘winning’ strategy is indeed more difficult.”

The analysis of the students’ interpretations is based on a model that uses linguistic criteria for describing a text. It helps identify central “components” of texts and allows for quantifying performance in text interpretation because it identifies the number of central text elements integrated into the interpretation. Henning Läuter, retired Professor of Mathematical Statistics at the University of Potsdam, statistically evaluated the resulting figures. He tested the values for significance thus providing reliable statements for the literature educationalists. The students who “cracked” the stories using the complication strategy understood them significantly better than those using either the climax strategy or the close reading strategy. The values of the climax and close-reading strategies deviated less significantly from each other; the scaled results of the close-reading strategy, however, had a medium position between the complication and climax strategies. “We were surprised not only by the poor results of the climax strategy but also by the problems many students had structuring and writing down their ideas,” Leubner summarizes. They also struggled to identify simple contexts. The researcher does not want to rush to judgment as to the origin of such superficial reading, as the study did not address this issue, and discussing the role of new media would be pure speculation. 

The experts’ analysis does however show that the strategy used influences students’ reading comprehension. The professor nevertheless recommends the continued use of diverse forms of text comprehension. Strategies with and without analytical categories, i.e. complication and close reading, would, depending on genre and level of difficulty, help improve access to literary works. Leubner, however, also is also calling on teacher educators. Student teachers have to be supported more intensively in acquiring reading comprehension skills. “It is not enough to somehow understand texts. Student teachers also have to master the subject-specific instruments.” This is the only way knowledge can reach secondary school students. 

The study will be published soon, and teaching material based on its results is in the works. Leubner has returned to his academic roots with this study, one of the most comprehensive in German didactics other than the PISA tests. His habilitation dealt with the potential of new media for literary storytelling. “I noticed back then that this would remain a marginal phenomenon for schools,” he remembers. “We didactics experts have to prepare students for the central fields of instructions.” This is why he bridged the gap between what he sees as the current “trendy” aspects and the traditional ones. The researcher has pulled out all the stops. The study supports teachers and students where they need it in their daily work.

The Scientist

Prof. Dr. Martin Leubner studied German and history for teaching at secondary schools at Georg-August-Universität Göttingen and the University of Konstanz from 1982 to 1989. Since 2008 he has been Professor of Didactics of German Literature at the University of Potsdam.


Universität Potsdam
Institut für Germanistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam

The Project

Reading Strategies for Comprehension of Literary Texts  - An Empirical Analysis at Secondary Schools in Brandenburg

Head: Prof. Dr. Martin Leubner
Duration: 2011–2014
Funded by: Departmental funds

Text: Petra Görlich, Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa, Translation: Susanne Voigt