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2014-03-02 Steve Gardiner Book Review: The Power of Reading

I spent most of a class period going over how to punctuate dialogue with my sophomore English students. I gave them a sample page with common forms of dialogue. We discussed the placement of the quotation marks, the separation of the quote from the attribution with a comma rather than the period that most want to use. Then I assigned a simple dialogue writing as practice for the original short story the students would write next.

The dialogue practice went well. Several students participated in the discussion, and I felt like we were on track. I assigned the short stories, and when they came in, I was deeply disappointed.


The stories were generally interesting. They created some good plots and characters and I liked that; however, only a handful even came close to handling dialogue in spite of the discussion, sample sentences, and practice writing.


How could so many of them miss so far?


I found the answer in a book called The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (1993, Libraries Unlimited, Englewood, CO) by Stephen Krashen, a professor at the University of Southern California.


Krashen explained the disconnect between direct instruction lessons and application in student writing through what he calls the “complexity theory.” He argues that lessons on vocabulary, spelling, punctuation and other language skills have little or no carryover into writing because the language is so complex that no one can learn all the rules and exceptions one rule at a time. We gain, he says, our language skills in a more general way from repeated contact with those rules as we continuously read throughout our lives.


For example, in vocabulary acquisition, Krashen states,”Vocablulary teaching methods typically focus on teaching simple synonyms, and thus give only part of the meaning of the word, and none of its social meanings or grammatical properties. Intensive methods that aim to give students a thorough knowledge of words are not nearly as efficient as reading in terms of words gained per minute” (p. 15). We learn word meanings 10 times faster during reading than during direct instruction on vocabulary, Krashen notes.


To do this, Krashen recommends what he calls Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). He wrote, “FVR means reading because you want to. For school-age children, FVR means no book report, no questions at the end of the chapter, and no looking up every vocabulary word. FVR means putting down a book you don't like and choosing another one instead. It is the kind of reading highly literate people do obsessively all the time.”


He says that this type of reading is one of the most powerful tools we have available to us as teachers. He acknowledges that FVR is not the only answer to language skills acquisition, but that FVR provides a basis for all the language skills to be learned. He explained that FVR “provides a foundation so that higher levels of proficiency may be reached. When FVR is missing, these advanced levels are extremely difficult to attain.”


After I graded the original short stories from my sophomore English students, I went back through them to see if there were patterns. We do sustained silent reading for 15 minutes at the beginning of class every day so I also have reading records from these same students. The correlation between the students who scored well on the short story writing assignment (including aspects such as vocabulary, punctuation, spelling, and grammar) and those who had the most books listed on their reading records was extremely high.


I expected this, but to see the relationship so clearly in front of me confirmed what I had long believed about FVR or SSR and supported Krashen's thesis completely. The Power of Reading is full of similar insights about the nature of reading and how students learn literacy skills. I found myself reading it and nodding, thinking, “Yes, I have seen that in class.” It is a research book I read with as much enthusiasm as a novel. It is a powerful look at what works in language arts and why.


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