Read Brian Samek’s column in the November 23, 2012 edition of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.
Remember your high school foreign language class with its endless grammar exercises? In a study in 1998, Spanish professor Jeffrey Stokes and his colleagues tried to determine which factors best predicted a student’s ability to correctly use the Spanish subjunctive, a notoriously difficult form for Americans. They found a long list of things that were not significant predictors: time spent in the Spanish classroom, time spent on the subjunctive, and time spent in Spanish-speaking countries. The only factor that predicted competence in the subjunctive was the amount of free reading in Spanish done by the student.
This finding wasn’t a surprise. Free reading is widely used to help students learn how to read and write. In my elementary school we had regular periods of Silent Sustained Reading (or SSR, though one teacher said that stood for “sit down, shut up, and read”), where we sat or lay quietly on comfortable blankets and pillows and read whatever book we wanted. SSR and other similar programs come from a large quantity of research supporting the view that among the factors that contribute to a child’s success in school, free reading is especially powerful.
Stephen Krashen, in The Power of Reading, defines free voluntary reading, or FVR, as “reading because you want to: no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter. In FVR, you don’t have to finish the book if you don’t like it. FVR is the kind of reading most of us do obsessively all the time.” Krashen summarizes evidence which supports striking improvements in a number of intellectual skills as a result of free reading, including reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, and spelling.
What’s provocative about Krashen’s argument is that he claims reading is far more important than direct instruction. Krashen writes, “Every Monday, in thousands of language and language arts classes, children are given a list of 20 vocabulary words. During the week they do “skill-building” exercises . . . . On Friday, the children are tested on the words. If you show the list of 20 words to a child who has read, who grew up with books, he probably knows 15 or 16 of the words already. He has seen them before, in Choose Your Own Adventure, Harry Potter, and Batman Returns. If he studies, he gets an A. If he doesn’t study, he gets a B. If you show the list of 20 words to a child who did not grow up with books, the situation is very different. He may know five or six of the words. If he studies, with a heroic effort, he might get a D+.” Direct instruction, according to Krashen, all too often simply rewards readers and sets up non-readers for failure.
Krashen argues that the sheer size and complexity of language makes it impossible to learn by direct instruction. To take a single measure of the difficulty of learning a language, a conservative estimate puts the number of words known by the average college freshman at 12,000. To learn these directly (with, say, flashcards) would be a Herculean task. On the other hand, a fifth-grade child can learn thousands of words simply by reading millions. This sounds huge, but a million words is the length of the Harry Potter series. Or about 20 Lemony Snicket books. Spread over the school year and a summer, that’s easy for a child who loves reading, so the goal of parents and educators should be to get kids excited about reading and provide them access to books.
The public library generates excitement and provides access. Last year Philip Pullman, the His Dark Materials trilogy author, talked about the first time his mother took him to the public library: “All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination . . . . Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?”