Hands-down reading is one of the most powerful tools for facilitating acquisition of vocabulary–whether it is vocabulary from your first, second or third language. Most educators acknowledge the power of reading to enhance one’s first (already-established) language (i.e.: expand vocabulary, develop writing skills and improve spelling), but many overlook the power of reading for facilitating acquisition of a second language (L2), particularly as it pertains to novice-level learners who have not yet developed strong listening comprehension skills.

Reading in and of itself is a language skill; it is simply oral language in a written format. Comprehension of a written text is dependent upon language development–listening comprehension in particular. Although oral/aural language and reading acquisition are linked, they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to have acute listening comprehension skills and minimal to no reading comprehension or literacy skills. The opposite, however, is not possible. One cannot comprehend written text without also having a minimal level of comprehension of spoken language.

If novice-level language learners have minimal listening comprehension skills, it may not seem plausible that that they would be able to successfully decode a text in L2 (recognize that each group of letters represents a specific spoken word) and derive meaning from it. Without meaning, there is no comprehension and without comprehension (or comprehended input), second language acquisition (SLA) is not possible. Comprehensible input (CI) is a critical element for second language acquisition. Not a single research study has ever unsubstantiated the claim that for SLA to take place, an extraordinary amount of CI must be present. How then is it possible for a novice-level language learner with minimal listening comprehension skills to acquire language from reading?  

The answer is quite simple: Comprehension-based (CB) readers. Comprehension-based readers have been transformative in helping language educators provide the right conditions for SLA. Vastly different from traditional texts/novellas, comprehension-based readers are strategically written with an exceptionally low unique word count and an unusually high frequency factor (the number of times core words and phrases are repeated within a text), which makes them highly comprehensible–even to novice-level learners and/or weak readers. Each story is strategically woven together using very few unique words and numerous cognates (words that are similar in two languages). They provide a powerful context in a rich tapestry of comprehensible language.

The goal of every CB reader is to mesmerize learners, lulling them into a story-world that inconspicuously provides repeated exposure to high-frequency words/phrases. SLA takes place through repeated exposure to comprehended linguistic data (words and phrases). Each encounter with a word or phrase–whether in oral or written language–initially results in processing for meaning and the development of mental representation. Mental representation is what language looks like in one’s mind. Words and phrases may have specific meanings/definitions, yet humans rarely have definitions readily available. They simply know what words mean based on the mental representation that they have implicitly developed in their linguistic system. Take the word ‘circle,’ for example. Everyone knows what a circle is, but very few people can easily articulate a formal definition. That’s because we have a mental representation of what a circle is, not a formal definition. “The mental representation of language in a speaker’s mind/brain consists of abstract properties of language that exist outside the speaker’s ability to describe.” (B. VanPatten, The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill)

Dr. Bill VanPatten, a leading expert on SLA processes, has written 120+ articles and at least a dozen books on the topic of language acquisition and the implications for classroom practices. In his newest book ‘While We’re on the Topic,’ (a must-read published by and available from ACTFL), Dr. VanPatten describes language and mental representation as follows: Language is an abstract, implicit, and complex mental representation. Language as mental representation is too abstract and complex to teach and learn explicitly [consciously]; it cannot be taught and learned explicitly, as happens with regular “subject matter. ”  

The implication for language learners and teachers is that memorization, conjugation and examination do not result in fluency! To develop mental representation (language), one must be in the language and understand messages. Just as it is impossible to learn to swim without being in water, it is impossible to acquire language (develop communicative competence) without being in the language. Comprehension-based readers provide a portal to be in the language in a compelling, contextualized and highly comprehensible format that is conducive to language acquisition.

In spite of being written in easy-to-understand language, comprehension-based readers feel like authentic literary works. They easily engage learners due to their comprehensible and compelling nature and inherently carry readers into a state of ‘flow.’ Flow, also known as ‘the zone,’ is a state of consciousness in which one is fully immersed in performing an activity with energized focus, full engagement, and complete enjoyment. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss of one’s sense of space and time. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an “optimal experience” is one that is genuinely satisfying and results in lasting enjoyment. A large-scale study in Germany revealed that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claim to have, while the opposite trend was found for watching television.

Dr. Stephen Krashen referenced flow and the pleasure one derives from reading in his paper:  ‘The Compelling (not Just Interesting) Input Hypothesis.’ [Compelling input is] “input that is so interesting you forget that it is in another language. It means you are in a state of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In flow, the concerns of everyday life and even the sense of self disappear – our sense of time is altered and nothing but the activity itself seems to matter. Flow occurs during reading when readers are “lost in the book” (Nell, 1988) or in the “Reading Zone” (Atwell, 2007).”

Check back next Tuesday for the conclusion of this article!


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


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