Overcoming taboos – creating prospects

Karin Küßner

In order to bring about a tangible improvement in adult reading and writing skills and to raise the basic level of education, the Federal Government and federal states have joined forces to instigate a “National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills 2016-2026”. This article explains the objectives of the decade and cooperation between future partners.

Overcoming taboos – creating prospects

Removing the taboo of illiteracy in the workplace

Rising requirements in the workplace also mean that employees need to offer increasing skills. The same applies to low-qualified persons in low paid sectors and to job seekers. Such persons often, however, face problems because they cannot read or write properly. 7.5 million people in Germany are functionally illiterate. More than half of these are in work and more than half are also in possession of an accredited vocational certification (cf. Figure).

Whereas the phenomenon of functional illiteracy is still largely unaddressed or even unknown at the management level in most companies, many of those affected are quite open about their inadequate reading and writing competencies in the workplace. In order to avoid errors or to structure work in a more effective way, they receive support from a so-called “complicit environment” (cf. EHMIG/HEYMANN/SEELMANN 2015, pp. 28 ff.). Colleagues and superiors use a variety of help mechanisms to take on reading and writing tasks for those affected. However, things which function within a well-established work process may rapidly turn into a problem if work procedures alter or new technology and quality standards are introduced. Entrusting functional illiterates with higher value activities creates a hurdle which they are unlikely to be able to overcome.

Against the background of the technological, structural and demographic changes that are taking place, securing a supply of skilled workers and developing human resources are major objectives for firms. Companies which tackle this challenge and support staff in improving their competencies in reading and writing arrive at a positive assessment (cf. PT DLR 2016, p. 38). The main demand is for precisely tailored learning offers, which pick up towards typical occupational requirements and take the prevailing general conditions within the world of work, such as shift work, into account.

Functional illiteracy is, however, not just a phenomenon that affects adults. The proportion of young people affected in vocational education and training is shockingly high. In vocational support measures for young people (vocational preparation schemes and basic vocational training year), around 34 per cent of participants are functionally illiterate (cf. BAGÖRT 2015, p. 3). If you add in those with writing difficulties only, another ten per cent of the trainees are also affected.

Announcement of a National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills

Functional illiteracy should not be considered to be the problem of the individual person. Alleviating the situation is an overall societal task. For this reason, the Federal Government and the Federal States marked International Literacy Day on 8 September 2015 by jointly declaring a National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills and calling upon other groups in society to become actively involved. In order to support adults becoming better readers and writers, the aim is to intensify government commitment and cooperation over the coming ten years and to acquire further partners, in particular from the areas of employment, trade and industry, social services, family, youth and healthcare services for the implementation of specific measures. The partners in the alliance will receive support from a Scientific Advisory Board.

The measures to be undertaken in the National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills will focus on raising public awareness and, above all, on addressing both the private and working environment. Family, friends and colleagues enjoy the trust of functional illiterates and can encourage them to improve their reading and writing skills. In order to be successful, learners also need access to sufficient and high-quality learning offers. These learning opportunities need to be low threshold, flexible and individually tailored to their particular learning requirements. Further areas of action during the decade will include the professionalisation of educational staff and the further research to aspects such as learning motivation, causes and prevention of functional illiteracy.

During the decade, the Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF) [Federal Ministry of Education and Research] will provide approximately € 180 million of funding for projects. The measures undertaken by the BMBF will focus on labour market related topics and target groups in particular. The aim continues to be to integrate basic education into the context of company-based continuing training provision. In order to motivate firms, the BMBF plans to award an annual prize to companies which display a particular commitment to improving literacy. The nature of the future challenge will be to transfer good practice nationwide and to make the specific added value even more visible to all those involved.

Coordination Point established at BIBB

A broad range of national, regional and local initiatives and good practice measures for the literacy and basic skills of adults already exists in Germany. However, these enjoy only partial awareness and are only made use of to a limited extent so far.

In order to secure a synergistic coordinated approach, the decade partners have announced that a qualified monitoring and effective coordination of the measures will take place. For this purpose, the members of the alliance will draw up a work programme which aligns to the objectives of the decade and defines specific areas of action and measures, to be updated on a yearly basis.

On 1 January 2016, BIBB set up a Coordination Point for the National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills on behalf of the BMBF. This will act as a main agency and will foster communication and cooperation with the decade partners. The principal tasks of the Coordination Point are as follows:

  • monitoring of the Federal Government measures and of the projects funded by the BMBF
  • networking of stakeholders and coordination of measures, e.g. cooperation with the technical and coordinating agencies of the federal states
  • sustainable dissemination of examples of good practice for workplace-oriented literacy and basic skills
  • cooperation and communication with the Decade partners and acquisition of new partners
  • identification of new support and research requirements
  • participating in measures in raising awareness among the general public
  • cooperation with the BMBF campaign “Reading and writing – My key to the world”
  • promotion of networking at a national and European level
  • providing information on the Decade website at www.alphadekade.de.

In 2018 another leo-Level-One Study will be carried out, analysing the extent of functional illiteracy among adults in Germany and its background.


BUNDESARBEITSGEMEINSCHAFT ÖRTLICHER TRÄGER DER JUGENDSOZIAL¬ARBEIT [FEDERAL WORKING GROUP OF YOUTH SOCIAL WORK PROVIDERS] (BAGÖRT) (Ed.): Funktionaler Analphabetismus bei Jugendlichen in Einrichtungen der Jugendsozialhilfe [Functional illiteracy of young people in youth welfare services institutions]. Dresden 2015 – URL: http://bagoert.de/fileadmin/daten/Ver%C3%B6ffentlichungen/Alpha_Expertise__final.pdf (retrieved: 04.10. 2016)

EHMIG, S.; HEYMANN, L.; SEELMANN, C.: Alphabetisierung und Grundbildung am Arbeitsplatz. Sichtweisen im beruflichen Umfeld und ihre Potentiale [Literacy and basic education in the workplace. Perspectives in the work environment and their areas of potential]. Mainz 2015
PT DLR: Ergebnisse zur arbeitsplatzorientierten Alphabetisierung und Grundbildung Erwachsener [Results on workplace oriented literacy and basic education for adults]. Bonn 2016 – URL: www.yumpu.com/de/document/view/55879094/dlr-ptde   (retrieved: 04.10.2016)

Head of the Coordination Point of the National Decade for Literacy and Basic Skills at BIBB

Translation from the German original (published in BWP 6/2016): Martin Kelsey, Global Sprach Team, Berlin