This is a continuation of an article that began last week. To read part 1, click here!
Being lost in a comprehensible, compelling book creates an optimal condition for acquiring language. The more compelling the story, the more likely learners are to tolerate a bit ‘noise’ in the text and the more likely they are to stay engaged in the language. Humans love stories! They are a powerful tool for sustaining engagement and for providing CI in a cohesive, contextualized, and compelling way. “We do not experience language in isolation…but always in relation to a scenario, some background or person and actions and events from which the things that are said derive their meaning.” (J.A.K.Halliday, ‘Language as a Social Semiotic’)
The caveat to using stories to facilitate SLA is that they must be comprehensible enough to feel effortless, compelling enough to sustain attention, and robust enough to provide adequate exposure to linguistic data. In other words, stories must contain quality input to be conducive to SLA. Ironically, the caveat to stories is the power of comprehension-based readers. CB readers are full of quality level-appropriate input, as recommended by VanPatten. “Instructors and materials should provide appropriate level input (and interaction). We should take the fundamental roles of input and communication as the fundamental centerpieces of the language learning/teaching enterprise and create curricula reflective of them.” (VanPatten, CLT Principle 4, While We’re on the Topic, pg. 57) Language learners who frequently and consistently have access to quality input are not only likely to achieve communicative competence, they are likely to reach a minimum threshold in L2 to put them on a trajectory to become a lifelong learner (acquirer) of language.
There are two facets to comprehension-based readers as they pertain to the language classroom, and both consistently demonstrate strong correlation between reading and language growth. The first is SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) or FVR (Free Voluntary Reading). SSR refers to class time (usually 10-20 minutes) that is dedicated to reading, while FVR is reading that can be done in or out of class time and is self-selected and completely voluntary. During FVR/SSR, students (and their teacher) read a book, magazine or any text and spend an allotted amount (or any amount) of time with the intent of reading for pleasure. The relationship between FVR and literacy, writing, grammar, spelling and vocabulary acquisition is remarkably consistent. The more students read for pleasure, the greater the gains. (S. Krashen, The Power of Reading)
When dealing with beginners in the language and/or weak readers, many teachers opt to use CB readers as a shared reading experience. As a whole-class read, the teacher uses various guided reading strategies to help learners decode text, develop an ear for the language, and deepen comprehension. While strong readers are capable of creating powerful mental images and often unconsciously engage in a written story to the point of laughter, tears and/or fear, weak readers rarely connect to the text enough to visualize or feel the story. Weak readers rejoice over the movie version of a book, while strong readers are generally left disappointed, movies rarely depict the characters and places as vividly and creatively as they had pictured it in their mind’s eye. A shared reading experience gives the teacher an opportunity to train readers (learners) to actively construct meaning, visualize events and emotionally connect to the text.
Sharing the reading experience has the added benefit of providing a cohesive theme and numerous interrelated topics that naturally inspire relevant and comprehensible discussion. “Narrow” input derived from the rich context of each CB reader naturally provides repeated exposure to high-frequency words and continuously-recycled, topically-driven vocabulary. (S. Krashen, The Case for Narrow Reading) In addition to providing a framework for guiding ongoing comprehensible discourse with learners, CB readers also provide a powerful tool for teaching content in the context of a story. Fiction and nonfiction stories provide a natural backdrop to teach and discuss current events, history and culture. Like communicative competence, intercultural competence is best achieved by being in the target language and in the culture simultaneously. CB readers provide a virtual cultural environment that cultivates a deeper understanding of the target culture’s products, practices and perspectives, which is the first step toward intercultural competence.
Although reading culturally-rich and/or nonfiction stories is powerful, reading fiction can be just as powerful in terms of SLA. Universally, there is a strong correlation between any type of reading and improved vocabulary, language skills, spelling. Studies show that books, no matter the type, increase language comprehension, a larger vocabulary and increased brain activity. (M. Ward, ‘2 Science-backed Ways Reading Fiction Makes You Smarter’) Psychologist Keith Stanovich writes in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, “If ‘smarter’ means having a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge… then reading may well make people smarter. The data supports that this finding time and time again.”
An interesting aspect of reading research is that there is no parameter placed on books, such as genre or level. People most often choose fiction and rarely, if ever, choose a book at their reading level. Choose one of Oprah’s Book Club picks or a novel from Bill Gates’ semi-annual book recommendation, and you will find reads that range from a 6th to 9th grade level. Nevertheless, language teachers are notorious for insisting that students read at their level in spite of the fact that they themselves do not. Research repeatedly demonstrates that easy reading of any kind has a positive impact on language development. That means extensive reading of comprehensible texts in L2 will inherently result in higher proficiency levels.
When selecting texts for students, teachers will often use the rationale, “My students would be insulted if I asked them to read this easy book.” The most popular best-selling books generally have two things in common: They are generally fiction and are written between a 5th and 8th grade level. Since when do we pick up books for pleasure with the mindset that they are too easy to enjoy? I think I’m safe in saying that no one has ever picked up a NY Times best-selling book, inventoried all known words and said, “I already know all of these words! How insulting!”
In a nutshell, CB readers provide learners with compelling stories that are highly comprehensible, conducive to SLA and enjoyable to read. They make the exercise of reading feel effortless and result in lasting enjoyment and satisfaction. The byproduct of the experience is SLA and the development of communicative competence. From a teacher’s perspective CB, readers provide a low-stress, low-prep, highly-engaging platform to naturally, efficiently and enjoyably facilitate acquisition. It’s not rocket science! It’s just comprehensible reading.
Csíkszentmihályi, M. 1991. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial. (2008. Modern Classic Edition: HarperCollins)
Halliday, M. 1978. Language as a Social Semiotic. Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.
Krashen, S. 1981. The case for Narrow Reading. TESOL Newsletter 15:23.
Krashen, S. 2000. The case for Narrow Reading. (Revised version) Language Magazine, 3(5): 17-19.
Krashen, S. 2011a. The Compelling (not just interesting) Input Hypothesis. The English Connection. A Publication of KOTESOL. 15
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Englewood, CO Libraries Unlimited Inc.
VanPatten, B. 2010. The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill. International Journal of English Studies
VanPatten, B. 2017. While We’re on the Topic: BVP on Language Acquisition and Classroom Practice. While We’re on the Topic. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages
Ward, M. 2017. 2 Science-backed ways reading fiction makes you smarter. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/28/how-reading-fiction-makes-you-smarter.html: CNBC Make it.
Wilhelm, D. 2008. You Gotta Be the Book. New York, New York: Teachers College, Columbia University