Friday, December 10, 2010

Am I Harping? It’s a Seasonal Thing!

On the Importance of Reading:

Insights from some of my earlier blog posts (search Krashen) serve as a reminder that school libraries provide an important piece in a balanced approach to literacy development; we after all provide the quality books and online sources that enable reading widely for knowledge, freely for interest, and deeply for understanding.

The recent results of the PISA 2009 testing of 15-year olds around the world offer the chance to reconsider the research presented here before. I am reminded of the metaphorical question Dr. Stephen Krashen asked at a conference I attended in California one summer: What 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!” Similarly, children don’t need painful and expensive intensive phonics programs or more testing, they need books!

A noted and frequently cited expert on the importance of free voluntary reading for children’s literacy development and also on second language learning, Krashen told the audience that there are three things that keep the mind supple: bilingualism, reading, and coffee! This was a man I knew had important things to say. Krashen's most significant finding? "Children are more likely to read if they have something to read."

Krashen thought his talk should be entitled, "How Libraries Can End All Literacy Issues Forever." He continued: The most powerful tool in the literacy kit, supported by consistent research, is free voluntary reading. 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. His talk was referenced to 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. Dr. Fader had successfully demonstrated in his study of underprivileged boys that, given books and freed from writing reports or paying fines, they were better at everything -- simply by administering "books" and time for independent reading.
  • The 1983 work of Elley and Manghubai, "The effect of reading on second language learning"  (Reading Research Quarterly, 19:1, 53-67), now known as the Fiji "Book Flood" project, demonstrated that students in grades 4 and 5, immersed in regular reading of English materials as part of their second language learning experience, showed accelerated development of their second language proficiency in reading and listening but also had consistent and positive improvements in 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 who are 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.
  • When programs such as Accelerated Reader which put books, time to read, tests and quizzes of literal understandings together with prizes, Krashen suggested, conservatively, there needs to be a definitive study; but, he continued, 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."
  • A longitudinal study by Greaney and Clarke (1973) showed that boys who engaged in sustained silent free reading in school continued to be readers as adults.
  • The practice of reading aloud with children underpins Jim Trelease’s book The Read-Aloud Handbook (2006, Penguin). Trelease 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.
  • The relationship of higher achievement to the presence of strong school library programs 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). McQuillan 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 are tested 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 more likely to live closer to the library and use it. 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!
It’s simple, right? 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.

I began teaching in the days when Hooked on Books was what we knew to be true – now is a good time to ask, just how and why has the BC education system has been led so far astray, with a 26% reduction in the ranks of teacher-librarians since 2001, and at what costs to school libraries and our students as lifelong readers? Be sure to include a book in your child’s gifts this holiday season. See the VSB website for reading suggestions from Vancouver teacher-librarians.  See your teacher-librarian about becoming a Friend of School Libraries in Vancouver.


Gaby Chapman said...

Moira, It is with pleasure that I read your blog: I am reeling from the news that the school-wide free voluntary reading program that I started at my school before I retired has been changed to one where the students must read assigned books. I actually cried when I heard the news. Not only did the students love having the access to the books they loved to read and the time to read them, our English test scores were the highest in the county. Why is it so hard to believe that reading in quantity and out of a passionate interest is the best thing for kids? I have just published a book on this topic: Let Them Have Books: A Formula for Unviersal Reading Proficiency (see
Gaby Chapman

Moira Ekdahl said...

Thanks for the comment, Gaby. How sad is your news. And how great that you have further supported this kind of learning by writing a book. My personal reading gurus are Stephen Krashen and Aidan Chambers, both of whom I have had the pleasure of hearing in person (Chambers, both here in Vancouver and in the classroom where Galileo taught at the U of Padua, if you can believe that!).