Friday, November 23, 2012


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?”

The empirical literature is equally excited about the power of a big pile of books. The more books a child has access to, the more he or she reads. Krashen describes one study of prospective teachers who identified themselves as “reluctant readers” that found that all of them had limited access to books as children. Another study found that a school library doubles the amount of books that children read. Many studies also find a correlation between access to the public library and reading. One found that the closer a child lives to a public library, the more he or she reads. Another found that fifth graders read more over the summer if they said it was easy to access the library. Another found that of kids who hate to read, few have visited the public library. Another study seems to offer hope for those kids, showing a large positive influence in a child’s desire to read after a first visit to the public library.

The evidence, then, is clear. Reading is extraordinary. It captures a child’s imagination while teaching him or her how to read, how to write, and how to think, while at the same time improving his or her spelling and vocabulary. Furthermore, the mere existence of a public library increases access, causing children to read more. Encouraging parents to bring their children to the library is even better. There have been dozens of efforts to quantify precisely the return on investment of a library. Researchers take into account public meeting space, computer use, the cost of books checked out, and other factors and have found that libraries return several times more value to the community than they cost. While those factors may be easier to quantify, I would like to revive a simpler definition of a library: it’s a place with books. The benefits of these books to the community are difficult to quantify, but research on the effects of reading shows us that the benefits are also difficult to overstate.