When I was working on my MA in Teaching English as a Second Language at CSU, one of my professors talked about Stephen Krashen. All. The. Time. And for good reason—he changed the way we looked at language teaching, helping the field move from the model of “Here’s a paragraph. Now translate it” to trying to recreate in the classroom how we learn our first language (lots of passive intake before we can make coherent sentences on our own). (Read an overview of his major theories here.)
My professor, Doug Flahive, who boasted of being on a first-name basis with Krashen, liked to tell us about how this language researcher guru started out as an award-winning weight-lifter and how he would wear tank tops even on airplanes. Thus I have always had this unusual image in my mind of a brilliant man testing the Monitor Hypothesis and conducting research on comprehensible input from the weight room. Ten years later, I finally get to meet him (and he’s dressed respectably)!
Krashen has always championed reading as the best way to learn one’s second language, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him at a library conference (Colorado Association of Libraries). During his keynote speech, he shared with the CAL attendees summaries of some current research about the benefits of free voluntary reading, both in English (first language) classes and ESL/EFL classes. In a nutshell, according to him, reading is the very best thing we can encourage students to do. Specifically, reading good old-fashioned books from public, school, classroom, and home libraries, as opposed to fancy computerized reading games for kids.
Krashen also took some time to excoriate standardized testing, pointing out that we could get nearly identical results for much less money by testing very small sample groups every couple of years (it would be considered public service for the students, much like jury duty), which would then allow us to spend huge amounts of money on books instead of testing. He also debunked eight or ten spurious studies and articles claiming that activities like playing chess and reading to birds can improve students’ reading.
From his talk, two studies stand out most in my mind. In one, a group of adult Korean women learning English were given Sweet Valley High books to read to fun. (Anyone else remember those? Elizabeth was the nice, bookish one, which her twin Jessica was the feisty troublemaker? Yes, I’ll admit I read those in 6th grade.) The series was too hard for the students, so the teacher tried them on the Sweet Valley Twins series for 4th graders, then the Sweet Valley Kids series for 2nd graders (where, presumably, Elizabeth spends her time coloring inside the lines while Jessica jumps in mud puddles). The Korean women loved the books, read through the easiest series, then the middle one, and by a year later were reading the ones at the 6th grade level with ease. Their English grammar and vocabulary had improved immensely—and they hadn’t been taking English classes during this period. Wow!
Krashen and other researchers have also looked at whether the number of books a child has access to at home is a predictor in how well they will do in school, and indeed, it is, a strong one. He cited a study which found the average number of books for children and teens in the an average Beverly Hills home—250—and also the average number in the nearby inner city—point five. As in, one book in every two houses. Wow. Yikes.
After he concluded his speech, I went up to him and introduced myself. Here’s how it went:
Sarah: I’m a former student of Doug Flahive and am so thrilled to meet you after having studied your research! Now I’m the coordinator of a Reading Buddies program, which we think is very successful, but every time I apply for funding, the grantors want quantitative proof that Reading Buddies works, and I don’t have the means to conduct studies to document that.
Krashen: You don’t have to! Let me do that for you. That’s what I do. I do the research so that people like you can run Reading Buddies. I can’t run a Reading Buddies program, but I can tell other people why it’s a good thing. Here’s what you need to do: read my book (The Power of Reading), sign up for my newsletter [on his website], and get my Twitter feed.
Sarah: Okey-dokey. I’m not on Twitter, though.
Krashen: You need to be. I share important stuff, not what I had for breakfast.
Krashen: You go run Reading Buddies, and let me do the research for you, kid.
Sarah, to herself: Did this long-admired scholar just call me “kid”?!
So I went home and now I’m getting started on doing everything he told me to! There’s hope for Reading Buddies if Dr. Stephen Krashen, 1977 bench-press champion of Venice Beach, California, is rooting for us, right?!