Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How much standardized testing do we need? Probably not much.

Sent to US News, Oct. 28

The sudden realization that there is too much testing going on in the US has led to suggestions that we start all over again, and this time get it right – design "fewer, better tests."  ("Coalition wants new school accountability," Oct. 28).  In doing so, let us consider the research that suggests that teacher evaluation of students (grades) does a better job of evaluating students than standardized testing does: The repeated judgments of professionals who are with students every day is more valid that a test created by distant strangers. Moreover, teacher evaluations are “multiple measures,” are closely aligned to the curriculum, and cover a variety of subjects.
There is evidence supporting this view. Studies show that adding adding SAT scores to high school students grades in college prep courses did not provide much more information than grades alone, which suggests that we may not need standardized tests at all.
If we want tests in order to compare student achievement over time and to compare subgroups of students, we already have an instrument for this, the NAEP.
The NAEP is administered to small groups who each take a portion of the test every few years. Results are extrapolated to estimate how the larger groups would score. Our efforts should be to improve the NAEP, not start all over again, and go through years expensive fine-tuning with new instruments.
We need not test every student in every subject every year. When you get a physical, they don't take all your blood, they only take a sample.
Stephen Krashen

original article: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/10/28/teachers-unions-education-advocacy-groups-call-for-new-accountability-system

Bowen, W., Chingos, M., and McPherson, M. 2009. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America's Universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Geiser, S. and Santelices, M.V., 2007. Validity of high-school grades in predicting student success beyond the freshman year: High-school record vs. standardized tests as indicators of four-year college outcomes. Research and Occasional Papers Series: CSHE 6.07, University of California, Berkeley. http://cshe.berkeley.edu

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The that-which-shall-not-be-named standards and tests

Dolores Umbridge, chair of  a newly formed but unnamed  committee with representatives of the US Department of Education, The Gates Foundation, PARCC, and the Pearson organization, today  announced  spectacular progress in creating new labels for the "that-which-shall-not-be-named" standards and testing program now adopted by most of the United States. 

At a press conference Umbridge assured reporters that regardless of which of the many new terms are adopted by individual states, all versions will remain true to Susan Ohanian's characterization: “a radical untried curriculum overhaul” combined with “nonstop national testing."

Hat-tip: Peggy Robertson

Friday, October 24, 2014

There is no "Percy Jackson" problem

Sent to the New Yorker, Oct 24

There is no "Percy Jackson Problem" (October 22). Decades of research published in scientific journals support Neil Gaiman's position that the "light" reading that young people select on their own is a gateway to heavier reading and more: Those who do more "free voluntary reading" do better on tests of reading comprehension, writing, vocabulary, spelling and grammar, and as they read they select, on their own, more challenging and a wider variety of reading material.  In his book  Scientific Genius Dean Simonton concludes that "omnivorous reading in childhood and adolescence correlates positively with ultimate adult success."

The scientific evidence clearly supports the "so long as they're reading" camp.

Stephen Krashen

original article: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/percy-jackson-problem
some sources:
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Libraries Unlimited and Heinemann (second edition)
Simonton, D. K. 1988. Scientific Genius. New York: Cambridge University Press.

The concrete facts about school performance

Sent to Time Magazine, Oct. 23, 2014.
Re: Taking on Teacher Tenure, Time, November 3, 2014

   "Unassuming" tycoon David Welch is also unformed. He claims he prefers a world of "concrete facts" but still maintains that the American education system is "failing" because of bad teachers who can't be fired. 
   The concrete facts are these: When researchers control for the effects of poverty, American students score near the top of the world on international tests. Our unspectacular (but not horrible) performance on tests is because of our high child poverty rate, about 23%, second highest among 34 economically advanced countries, according to UNICEF. High-scoring countries such as Finland have a child poverty rate of about 5%.
   Poverty means, among other things,  poor nutrition, lack of health care, and little access to books. All of these have powerful negative effects on school performance. The best teaching in the world has little effect when students are hungry, ill, and have little or nothing to read.
   Our main problem is not teaching quality, unions, or the rules for due process. The main problem is poverty.

Stephen Krashen


Control for poverty: Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13; Bracey, G. 2009. The Bracey Report on the Condition of Public Education. Boulder and Tempe: Education and the Public Interest Center & Education Policy Research Unit. http://epicpolicy.org/publication/Bracey-Report. Berliner, D. 2011. The Context for Interpreting PISA Results in the USA: Negativism, Chauvinism, Misunderstanding, and the Potential to Distort the Educational Systems of Nations. In Pereyra, M., Kottoff, H-G., & Cowan, R. (Eds.). PISA under examination: Changing knowledge, changing tests, and changing schools. Amsterdam: Sense Publishers. Tienken, C. 2010. Common core state standards: I wonder? Kappa Delta Phi Record 47 (1): 14-17. Carnoy, M and Rothstein, R. 2013, What Do International Tests Really Show Us about U.S. Student Performance. Washington DC: Economic Policy Institute. 2012. http://www.epi.org/).

Child Poverty: UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre 2012, ‘Measuring Child Poverty: New league tables of child poverty in the world’s rich countries’, Innocenti Report Card 10, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Arne's sudden interest in improving testing

            Arne Duncan's support of reducing school tests
Re: “A test for school tests,” Oct. 21 Arne Duncan column.
Published in the Denver Post, Oct 24. 2014: http://blogs.denverpost.com/eletters/2014/10/23/arne-duncans-support-reducing-school-tests/34196/

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been an enthusiastic supporter of the common core testing program, accurately described as "nonstop testing" by education expert Susan Ohanian.  The common core imposes more testing on our children than has ever been seen on our planet, and no attempt was made to determine if the new tests result in higher student achievement.

Now Duncan says he supports a movement to eliminate redundant and inappropriate tests.  This should have been done using small-scale studies before the tests were forced on millions of children. 

Stephen Krashen

original article: http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_26762648/test-tests?source=infinite
Arne Duncan: A test for school tests
By Arne Duncan

As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.
The standardized tests my kids take are one gauge on the dashboard, but parents and educators know that tests are not the only indicator.
Last week, state education chiefs and district superintendents announced a plan to examine their assessment systems, ensure that assessments are high-quality and cut back testing that doesn't meet that bar or is redundant. I welcome that important step.
Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling. A focus on measuring student learning has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students, ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps.
However, many have expressed concern about low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools, causing undue stress.
Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.
To be clear: I strongly believe in using high-quality assessments, including annual tests, as one (but only one) part of how adults improve instruction and hold themselves responsible for students' progress. With my own kids, I know parent-teacher conferences, grades and other feedback round out the picture of whether they're on track.
After a generation of watching other nations surpass ours educationally, the United States is putting the building blocks in place for schools that will once again lead the world. But for this effort to pay off, political leaders must be both strong and flexible in support of the nation's educators.
America's schools are changing because our world is changing. Success in today's world requires critical thinking, adaptability, collaboration, problem solving and creativity — skills that go beyond the basics for which schools were designed in the past. But in recent decades, other countries have retooled their schools faster than we have.
We must do better. A great education isn't just what every parent wants for his or her child; it's a necessity for security in a globally competitive economy.
The good news is that, thanks to the hard work of educators, students and communities, America's schools have made historic achievements in recent years. The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an all-time high, and the places most committed to bold change have made major progress on the nation's report card. Since 2000, high school dropout rates have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for African Americans. College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has surged.
Perhaps even more important, educators are taking fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States' leadership in education. Throughout the country, students are being taught to higher standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical thinking skills. Last year, nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and Democrats, increased funding for early learning.
Yet change this big is always hard, and political leaders — myself included — must provide support and make course corrections where needed. We are asking a great deal of our educators and students. Despite their hard work, and a growing embrace of many of these changes, one topic — standardized testing — sometimes diverts energy from this ambitious set of changes.
Fortunately, states and districts are taking on this challenge — including places such as Rhode Island and New York state; St. Paul, Minn.; Nashville; and the District of Columbia, where leaders are already taking actions to limit testing. As they and others move forward, I look forward to highlighting progress others can learn from.
States are also leading the way on improving test quality, building assessments that move beyond bubble tests and measure critical thinking skills and writing; the Education Department has provided $360 million to two consortia of states to support that work. And to reduce stress on teachers during this year of transition, my department in August offered states new flexibility on connecting teacher evaluation to test results.
It's vital that political leaders stand behind changes that will prepare our young people for success in the real world — changes that educators have worked so hard to get underway. We must also stand behind states that have increased standards for learning, and where adults are holding themselves responsible for the progress of all students. We must stand strong for responsible and equitable school funding. We must stand strong for making both preschool and college accessible to all.
And we must stand strong in the knowledge — not the belief but the knowledge — that great schools make a difference in the lives of all children.
Arne Duncan is U.S. secretary of education.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Conjecture on Accent (1997)

A Conjecture on Accent in a Second Language 
Stephen Krashen
In: Z. Lengyel, J. Navracsics, and O. Simon (Eds.) 1997. Applied Linguistic Studies in Central Europe, vol 1. Department of Applied Linguistics, University of Veszprem, Hungary.

Scientists use the term "conjecture" when their generalization is based on such flimsy evidence that it does not deserve the label "hypothesis." This is such a case. My conjecture is that accurate pronunciation in a second language, even in adults, is acquired rapidly and very well. We simply do not use our best accents because we feel silly.

Restated in more respectable terms, we have an "output filter," a block that keeps us from doing our best, from "performing our competence." This block is powerful and it is difficulty, maybe impossible, to lower or weaken it with conscious effort. (The output filter differs from the affective, or input filter. The affective filter prevents input from reaching the language acquisition device. The output filter prevents us from using what we have acquired.)

Here is the flimsy evidence. Much of it is based on my own experience, but I suspect, after presenting these ideas to a number of audiences and getting reactions, that others have had similar experiences.

1. Variability: Our accents in second languages vary, depending on how we feel. We are influenced by the situation, especially whether we feel we are being evaluated. When I speak French to someone who doesn’t speak English (or at least not very well), where there is no audience, and I am comfortable with that person, I must say that my accent is not bad. On other occasions I have been told that I speak French without a traced of a French accent.

Here is an example of the latter, an experience I hope some readers can identify with. I was visiting Ottawa in the early 1980’s, meeting with former colleagues, discussing, in French, our work on sheltered subject matter teaching which had begun when I worked there a few years before. I was very comfortable with the group I was talking with; they included a close friend and my former French teacher. I was doing very well. While I was at the chalkboard, making a point, a stranger entered the room. My mind raced: This man is probably a native speaker of French, or at least much better than I am, and he probably thinks my French is terrible. My accent and fluency deteriorated immediately and involuntarily. In other words, my output filter went up.

One of the most accomplished polyglots in the world, Dr. Kato Lomb of Hungary, reports that she has had similar experiences. Now 88, Dr. Lomb has acquired 17 languages and is now working on Hebrew. I visited Dr. Lomb several times recently, and we spoke English (her English is excellent). On one visit, my wife and daughter came with me.  Dr. Lomb remarked to me that she felt her accent in English had been better when we were alone. She explained that she felt quite comfortable with my wife and daughter, but the fact that she did not know them as well as she knew me caused a small amount of self- consciousness and hurt her performance. Dr. Lomb is an enormously successful language acquirer and an experienced interpreter; if she feels the effects of the output filter, we can be sure others do.

2. Our ability to imitate other dialects of our first language, as well as foreign accents. Given sufficient input, we can all do these things to at least some extent. The point is that we do not, because we would feel uncomfortable doing so. The output filter holds us back.

I can imitate, to some extent, a British accent. I have acquired the rules for doing so subconsciously, and have no idea what kind of articulatory adjustments I am making when I do it. I do not, however, use a British accent when speaking to someone from London. My perception is that it would be rude, and even ridiculing, as if I were making fun of his speech, or as if I were representing myself as someone I am not.

Similarly, we can imitate foreign accents in our first language. Obviously, we do not do this in ordinary conversation. It would, we feel, be perceived as rude.
There are domains in which the use of these accents is permitted, in plays and jokes, for example. Even in these situations, however, their use is sensitive. In plays, dialects must be rendered very accurately, and in jokes their use can be demeaning.
Our ability, yet reluctance to use accents and dialects again shows that we do not perform our competence fully and that there are powerful affective forces holding us back.

3. The alcohol study. Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Brannon, Dull, and Scovel (1972) asked subjects to drink different amounts of alcohol after eating a candy bar. Not unexpectedly, they reported that subjects’ short-term memory decreased with greater consumption. Accent in a foreign language, however, was best after subjects drank 1.5 ounces of bourbon. It was less accurate with both less and more than this amount of alcohol. There was, in other words, an optimal point of inebriation. As most of us know, alcohol has the effect of lowering inhibitions. My interpretation of these results is that alcohol lowers the output filter, at least temporarily. Too much alcohol, however, disturbs control of the speech apparatus.

4. Stevick’s example. Stevick (1980) describes a Swahili class he taught at the Foreign Service Institute that had three students in it. One was at a significantly higher level than the others. When the top student had to drop the class, the number two student suddenly showed a dramatic improvement. My conjecture is that his output filter lowered, freed from the inhibiting influence of the better student.


To understand what factors are at work here, we need to consider what language is for. Sociolinguists tell us that language has two functions: To communicate and to mark the speaker as a member of a social group. A part of language that plays a major role in marking us as members of a social group is accent. Accent has little to do with communication; we can communicate quite well in another language having acquired only some of the sound system. Accent tells the hearer who you are, where you are from, in some cases your social class, and in other cases your values. When we identify with the members of a group, we talk the way they do.

Beebe’s review (Beebe, 1985) confirms this. We do not always imitate the speech we hear the most. Children usually talk the way their peers talk, not the way their parents or teachers talk. (In some cases, children do talk like their parents; these children identify with adult values, rather than those of other children, confirming that it is group membership that counts.)

My conjecture is that accent is acquired rapidly but is not performed, because we do not feel like members of the group that uses it; we are not members of the club (Smith, 1988). Either we do not wish to be members or have not been invited to be members. And even after we feel we are at least partly in the group, we can feel suddenly excluded, resulting in a stronger output filter.

If this conjecture is correct, it has interesting implications for pedagogy. Despite the numerous "accent improvement" courses available, there is no evidence that second language accent can be permanently improved by direct instruction. Even if we could improve accent through instruction, however, the effect might be harmful. Getting people to talk like members of groups they do not belong to may be similar to convincing someone to wear inappropriate clothing - a tuxedo at an informal lunch or a jogging suit at a formal dinner.

This conjecture does not suggest that all those with accents in their second language who live in the country where the language is spoken have failed to become members of society. In fact, it suggests the contrary. Most second language acquirers have good accents. Listen to them carefully. They are rarely perfect if they began the second language as adults, but they typically acquire an impressive amount of the sound system. They certainly do not speak the second language using only the sound system of their first language. The problem is that we usually make "all or nothing" judgments with respect to accent. Either it is native-like or "accented." In reality, many second language acquirers acquire substantial amounts of the second language accent. In addition, it is likely that we hear them under less than optimal affective conditions: with lower output filters, they may sound even better.

If this conjecture is correct, another conclusion we can draw is that only our "best" accents, produced under optimal conditions, should be considered when judging accent quality or when discussing the limits of adult acquisition of pronunciation.

Beebe, L. 1985. Input: Choosing the right stuff. In Gass, S. and Madden. C. (Eds.) Input in Second Language Acquisition. New York: Newbury House. pp. 404-414.
Guiora, A., Beit-Hallahmi, B., Brannon, R., Dull, C. and Scovel, T. 1972. The effects of experimentally induced changes in ego status on pronunciation ability in a second language. Comprehensive Psychiatry 13: 421-428.
Smith, F. 1988. Joining the Literacy Club. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Stevick, E. 1980. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. New York: Newbury House.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The biggest scam of all time

Sent to The Atlantic (October 18), in response to their “big question” column soliciting opinions about “The Greatest Scam of All Time.”  Nominations included Bitcoin, psychics, and Madoff. Here is my suggestion.

Just in case discussion of this “big question” (October, 2014) is not closed, I nominate The Common Core State Standards (abbreviation: CC$$). The CC$$ attempts to solve a problem that does not exist, our so-called failing schools, by imposing what education expert Susan Ohanian describes as “a radical untried curriculum overhaul” and “nonstop national testing."

The major problem in American education is not teaching quality, not a lack of standards or tests, but poverty: The US now ranks 34th in the world out of 35 economically developed countries in child poverty: when researchers control for the effect of poverty, US international test scores are at the top of the world, a clear demonstration that there is nothing seriously wrong with our teachers or our standards. Children of poverty do poorly in school because of the impact of poverty: Poor nutrition, poor health care, and lack of access to books, among other things.

The obvious first step is to improve nutrition through school food programs, improve health care through investing more in school nurses, and improving access to books through investing in school libraries.

Instead, the US government is investing billions in a tougher, more "rigorous" curriculum that has never been field tested for validity (and there are no plans to do so),  and instituting an astonishing amount of testing, more than we have ever seen on this planet.

The core of the scam is the requirement that all tests be delivered online. This means billions to make sure all students are connected to the internet with up-to-date computers, billions for constant upgrading and billions for  replacement of obsolete equipment, because of never-ending new technologies. There is no evidence, and no plans to gather evidence, showing that this brave new testing will help children. In fact, there is evidence that increasing testing does not increase school achievement.

The computer companies and publishers selling us the common core take no risk: taxpayers pay for everything. Also, the companies can't lose: If student achievement declines, teachers will be blamed, and we will be told that we need even tougher standards and more and higher-tech tests. The scam will continue indefinitely.

Stephen Krashen

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Remarks on Language Acquisition and Literacy

Remarks on Language Acquisition and Literacy: Language Acquisition and Teaching, Free Reading,  "Test-Prep" and its Consequences, The Use of the First Language, Writing, and the Great Native Speaker Teacher Debate

Stephen Krashen
Prepared for the Roundtable Discussion on English Teaching in Hong Kong. Bring Me a Book, Hong Kong, October 13, 2014

Some Fundamentals

I present first what I consider to be the fundamentals of both language acquisition and literacy development. (What follows in this section is presented in more detail in a number of publications, i.e. Krashen, 1981, 1982, 1985, 2003).

Language and literacy can be"acquired" or "learned." "Acquisition" occurs subconsciously: While it is happening, you are not aware it is happening, and after it has happemed, the knowledge is represented subconsiously in your brain. In contrast, "learning" is conscious; it is "knowing about" the language. When we talk about "rules" and "grammar" we are usually talking about "Learning."

Acquired competence plays a much larger role in language use than learned competence does. Acquired competence provides our fluency and nearly all of our accuracy when we speak or write in a second language. Learned competence makes only a small contribution to our grammatical accuracy, and only when stringent conditions are met: We must consciously know the rule, which is daunting considering the complexity of the grammar of any language, we must have time to apply the rule, which is not usually available in conversation, and we must be thinking about correctness, or focussed on form.

This is not to say that grammar teaching is bad and must be forbidden: The point is that it is limited: Only a small part of the grammatical system of any language can be consciously learned, it takes time and effort to retrieve grammatical rules from our memory and apply them, and this can only happen when we are thinking about formal correctness. These severe conditions are met on grammar tests, and it is here where see clear evidence of the use of consciously learned rules (Krashen, 1981). Consciously learned rules are also of some help in editing, the final stage of the composing process.

Acquisition of language and literacy takes place in only one way: When we understand what we hear and read, that is, when we understand the message. "Learning" takes place when we consciously study the rules of a language, or figure them out, and they become "automatic" when we use them repeatedly in speech or writing,  Error correction, it is hypothesized, helps us arrive at the right version of our consciously learned rules. Error correciton only shows an effect when the conditions for the use of conscious grammar are met, and the effect is typically weak, fragile, and often not even present at all (Truscott, 1996, 2005, 2008), confirming the limitations of grammar learning.

An important corrollary of the Comprehension Hypothesis is that we do not acquire language when we produce it, only when we understand it. The ability to speak is the result of language acquisition, not the cause (see also remarks on writing, below). Another corrollary is the claim that when acquirers obtain sufficient comprehensible input, all the grammatical structures they are ready to acquire are automatically present in the input (see especially Krashen, 2013a).

For acquisition to happen, we must pay attention to what we read or what is said to us. For this to happen, the input must be interesting to us. It may be the case that optimal input is "compelling," so interesting that we are not aware of what grammatical forms are being used in the input or sometimes what language we are listening to or reading. This happens in enjoyable conversations and when we are "lost in a book" or movie. Language acquisition and literay development is the unexpected and sometimes even unrecognized by-product of compelling comprehensible input (Krashen, 2011a).


A number of studies have shown that second and foreign language classes based on the  Comprehension Hypothesis are more effective than those based on conscious learning (Krashen, 1982, 1991, 2003, 2014).  These classes do not force students to speak before they feel ready to speak, and errors are not corrected.

An early compehension-based method was Total Physical Response (TPR), developed by James Asher, which relied largly on teachers giving students commands and the students obeying the commands, which were made comprehensible by the teachers' movements (e.g. Asher, 1966, 1969). This was followed by the Natural Approach, developed by Tracy Terrell, which encorporated TPR as well as discussions, games, and tasks (Krashen and Terrell, 1983).

A recently developed comprehension-based method is Teaching Proficiency Through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS), developed by Blane Ray. TPRS, as the name indicates, includes reading and the co-creation of stories/drama involving the teacher and the students.

Focal Skills, as the name implies, focuses on one component at a time (eg Listening and then Reading) with an emphasis on comprehensible input. Focal Skills was developed by Ashley Hastings.

As noted earlier, these methods have passed the empirical test: students in these classes outperform those in traditional classes on a variety of tests that involve communication, and do as well or better on traditional grammar tests. Most important, when language study is voluntary, students in comprehension-based classes are also are more likely to continue with language classes the next term.

Comprehension-based language classes at the intermediate level are content-based, or "sheltered." In sheltered classes, second language acquirers study content. If there is a test or project required, it is based on the content of the class. When compared to intermediate foreign language classes, students in sheltered classes acquire as much or more language, and a great deal of subject matter. They also make progress acquiring "academic language" (Krashen, 1991, Dupuy, 2000).  I need to point out that sheltered subject matter teaching is not the same thing as the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocal, or SIOP model (Krashen, 2013b).
Free voluntary reading

By far the most powerful tool we have in language and literacy development is free voluntary reading, reading because you want to. Study after study confirms that free voluntary reading is the source of our reading ability, writing style, vocabulary, spelling, and the ability to handle complex grammatical constructions (Krashen, 2004; 2011b).  Free voluntary reading works because it is comprehensible input, and, very often, it is compelling.

Not only do readers develop more competence in literacy, they also know more: Those who read more know more about literature (Ravitch and Finn, 1987; West, Stanovich, and Mitchell, 1983), about science and social studies (Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993), and even have more “practical knowledge” (Stanovich and Cunningham, 1993). Much of this occurs when readers are reading what some consider to be "light" reading, largely fiction.

Research demonstrating the value of free voluntary reading includes studies of Sustained Silent Reading (SSR), a program in which about ten to fifteen minutes each day is taken from the language class each day, and students simply read whatever they want to read. There is no accountability in the form of tests or book reports, readers do not have to finish every book they start, and do not have to even remember to bring their own book each time: SSR programs also include access to classroom and school libraries.

SSR studies using English have been done with first and second languages, with children, teenagers and older readers, with consistently positive results (Krashen, 2004, 2011; Pilgreen, 2000). For rccent evidence showing that in-school self-selected reading works for Chinese as well, see Tse, Xiao, Ko, Lam, Hui, and Ng (in press). Krashen (2011c) discusses some current conerns about sustained silent reading, e.g. whether students are really reading during SSR or just doing sustained silent page-turning, as some have claimed.

Case histories confirm the value of free reading. This one shows the effect of compelling reading on first language literay development:

Fink (1996) studied twelve people, English speakers in the US, who had been classified as dyslexic when they were young. Eleven learned to read between ages ten and twelve and one did not learn to read until grade 12. All learned to read quite well. In fact, nine published creative or scholarly works and one won a Nobel Prize.

Compelling comprehensible reading was the path for all of them: “As children, each had a passionate personal interest, a burning desire to know more about a discipline that required reading. Spurred by this passionate interest, all read voraciously, seeking and reading everything they could get their hands on about a single intriguing topic" (pp. 274-275). 

Their goal, I suggest, was not to "learn to read." Their goal was to find out more about something that was interesting to them.

The Book Whisperer

A promising way of combing sheltered subject matter teaching and free reading is to offer sheltered literature classes. Donalyn Miller (2009) has developed an excellent method that she uses in classes for native speakers that can easily be applied to second and foreign language classes. Students are required to read works in a variety of genres, and there is class discussion of the structure of genre. But all reading is self-selected. If the assignment is to read two biographies, a student can select ANY two, even Lady Gaga and Tiger Woods. This insures reading that is compelling to each student, and insures that discussions will be lively and insightful. Miller reports that her middle school students are required to read about 40 books during the school year in this kind of program, and that those who read the 40 books always read more.

Some Issues in Free Voluntary Reading

Isn't reading in decline?

We always hear that "nobody likes to read these days" and there are regular warnings from the media that reading is in a decline. A look at the evidence shows this is not true at all (Krashen, 2011d). If it is not true, why is this belief so common? Schatz, Panko, Pierce, and Krashen (2010) asked fourth and fifth graders in the US how much they liked to read (a lot, kind of, not very much) and asked them how much their friends and classmates liked to read. The students consistently reported that they liked to read more than both other groups. This, of course, cannot be true in the case of classmates because in the studies all members of the same class took the survey.

Our (Lee, Lao and Krashen, forthcoming) study found identical results for seventh graders in Hefei, China.  Our conclusion: We underestmate how much others like to read and how much they read because we don't see it happening. Reading is usually a private activity.

Will they stick with easy reading?

There is a fear that children, if allowed to select their own reading, will stick with easy books and they will never make progress in literacy development. In fact, the US Common Core language arts standards requires that children read at their reading level or above, never below (Krashen, 2013c). We (Krashen, Lee and Lao, forthcoming) obtained titles and samples of books that children took out of the library at an elementary school in Hefei, and asked both teachers and some students to rate the books in terms of difficulty of language and content. The judges agreed: There is of course variation, but children tend to choose harder and more complex books as they matured.  They don't stick to easy reading.  

The Bridge Hypothesis

Self-selected free voluntary reading alone will generally not bring readers to the highest levels of literacy. It serves as a bridge, building the competence, both linguistic and cognitive, that will make very demanding reading more comprehensible.  Simonton's findings confirm this: Simonton (1988) concluded that "omnivorous reading in childhood and adolescence correlates positively with ultimate adult success." (p. 11).

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) is a good example. Faraday came from a poor family, left school before he was 13, and worked for seven years as an apprentice bookbinder. This meant he had lots of access to books. His employer “was a sympathetic and helpful individual who did much to encourage his apprentices’ interests” (Howe, 1999 p. 266). According to Howe, Faraday “read voraciously” and also attended lectures and classes on his own.
Faraday clearly never studied, never prepared for examinations. He did a great deal of wide reading when he was a teen-ager, including The Arabian Nights and novels. Howe speculates that Faraday's interest in science grew gradually, becoming firm when he was around 18 (p. 88).
Working as an assistant to a famous chemist, Humphrey Davy, Faraday immediately took advantage of the facilities available to him and "plunged into research of his own" (Howe, p. 102) at age 21, and published his first paper at age 25, leading to his stunning career as one of the greatest scientists of all time.
Thus, compelling self-selected reading, in addition to providing us with literacy and knowledge, helps us discover our interests and our strengths.
For reading to happen, we must have access to books. Given access to interesting reading and time to read, nearly all young people will read (Krashen, 2004), but without access, no reading will take place.
A major source of reading material is the library – and for those living in poverty, it is often the only source. There is an impressive body of research showing that access to a quality school library results in better literacy development (especially the work of Keith Curry Lance, available online at http://www.lrs.org/impact.php).
We (Krashen, Lee, and McQuillan, 2012) analyzed of data from the PIRLS examination, a reading test given to 10 year-old children in over 40 countries in their own language. We found that the strongest predictor of reading achievement was SES, socio-economic class, defined here as a combination of education, life expectancy and wealth in each country. In agreement with many other studies, we found that lower SES meant lower performance.
Access to a school library with at least 500 books was the second strongest predictor of reading achievement. As was the case in another study (Achterman, 2008) the library predictor was nearly as strong a positive predictor as social class was a negative predictor, which suggests that access to books via a library can balance the negative effect of poverty.
The predictor "hours per week devoted to reading instruction" did not do well.  In fact, according to our analysis, the effect of instruction was modest and negative, that is, more instruction tended to be related to lower performance on the reading test. It may be the case that a little reading instruction is beneficial, but after a point it is ineffective and counterproductive.
It makes sense to predict that libraries will have their strongest impact in less SES advanced countries, situations in which children have few or no other sources of books. Elley (1992) has reported just that (p. 67).
A matter of concern.
PIRLS also supplies data on what percentage of ten year-olds and their parents like to read. It can be argued that this kind of data is the most important: If young people like to read, and they have access to books and time to read, they will do well only any examination, and continue to read and grow in language and literacy for years after our programs end. Data from some high SES countries confirms this. Ten year olds in the countries listed in table 1 also have high PIRLS scores.
Table 1: High SES, High PIRLS, and they like to read
n = 7
parent likes
child likes
New Zealand
.91 (.01)
43.7 (5.2)
33 (2.5)
Data from: Mullis, Martin, Foy, and Drucker, 2012.

We have noted, however, that in some places, SES and PIRLS scores are high, but neither children nor their parents say they like to read (Loh and Krashen, forthcoming). We call this group the "test-prep" group, for reasons that will become clear below.
Table 3: The Test-Prep group
n = 4
parent likes
child likes
Hong Kong
.88 (.01)
19 (4.4)
22.3 (.96)
Data from: Mullis, Martin, Foy, and Drucker, 2012.
Table 3 compares the groups in tables 1 and 2 with overall results from 41 countries:
Table 3: Comparisons
parent likes
child likes

.91 (.01)
43.7 (5.2)
33 (2.5)
538.4 (9.7)

Test Prep
.88  (.01)
19 (4.4)
22.3 (.96)
558 (13.7)

.83 (.07)
31.2 (11.3)
28.1 (6.5)
509.7 (56)

Data from: Mullis, Martin, Foy, and Drucker, 2012.
For the countries in table 2, children are not enthusiastic about reading but score well on the PIRLS anyway.  It seems that they have taken an alternate route to a high score on PIRLS, known as test-preparation, classtime dedicated to making students familiar with the exam, as well as teaching test-taking strategies, techniques that will result in higher scores but not because of better reading ability, e.g. eliminating obvious distractors on multiple-choice tests, reading the question before reading the passage, etc.. Test-preparation alone, however, is probably not enough to achieve the high scores these students get. Most likely these students are also fed a heavy dose of assigned, difficult reading.
If this analysis is correct, children in the "test-prep" areas pay a heavy price for their high PIRLS scores. The lack of interest in reading of their parents suggests that test-prep plus uninteresting reading can result in a permanent lack of interest in reading, which has very negative consequences.
Bilingual education: The use of the first language
Bilingual education is hotly debated all over the world. My interpretation is that it is a very good thing. Effective bilingual programs use the child's first language in ways that accelerate second language development. This can happen in two ways:
-       A good education in the child's first language means more subject matter knowledge and more knowledge of the world, which means that what the child reads and hears is more comprehensible.
-       Developing literacy in the child's first language is a short-cut to developing literacy in the second language: If we learn to read by understanding text, as proposed by Goodman (Flurkey and Xu, 2003) and Smith (2004), a concept related to the Comprehension Hypothesis, it is easier to learn to read in a language you already know: It is more comprehensible. The transfer of reading ability across languages occurs even when the writing sytems are very different (Cummins, 1991; Krashen, 1996): Once you have learned to read in any language, you have learned to read. Correlations between reading scores in the first and second language are generally positive, given the chance to acquire the second language (e.g. Loh and Tse, 2009).
Good bilingual programs provide cmprehensible subject matter instruction without translation in the first language, develop literacy in the first language, and provide second language classes based on the comprehension approach. Scientific studies done in the US consistently show that language minority students in well-designed bilingual programs outperform similar students enrolled in English-only programs on tests of English reading (McField and McField, 2014), and similar results have been obtained from studies done in other countries with other languages (Krashen, 1999; Lao and Krashen, 1998).

Continuing development of the first language

Early use of the first language in school will, as discussed just above, lead to better acquisition of the second language. There are good arguments for continuing first language development to high levels: Better communication with the older generation, which means access to wisdom not available elsewhere, practical, economic advantages, and greater cognitive development (Krashen, Tse, and McQuillan, 1998).

There is, in fact, recent research showing that regular use more than one language in daily life can slow the onset of dementia (Bialystok, Craik and Freedman,  2007). Bialystok, Craik, Klein, and Viswanathan (2004) explain why: they found that older bilinguals show less of a decline with age than monolinguals in tasks that require keeping information in mind and ignoring distractors. Apparently, the regular use of two languages helps maintain this ability.

What about writing?

Despite assertions that we that we “learn to write by writing,” the research is consistent with the view that writing itself does not contribute directly to language acquisition.  The competence required to write with an effective and acceptable writing style comes from reading, as does nearly all our mastery of the "conventions of writing" (Krashen, 2004, Lee 2005).

But writing, in addition to communicating our ideas, makes profound contributions. Writing is a powerful means of helping us solve problems: Writing, in other words, makes us smarter.

The field of language arts has made great progress in the last few decades in revealing strategies good writers use to do this, i.e. the composing process (Krashen, 2014; Lee and Krashen, 2003).  An example is revision: Good writers realize that as they go from draft to draft, they come up with better and clearer ideas.  As Peter Elbow has noted, in writing, "Meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with" (Elbow, 1973, p. 15).

Thus, acquisition of the special language of writing comes from reading, but our ability to use writing to solve problems comes from knowledge of the composing process. 

A controversy that is easily settled: Native speaker teachers

The requirements

I think it is obvious that a competent second language teacher should meet the following requirements:
1.    a knowledge of how language is acquired.
2.    a knowledge of pedagogy (e.g. if the Comprehension Hypothesis is correct, this means familiarity with TPRS, sheltered subject matter teaching, popular literature of interest to second language students)
3.    a high level of competence in the second language.

The point of stating these three requirements is that number 3 alone is not enough. This runs counter to the practice in some countries of hiring native speakers just because they are native speakers.

A misunderstanding over "immersion"

I tried to make the three points presented above in a letter published in the South China Morning Post (June 19, 2014), in which I stated:  "Local teachers who can help students find comprehensible and interesting listening and reading material, and who can teach them about the process of second language acquisition are far preferable to native speakers whose only advantage is an accent."

In my view, my letter should have been greeted warmly by native speakers of English teaching in Hong Kong (the NET group). It highlighted the necessity of understanding language acquisition and pedagogy, of professionalism, not just being a native speaker.

Instead, the letter resulted in a storm of protest from native speaker English teachers in Hong Kong, accusing me of seeking to "end the NET scheme."

The problem, in my opinion, was the headline/leader to my letter, which was written by the editorial staff of the newspaper: Students need immersion, not NET (Native English Teachers).  The headline was wrong on two counts:
1.    "Immersion" is an ambiguous word with two, totally opposite meanings: For language education professionals, it means content-based or sheltered subject matter teaching, discussed earlier, and is consistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis. But for civilians, non language-educators, it means "submersion," doing nothing, simply plunging the language acquirer into a second language environment full of mostly incomprehensible input.  This is, of course, inconsistent with the Comprehension Hypothesis. I suggest that professionals stop using this term.
2.    I did not say "not NET." I said that being a native speaker of English alone is not enough. The other two requirements are very important. In a subsequent letter (July 5, 2014) I stated: "we should not prefer native speakers only because they are native speakers.  A qualified local English teacher who understands pedagogy is preferable to a non-qualified native speaker." I also pointed out the confusion caused by the headline. But the headline to this letter was also confusing: "Qualified local teachers preferable." I asked the editor to change this to "Qualified local teachers preferable to unqualifed native speakers of English." The editor declined to make this change.
All things equal, should we prefer a native speaker because of accent? Is having a native accent really an advantage?  I think not, if the local teacher speaks English extremely well.
In fact, it is not clear that students automatically pick up the accent of their teacher: sociolinguistic studies indicate that we get our accents from our peers, not our teachers. Our accents represent the "club" we have joined or want to join  (Beebe, 1985).  Models other than the teacher may be members of the group the student wants to be associated with.


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