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Reading & Writing

Miguel Witte - Book review, written 2010:
Stephen D. Krashen: The Power of Reading - Insights from the Research

Amazon Stephen Krashen, The Power of Reading

Literacy in the primary language and in a foreign language is something that is best acquired during the silent and most often enjoyable process of reading. This is the basic message Stephen D. Krashen, professor of education at the Unviersity of Southern California (1992 to 2001) and former professor of linguistics at Queen College in New York, points out in his book "The power of Reading - Insights from the Research". Krashenīs book is designed as a summary of a vast amount of research about the overwhelming benefits of reading to literacy development. According to the book, the process of reading leads to better reading comprehension and to acquiring a larger vocabulary. Reading improves spelling and the mastery of complex grammar as a result. Most importantly, reading is key to developing a good writing style. Those who read more have less "writing apprehension" because of their superior command of the written language. Those who read more also do better on various measures of cultural knowledge. Expressed in an few words: reading makes you smarter.

How to integrate reading into education?

Krashen points out that it is important that children are read to at home. Research has shown, that those who were read to as children end up reading more on their own. Parents who themselves read a lot and have many books at home provide a good example for their children. Reading should be encouraged in education as Krashen cites one parent quote: "Even at age 3, you can say to the child: You are old enough to read in bed like Mom and Dad." As an interesting example Krashen refers to research that showed that parents of fifth graders classified as heavy readers allowed their children to read in bed more than parents of fifth graders classified as nonreaders.

With regard to formal education there are three kinds of in-school free reading programmes that promote reading: sustained silent reading (from five to 15 minutes), self-selected reading with a short discussion later about what was read and extensive reading, requiring a short summary at the end. These three reading programmes are based upon the idea of FVR = "Free Voluntary Reading".

It is vital that reading occurs in an anxiety-free environment, that the readers have access to truly compelling books and are capable of reading them. Free voluntary reading means in the words of the author "...reading because you want to: no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter. In FVR, you donīt have to finish the book if you donīt like it. FVR is the kind of reading most of us do obsessively all the time."

What to read?

Can comics, teen romances and magazines be used as reading material? Krashenīs answer is clearly "yes" and he relies on research that shows for example that reading comics is, overall, harmless and the language used can be at a respectable level of difficulty. Teen romances and magazines seem to have linguistically acceptable texts. most importantly the author points out that there is "...evidence that light reading can serve as a conduit to heavier reading" although "a diet of only light reading will probably not lead to advanced levels of development."

Reading and second language acquisition

Krashen points out that developing literacy in the primary language is an extremely efficient means of developing literacy in the second language. A pleasure reader in the first language will become a pleasure reader in the second language. Moreover, studies confirm that those who read more in their second language also write better in that language. In my opinion this is a very important clue for teaching as it is very difficult to improve studentsī writing in the classroom by assigning more and more writing tasks. Instead it is might be more productive to increase reading activities.

Reading and vocabulary

Reading is definitely a means towards learning new words when compared to the learning of large lists of vocabulary by heart. Research has also shown that the context gives readers helpful clues to the meaning of new words. From the point of view of memorisation and recall, Krashen refers to research from Ebbinghaus and Bustead who have shown that the best way of mastering content is by distributed practice spaced out over time rather than massed (all at once) practice. Learning new content with a smaller amount of repetition on a regular basis is more efficient than devoting more time to a larger amount of repetition on fewer occasions. In favour of reading Krahsen points out that "Encountering word in natural texts typically provides, of course, distributed exposure to vocabulary." In conclusion it can be said, that reading is vital for the acquisition and the improvement of vocabulary. In my opinion, this is very important for second language learners as progress in a foreign language is largeley based on the mastery of more and more vocabulary at every level.

Experiences

Krashen interestingly refers to the experience of Kyung-Sook Cho: Kyung-Sook Cho "worked with a group of women in their thirties who, despite years of formal (grammar-based) study of English in Korea, and having lived for a number of years in the United States, had made little progress in English. Cho first suggested that her subjects read books from the "Sweet Valley High" series, written for girls aged 12 and older. These books proved to be to difficult; they could only be read with great effort, and with extensive recourse to the dictionary. Cho then asked her subjects to try "Sweet Valley Twins", novels based on the same characters but at a younger age, written for readers aged 8 to 12. Once again, the texts were too difficult. Cho then recomended "Sweet Valley Kids", novels dealing with the same characters at an even younger age, written for readers ages five to eight. Her subjects, all adults, became enthusiastic "Sweet Valley Kids" readers. Cho reported significant vocabulary growth in her readers. Perhaps the most impressive result is the report of one of her subjects one year after she started reading the "Sweet Valley" books. The subject, who had never read for pleasure in English prior to this sudy, had read all 34 "Sweet Valley Kids" books, many books from the "Sweet Valley Twins" and "Sweet Valley High" series and had also started to read Danielle Steele, Sydney Sheldon, and other authors of romance in English.

In my opinion, this experience makes it clear that adults with little command of a foreign language can use childrenīs books as a valuable reading tool and that they improve their knowledge of the language because they can cope with the level of the overall reading material It is easy enough to understand and it doesnīt require extensive use of the dictionary.

It should be self-evident that reading is positive but the value of the book is the research evidence it provides for that claim. "The Power of Reading" explains how and where the benefits of reading exactly lie. Krashen places the stress on reading as something enjoyable that should be carried out for its own sake. The book also invites educators and parents to overcome predjudices against light reading material. Teachers at schools should allow their students a greater range of freedom when letting them choose the books they want to read, and provide free reading activities in the classroom. The idea that the acquisition of a (new) language must be painful is probably very widespread but it seems that literacy and culture can be more truly conveyed through the joyful process of reading.

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