Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Power of Reading, by Stephen Krashen

This was another book that came highly recommended from Jim Trelease's 'The Read-Aloud Handbook'.  'The Power of Reading, insights from the research' by Stephen Krashen is exactly what the title says. He compiled loads of research on the effects of reading on learning in general.  It was a lot of quotes and numbers, which I am generally wary of.  But I did enjoy it.  It was a very easy read (I glossed over much of the numbers and tried to get the gist) and served as yet another encouragement to use books to teach my children.

It's so fun when I find these 'radical' ideas in main-stream writers.  It's really not all that 'out there'.  Textbooks are a relatively new form of learning.  Sort of a compiling of knowledge on a general subject (with obvious biased) for easy learning. Except, that is not how people learn.

"Nearly everyone in the US can read and write.  They just don't read and write well enough.  Although basic literacy has been on the increase for the lat century, the demands for literacy have been rising faster.  Many people don't read and write well enough to handle the complex literacy demands of modern society. The problem is not thus how to bring students to the second-or third-grade reading level; the problem is how to bring them beyond this.  
The cure for this kind of literacy crisis lies, in my opinion, in doing one activity, an activity that is all too often rare in the lives of many people: reading.  Specifically, I am recommending a certain kind of reading-free voluntary reading (FVR).  FVR means reading because you want to. For school-age children, FVR means no book report, no questions at the end of the chapter, and no looking up every vocabulary word.  FVR means putting down a book you don't like and choosing another one instead.  It is the kind of reading highly literate people do all the time.
I will not claim that FVR is the complete answer.  Free readers are not guaranteed admission to Harvard Law School. What the research tells me is that when children or less literate adults start reading for pleasure, however, good things will happen.  Their reading comprehension will improve, and they will find difficult, academic-style texts easier to read. Their writing style will improve, and they will be better able to write prose in a style that is acceptable to schools, business, and the scientific community.  Their vocabulary will improve, and their spelling and control of grammer will improve. 
In other words, those who do free voluntary reading have a chance.  The research also tells me, however, that those who do not develop the pleasure reading habit simply don't have a chance-they will have a very difficult time reading and writing at a level high enough to deal with the demands of today's world.
FVR is also, I am convinced, the way to achieve advanced second language proficiency.  It is one of the best things a second language acquirer can do to bridge the gap from the beginning level to truly advanced levels of second language proficiency."

That is the intro-and pretty much sums up his book.  He spends the first half of the book going over the evidence for FVR.  The second half are some suggestions using FVR and other reading programs to enhance over-all reading and writing skills.

"Studies showing that reading enhances literacy development lead to what should be an uncontroversial conclusion: Reading is good for you.  The research, however, supports a stronger conclusion:  Reading is the only way, the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammatical competence, and the only way we become good spellers. 

There are two reasons for suspecting that this stronger conclusion is correct.  First, the major alternative to reading, direct instruction, is not of much help.  Second, research and theory in other areas come to the same conclusion. Researchers in early reading development have concluded that we 'learn to read by reading,' that we learn to read by attempting to make sense of what we see on the page.  In my work in language acquisition, I have concluded tha we acquire language in only one way: by understanding messages, or obtaining 'comprehensible input' in a low-anxiety situation.  This is precisely what FVR is:  messages we understand presented in a low-anxiety environment.  
If this conclusion is true, if reading is the only way, it means we have to reconsider and reanalyze what we are doing when we attempt to teach language and develop literacy directly, with drills and exercises.  All we are doing when we teach language this way is testing.  Traditional language arts instruction, in other words, is a merely a test, a test that privileged children, who grow up with books, pass and that less fortunate children fail." 

GOLD!!  Those paragraphs totally hit home with me.  I am one of those people who can not learn by hearing.  It has to make sense in a bigger picture.  'Direct Instruction' is useless for me!  And if you add to that any 'anxiety', I'm a mess.  I can't remember what I had for dinner!  I used to think I was stupid. But now I believe I was just taught wrong, and was not able to retain useless bits of info.  I am NOT willing to spend my days teaching my children useless bits of info, only to have them forget it later on.  I am, however, willing to spend all my life and energy on passing on important info to them, in ways that I can be confident they will retain and use for the rest of their lives.  That is a goal worthy of my very being. And scripturally, that is my job description (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). 

He goes into writing just a bit at the end.  He believes that reading the printed word not only broadens your vocabulary, but it also teaches you how to spell by giving you a mental picture to compare.  And he is a firm believer (as am I) that even your writing improves with reading, and not by simply practicing writing.

"Language acquisition comes from input, not output, from comprehension, not production.

When we write our ideas down, the vague and abstract become clear and concrete.  When thoughts are on paper (or computer screen for me), we can see the relationships among them, and can come up with better thoughts.  Writing, in other words, can make you smarter. 
Readers who keep a diary or journal know all about this-you have a problem, you write it down, and at least some of the problem disappears.  Sometimes the entire problem goes away."

That is one reason I try to review some of the books I read, here on my blog.  It really helps me to think through them.  It has greatly enhanced my retention of what I've been reading. Having to make sense of it on 'paper' so others can read it and learn from it.  It's a great process to enhance reading. 

He suggests a combination of teacher selected books, FVR and traditional learning for the classroom.  I think he's about right on!


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