KQWeb, Mar/Apr 2005
My lovely wife Anne is a superb elementary librarian. To her craft she brings intelligence, passion and creativity. She has sufficient confidence in her abilities to share her practice with others at our state library conferences by giving workshops on interactive storytelling and puppetry. I’ve participated in a number of these (as reward, I believe, for humping the some 400 pounds of props to the room) and am always amazed at how she can get reticent old people singing, acting, and interacting with the stories. She makes the literature she uses come alive and just plain fun.
My only concern, I tell her, is that we are living in an educational environment that seems to place very little emphasis on the pleasurable side of learning. In so many words, our building goals say that student reading test scores will improve, not that more students will read, enjoy reading, and come to love literature. She never makes the implicit connection between what she is doing – getting kids turned on to reading – with the stated objectives of the educational system.
Both through long experience and professional intuition, Anne knows, as do all of us who work with children in libraries, that our storytelling, our puppet shows, our book talks, our reading promotions, our book displays, our one-on-one book recommendations, and our careful building of high-interest collections do get kids reading and, for many, many kids, into the reading habit. But experience and intuition are no longer enough for our “data-driven” administrators and state policy makers.
Happily, The Power of Reading provides the research that connects what we do – getting kids to read – with what the bean counters want – data that shows reading itself improves reading ability. Long a thorn in the side of advocates of direct reading instruction, Krashen has updated his 1993 classic with timely, comprehensive and compelling research, dividing his book into three major sections: The Research, The Cure, and Other Issues and Conclusions.
The first section makes the case that Free Voluntary Reading (FVR) is as, if not more, effective than direct instruction for both children and adults and for both native English speakers and for those for whom English is a second language. Krashen uses a wide variety of academic research along with anecdotal reports to conclude: “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 good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammatical competence, and the only way we become good spellers.” (p. 37)
It is the second part of the book that we as librarians need to share with others. The best way to support FVR is to make sure readers have access to engaging reading materials - access best provided by home, classroom, school and public libraries – and that educators encourage reading for its intrinsic rather than extrinsic value. Krashen cites data from McQuillan, Lance and other studies showing a correlation between good school libraries and improved performance on reading tests. Access to good libraries is even more important to economically disadvantaged students: “… schools can counter the effects of poverty in at least one area: access to books.” (p. 70) Comic books, graphic novels, and “light” reading materials such as teen romances and magazines are examined and shown to be a “conduit” that “…provides both the motivation for more reading and linguistic competence that makes harder reading possible.” (p. 116) The section concludes with research on using extrinsic motivation to encourage reading (gold stars, cash awards, etc.) and reading management programs such as Accelerated Reader, concluding that there is no evidence they improve reading achievement or attitudes toward reading. As librarians, this section should be studied and shared not just as an advocacy tool for our programs, but as guide for how we can make our programs themselves more effective.
In the final section of the book, Krashen tackles some sticky issues: Are there areas of literacy FVR does not effectively address? (Yes.) How are writing skills best learned? (Through more reading, not more writing.) What impact does television have on reading? (It is not the presence of television, but the absence of good reading materials that keeps kids from reading.) And what strategies for reading and language acquisition should be used with second language learners? (Learning to read in the primary language makes learning to read in the second language easier.)
I have to admit that I am reluctant reader –when it comes to reading research anyway. My MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over) tolerance is very low and I generally skip all that procedure and statistics boo-rah and cut right to the chase – summary and recommendations. The Power of Reading’s readable text, clear organization, and especially its clear layout with wide margins in which “sound bites” and summaries from the text appear, all greatly reduce the MEGO factor. This is research made, if not totally enjoyable, at least accessible.
I am not exactly sure when reading became political. But without a doubt it has. Federal funds can only be expended on materials that have been validated though “empirical” research. (Read: Only those materials from companies that make large campaign donations?) These “approved” reading programs are often highly directive to the point of being “teacher-proof,” stressing skill acquisition one small bit at a time, and rely heavily on drill and kill, worksheets and testing, testing, testing. I, for one, might stop reading altogether, if I knew each paragraph would be followed by a worksheet. Krashen offers an “empirically-supported” antidote to such methods, supporting his conclusion that “While it may not be true that everything that is good for you is pleasant, the most effective way of building literacy happens to be the most pleasant.” (p. 151) School libraries can and should take a primary role in planning, encouraging, and supporting pleasantly effective practices of building reading skills. Keep doing those activities that get kids excited about books with the little ones, Anne - and the thousands of other committed librarians out there!
This is a book that all school librarians should purchase, read, highlight, and share with their principals, reading specialists, teachers, and parent organizations. Its readability, relatively short length and universal applicability throughout the school makes it a prime candidate for the type of school-wide book discussions advocated by “professional learning communities” proponents. In short, this is a book every person who cares about literacy improvement and truly cares about children needs to read.
Romantic that I am, I’m getting Anne a copy for our anniversary.
Dr. Krahen is not just a researcher but something of a crusader for humane and child-centered teaching methods. He regularly writes editorials and letters to the editor to newspapers and magazines, usually citing research critical of a particular article or educational decision. You can read these commentaries by subscribing to his mailing list at <www.sdkrashen.com>.