Monday, August 11, 2008

Stephen Krashen ... Do Libraries Matter?

Day 4: Keynote speaker Stephen Krashen and more ...

In her introduction, Blanche Woolls noted Stephen Krashen's significant finding that "children are more likely to read if they have something to read." Dr Krashen spoke to an appreciative audience and it was delightful to find he is something of a comedian -- as well as a man I could admire for his clarity on the subject of reading. He began, there are three things that keep the mind supple: bilingualism, reading, and coffee! We were fortunate that coffee was being served, I thought.

Krashen thought his talk should be entitled, "How Libraries Can End All Literacy Issues Forever." The most powerful tool in the literacy kit, supported by consistent research, is free voluntary reading. He referenced his study against other signficant milestones in understanding the power of reading. Daniel Fader's Hooked on Books revolutionized how educators delivered reading programs in schools and school libraries as Dr. Fader successfully demonstrated that his study of underprivileged boys given books and freed from writing reports or paying fines were better at everything -- simply be administering "books" and time for independent reading.

He referred to the 1983 work of Elley and Manghubai, "The effect of reading on second language learning" published in Reading Research Quarterly (19/1, 53-67) now known as the Fiji "Book Flood" project. Students in grades 4 and 5 were immersed in regular reading of English materials as part of their second language learning experience. This not only accelerated the development of their second language proficiency in reading and listening, but had consistent and positive effects on their proficiency in their own language as well.

The "book flood" project was replicated in 1985 in Singapore with a larger number of younger children; the results were consistent with the earlier findings: children in the study group did better than those taught by traditional methods on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, oral language, grammar, listening comprehension and writing. Elley noted that children exposed to a broad choice of high-interest illustrated story books, encouraged to read and share them, will learn a new language more quickly but there will also be improved competence in other language skills such as writing and control over syntax. That is, all language skills are improved by reading as opposed to learning the language from textbooks with reading programs. Additionally students do better on tests when they read, through acquisition, than when they are taught for testing. Or, literacy and language development should be pleasurable experiences, not painful ones.

Krashen then considered programs such as Accelerated Reader which put books, time to read, tests and quizzes of literal understandings together with prizes. Conservatively, he suggested, there needs to be a definitive study; but one might also conjecture that such programs are, in fact, harmful because they offer extrinsic rewards for something intrinsically pleasurable. Alfie Kohn offers this same point in his book Punish by Rewards: payment for something you like to do can "extinguish the behaviour."

Another significant study was a longitudinal one by Greaney and Clarke (1973) which showed that boys who engaged in sustained silent free reading in school continued to be readers as adults.

Krashen talked about the practice of reading aloud with children. Jim Trelease, in his book The Read-Aloud Handbook (2006, Penguin), observes the importance of what he calls the "home-run" books, the books that make a difference in a child's life with reading, be that Captain Underpants or Garfield. These are the keys into literature, into fictional expressions that portray life experiences, ethics, and more. Frank Smith adds that children read more in quiet comfortable places with lots of books, that they get the "feel" for stories from read-alouds like Charlotte's Web and Judy Blume.

It is Krashen's view that school libraries are the hottest area in language and literacy education. The better the school library, the higher the reading scores. This view is supported by the research of Lance and Loertscher and by the work of Jeff McQuillan, in his book The Literacy Crisis: False Claims, Real Solutions (Heinemann, 1998) which used data from the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress). Unlike standardized testing, the NAEP is zero-stakes and uses only a sampling of students. Controlling for poverty, McQuillan found there were better results with better access to libraries. There is a strong correlation between access to print materials and reading scores, supporting the case for strong, well-stocked libraries.

These results are replicated in a study of 2007 NAEP scores. Researchers undertook to assess the impact of access to books on two groups of children equally poor. The one with . access to books will do better. They assessed predictors of improvement by grade 8 and found the single factor was access to books.

The PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) provides plentiful data about the students who take the test in 40 different countries. Again data indicates reading instruction is negative and the effect of poverty is overwhelming. There is more likelihood that children in high income neighbourhoods will have a qualified teacher-librarian, access to materials, reading services, and bookstores. Barbara Heyns shows that high and low income children show the same gains throughout the school year. The difference is made in summer reading where students of higher socio-economic status are closer to the library. Summer reading programs provide opportunities for two hours of reading a day, 30 minutes a day for browsing, and time for talking about what is being read. The single most popular author for young readers? R L Stine!

What, says Krashen metaphorically, if there was a country experiencing a drought and famine, and the experts deemed that the children there needed painful and expensive surgery? Everyone would say, no, feed them!

Or, as I have often said, reading improves with reading! Motivated and enthusiastic readers will 'stretch' to read at higher levels ... we have only to look at the impact of Harry Potter to know that to be true. Wow! I can't believe that I began teaching in the days when Hooked on Books was what we knew to be true -- just how and why have we been led so far astray, and at what costs to school libraries and our students as readers today and in their adult lives? The conference continued to astound and challenge: yes, you've got it -- oh my, oh my, oh my!

Stephen's book The Power of Reading in Japanese (7th edition) was presented in appreciation of his work.

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