Promoting German language skills in children from immigrant and socially disadvantaged families

In the summer of 2004, around 150 children from immigrant and socially disadvantaged families spent 3 weeks of their vacation at a summer camp in the Bremen area. The aim was to give the children, who had just completed 3rd grade, the opportunity to improve their language skills through theater workshops and German language instruction.
Summer camps on the same model have since taken place every year. Their outcomes are very encouraging.

Language Skills as the Key to School Success

Language and reading skills are crucial for success at school. Children from immigrant families often have difficulty reading and writing in German, and their German-speaking skills are limited. They are frequently unable to understand the tasks they are set at school, meaning that they underperform systematically. Children from socially disadvantaged families sometimes have similar problems because they do not receive enough language support at home. Although there is a broad awareness of these problems, the effectiveness of language support programs for elementary students has not yet been systematically investigated. Against this background, a team of educational scientists headed by Jürgen Baumert and Petra Stanat from the Center for Educational Research at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development designed an experimental study. In close cooperation with the Senator for Education and Science of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, they organized a vacation camp for Bremen students with weak German skills. The project was funded by the Jacobs Foundation.

Theater Workshops and German Lessons

Because there were more applications than places available, 150 participants were drawn at random. Applicants who were not selected for participation formed the control group for an evaluation study. The summer camp took place in school field centers near Bremen, with program activities being combined with recreational activities.
Two different kinds of language support were provided: direct (explicit) language support in German as an Additional Language lessons (conception: Heidi Rösch, Technical University of Berlin) and indirect (implicit) language support in theater workshops.
The participating students were divided into two groups; both participated in the program’s theater component, but only one group also attended German lessons. The program’s effects were measured by tests in three language domains—grammar, reading, and vocabulary—that were administered shortly before and shortly after the camp, as well as 3 months later.


Despite the brevity of the program, the results show a considerable improvement in the participating students’ language skills. The students benefited most from the combination of theater workshops and systematic instruction in German. Students in this group scored significantly higher than the control group students (who were not given any language support) immediately after the camp, particularly on grammar and reading. A positive effect was also observed for vocabulary, but this effect was not statistically significant. The students in the implicit language support group also outperformed the control group on the grammar and reading tests, but the differences were not statistically significant.

The Follow-Up Test

A similar pattern of results emerged at follow up 3 months later, although the differences between the groups were now smaller and no longer significant. Nevertheless, the effect sizes clearly showed that students provided with both implicit and explicit language support scored higher on grammar, reading, and vocabulary. Students in the implicit language support group again outperformed the control group, but to a lesser extent than their peers in the explicit language support group. Finally, the program’s effects on the students’ social behavior and team spirit are not to be underestimated.

A Blueprint for Success

Vacation camps based on the model of the Jacobs Summer Camp can help to prevent children from disadvantaged families being excluded from modern society.
Since 2005, responsibility for the Bremen Summer Camp has been transferred to the Goethe Institute. Hans Joachim Schädlich’s book Der Sprachabschneider provided the inspiration for the theater workshops and German instruction in the 2005 camp. Again, the aim was to enhance students’ reading and language skills, text comprehension, and vocabulary, as well as their self-confidence and feeling of community.
The results of tests administered before and after the 2005 and 2006 camps again showed marked improvements in the participating students’ written and oral language skills. The feedback from their schools has also been consistently encouraging.
The 2007 Bremen summer camp was based on a modern fairy tale: Potilla by Cornelia Funke. A parallel summer camp was also run in Frankfurt, funded by the Stiftung Polytechnische Gesellschaft, a private Frankfurt-based foundation, and based on a concept designed by the Bremen team. Comparable programs are being run in cooperation with the North Rhine-Westphalian State Institute for School Quality, the Universities of Münster, Essen, Erlangen-Nuremberg, and Augsburg, and projects for lower secondary students have been put in place in various locations.

Further Readings

Stanat, P., Baumert, J., & Müller, A. G. (2005). Förderung von deutschen Sprachkompetenzen bei Kindern aus zugewanderten und sozial benachteiligten Familien: Evaluationskonzeption für das Jacobs-Sommercamp Projekt. Zeitschrift für Pädagogik, 51, 856–875.

Stanat, P., Müller, A. G., & Baumert, J. (2005). Die Kofferbande auf Reisen in das Land der Sprache und des Theaters: Das Jacobs-Sommercamp Projekt. Pädagogik, 57, 57–58.

Stanat, P., & Müller, A. G. (2005). Förderung von Schülerinnen und Schülern mit Migrationshintergrund. In H. Bartnitzky & A. Speck-Hamdan (Hrsg.), Deutsch als Zweitsprache lernen (S. 20–32). Frankfurt a.M.: Grundschulverband.


Jürgen Baumert
Petra Stanat
Andrea G. Müller

in cooperation with:

Jacobs Foundation
Senator für Bildung und Wissenschaft, Freie Hansestadt Bremen