Monday, September 30, 2013

The (limited) impact of heavy phonics instruction

Published in The Australian, October 1, 2013 as "Foster Love of Reading"

In "Bad teaching kills reading skills," (Sept. 30) Jennifer Buckingham claims that failing to include "explicit, systematic and structured" phonics is bad teaching. This means phonics instruction that teaches all students all the major rules of phonics in a strict order.

Published scientific studies show that students who have experienced intensive systematic structured phonics do better only on tests in which they have to pronounce lists of words presented in isolation. This kind of heavy phonics instruction has only a microscopic influence on tests in which children have to understand what they read -- tests of reading comprehension given after first grade.

Study after study has shown that performance on tests of reading comprehension is heavily influenced by the amount of self-selected free voluntary reading that children do, not whether they have had explicit, systematic and structured phonics.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

Brian Cambourne
Associate Professor 
Principal Fellow

Faculty of Education

University of Wollongong

Letter published:

Some Sources (not published with the letter)

Definition of explicit, systematic and structured phonics:
Ehri, C.L., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., & Willows, D.M. (2001). Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 71, (3) 393-447.

Limited impact of phonics:
Garan, E. (2001). Beyond the smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on phonics. Phi Delta Kappan 82, no. 7 (March), 500-506.
Garan, E. (2002) Resisting Reading Mandates. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Krashen, S. 2009. Does intensive decoding instruction contribute to reading comprehension? Knowledge Quest 37 (4): 72-74.

Self-selected reading and reading comprehension:
Krashen, S. 2004. The Power of Reading. Heinemann Publishing Company and Libraries Unlimited.
Sullivan, A. and Brown, M. 2013. Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education, University of London

original article:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Are Americans reading less?

Sent to the New York Daily News, Sept. 27, 2013

The Daily News reported that "Less than half of Americans read for fun last year, National Endowment for the Arts survey shows" (Sept. 26).
This is not quite accurate.
The NEA reported that 54.5% of those surveyed said they read at least one book last year, nearly identical to the results of the 2008 survey.  About 47% said they read at least one work of "literature" (novels, poetry, plays) last year, about a 3% dip from 2008; much of this was a decline in reading poetry.
It is not clear in the NEA study if "book" reading included e-books. There has been an astonishing increase in the percentage of adults owning e-book readers in the US: According to Pew 26% of adults in the US now own an e-book reader, up from 2% in 2009.
When we consider the constant defunding of libraries, and the increase in poverty, it is amazing that people are still reading so much. 

Stephen Krashen

Source: Pew Internet Mobile: Updated, Sept 18, 2013.

original article:

Educators, do your homework before you make children do theirs.

Sent to the Wichita Eagle Sept

If Colvin elementary fourth-graders work double-shifts (do their homework) for 100 days, one of their teachers will dye her hair orange ("Colvin fourth-graders challenged to meet ‘100 Days of Homework’ goal," Sept 26).

Has anybody at Colvin read the research on homework and rewards? Has anyone at Colvin read Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards or The Truth About Homework, books that present powerful evidence against homework and rewards? (Check out his website:, for many articles on these topics.)

Policy-makers and teachers are free to disagree with the research, but for the sake of these fourth-graders, they are not free to ignore it. 

Colvin educators, do your homework before you make children do theirs.

Stephen Krashen

Original article:

Why the SAT decline?

Sent to the Christian Science Monitor, Sept. 27, 2013

There are two possible reasons for the decline of SAT scores ("As college-prep test scores falter, how the US can respond," Sept. 26).

One possibility, suggested by FairTest, is that the massive invasion of high-stakes tests that began with No Child Left Behind has not worked.

Another, according to an analysis by Seton Hall Professor Christopher Tienken, is poverty: Tienken has demonstrated that students coming from wealthier families achieve higher SAT scores. As we all know, poverty has been increasing in the US.

Most likely, both factors are at work.

Stephen Krashen
Professor Emeritus
University of Southern California

Fair test:
Poverty and SAT scores: Christopher Tienken, 2010, Strong Correlations, AASA Journal 7(2).
Increase in poverty:

Monday, September 23, 2013

The core of all successful literacy programs

Sent to the Greenville (South Carolina) News, Sept. 23, 2013.
"Education officials hope new reading program will put students on track to success," (Sept. 21) does not mention the one essential ingredient in all programs aiming to improve literacy: Access to interesting books.
There is massive evidence that self-selected reading, or reading what you want to read, is responsible for most of our literacy development.  Readers have better reading ability, know more vocabulary, write better, spell better, and have better control of complex grammatical constructions. In fact, it is impossible to develop high levels of literacy without being a dedicated reader, and dedicated readers rarely have serious problems in reading and writing.
The real problem in literacy development is providing access to books.  For many children of poverty, the only place they have access to books is the library.
A number of scientific studies have confirmed that better school libraries mean higher reading scores.
A strong school library run by a credentialed librarian is the core of all successful literacy programs.
Stephen Krashen
Original article:

The Magic Bullet

Sent to the Columbus Dispatch, Sept. 23, 2013

The Dispatch feels there is no "magic bullet" to close achievement gaps ("Wide racial gaps persist in education testing," Sept. 22.). But there is a magic bullet: the library.
There is enormous evidence that self-selected pleasure reading is the source of much of our literacy development: Those who read more read better, write better, spell better, have larger vocabularies, and better grammar.
Students who live in poverty are "behind" in reading because they have few books in their homes. They also live in neighborhoods with few bookstores and with poorly-funded and often distant public libraries. Their only sure source of books is the school library. Strong school libraries with certified librarians can help close the gap in reading between high- and low-poverty students.
Students who start to read for pleasure at any age, at grade three or in high school, can make excellent progress in literacy development.

Stephen Krashen

Original article:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The cost of the new standards

Sent to the Hartford Courant, September 21, 2013

The estimate of $1.19 billion to implement the Common Core Standards is a tiny percentage of the real cost ("Common Core Standards To Change State's Education Landscape," Sept. 21).
The new tests must be administered online. Many districts lack enough up-to-date or even working computers, and even if computers are in place, there will be continual upgrades and replacements as well as major changes as new technology is developed.
Taxpayers will have to pay for all of them. Because no evidence has been provided showing that online testing will benefit students in any way, this adventure is a boondoggle.
Whether or not the tests help students, computer and testing companies will make a lot of money taking no risk. If student achievement declines, we will be told that we need even higher-tech tests, and we will be presented with National Test 2.0.

Stephen Krashen

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Bike while you learn: The real goal

  Sent to the Tennessean, Sept 17, 2013

The Tennessean has published a free commercial for a stationary bike that students are supposed to ride while doing schoolwork ("FitDesks help students exercise while they work," Sept. 13).
If school time is so limited that students have to get their exercise pumping a bike at their desks, something is seriously wrong with school.
The entrepreneurs responsible for this crackpot idea say they want to put 10,000 bikedesks in schools next year. I don't think that's their goal. At $300 per bikedesk, their goal is to gross 3 million dollars.
Stephen Krashen

Original article:

Friday, September 13, 2013

New evidence for the power of reading

The Sullivan and Brown Reading Study: New evidence for the power of reading, the effect of reading on poverty, and evidence for late intervention.
S. Krashen

As part of a large ongoing longitudinal study, Sullivan and Brown (2013) studied the performance of several thousand children in the UK on a variety of tests given when they were 16, and analyzed the effect of a number of predictors on their test scores using multivariate techniques.  I focus here on a few of the results of this very important study.

Overall results: Pleasure reading counts

Sullivan and Brown's main finding was that more reported pleasure reading of books at ages 10 and at age 16 was significantly related to scores on vocabulary, spelling and math tests given at age 16. The vocabulary and spelling results are consistent with those of  many studies, as Sullivan and Brown note.

Table 1 presents their results for vocabulary tests given at age 16, limited to only a handful of the many predictors they included in the analysis.

Table 1: Predictors of vocabulary test scores at age 16
SES: higher job status
Parent has degree
Higher income family
Read to everyday at age 5
Reads books often at age 10
Visits library often at age 10
Reads newspapers more than once/week at age 16
Reads comics/magaines more than once/week at age 16
Reads books more than once/week at age 16
Reading proficiency at age five
Pictoral vocab at age five
Reading proficiency at age 10
From Sullivan and Brown (2013), table 7, model 4, based on 3,424 subjects.
SES job status: Levels 1 to 3 in the Goldthorpe Schema, which consists of seven levels. 1 includes "higher grade professionals", 2 includes higher-grade technicians, managers in enterprises, 3 includes routine non-manual jobs, 7 includes semi-skilled and unskilled workers.

The "betas" in table 1 tell us the impact of each variable on vocabulary scores. Betas can be compared with each other in the same study.  The betas for the subjects' book reading habits show that they are the strongest predictors of vocabulary knowledge at age 16. Early read-alouds also contribute. Lighter reading does not, but this makes sense: Very light reading makes its greatest contribution for less advanced readers. 

[The p-value indicates the odds that the effect is real, or "statisitically significant." P-values of .05 or less are generally considered to be significant. When a p-value is given as zero, it means that the value was very small.]

Surprisingly, "visits to the library" was not a significant predictor, which appears to be in conflict with previous research showing consistent relationships between library quality and reading proficiency (Lance, no date; Krashen, Lee and McQuillan, 2012).  There are several possible reasons for this: Libraries may have their strongest effect for higher poverty groups, "visits" may be less valid a predictor than measures reflecting actual use of the library (e.g. books taken out), and of course measures of library quality. It is also possible that a path analysis would show that library visits are a predictor of amount of book reading reported. Finally, library visits by a ten-year-old are not always up to the ten-year-old. If the library is far from home, the ten-year-old will require help getting there.

Reading as part of the cure for poverty

When Sullivan and Brown did not include reading exposure variables in their analysis, socio-economic variables were significant predictors of vocabulary scores (model 1). But, as Sullivan and Brown note, when reading exposure variables were added, socio-eonomic variables were no longer significant predictors and their impact declined (as reflected in the betas in table 2). In fact, as more reading exposure variables were included from model 1 to model 3, the job status betas declined linearly, and the same tendency is present for the higher income variable. This result is consistent with the results of previous studies showing that access to books and libraries can counter the negative effects of poverty on literacy development (Krashen, Lee and McQuillan, 2012; Krashen, 2011a).

Table 2: Disappearing effect of socio-economic factors

job status

higher income

no reading exposure variables
family reading behavior
student reading behavior
adds earlier test scores

The grade 3 fallacy

Sullivan and Brown's report presents counterevidence to the claim that grade 3 is magic, that if a child is not reading well by grade 3, the child will be "behind" forever.

Table 3 repeats some of the results from table 1.

Table 3: The impact of early reading proficiency
Reads often at age 10
Reads books more than once/week at age 16
Reading proficiency at age five
Pictoral vocab at age five
Reading proficiency at age 10

Reading proficiency at age 10 is indeed a significant predictor of vocabulary knowledge at age 16.  But note that reading frequency is a stronger predictor than reading proficiency at age 10, both at age 10 and age 16 (compare the betas).  This supports the claim that we can improve in literacy development and "catch up" anytime, and that the way to do it is free voluntary reading (Krashen and McQuillan, 2007; Krashen, 2011b).


Sullivan and Brown point out that their analysis found that the students' own reading was a significant predictor even when reading proficiency measured at ages 5 and 10 was controlled (model 4; see table 1). This suggests "that the positive link between leisure reading and cognitive outcomes is not purely due to more able children being more likely to read a lot, but that reading is actually linked to increased cognitive progress over time." We first don't learn our skils and then use them for reading. Rather, our literacy development is the result of reading.

Krashen, S. 2011a. Protecting students against the effects of poverty: Libraries. New England Reading Association Journal 46 (2): 17-21.
Krashen, S. and McQuillan, J. 2007. Late intervention. Educational Leadership 65 (2): 68-73.
Krashen, S. 2011b. Need Children Read "Proficiently" by Grade 3? Some Possible Misinterpretations of the "Double Jeopardy" Study.  Language Magazine 11,2: 24-27.
Krashen, S., Lee, S.Y. and McQuillan, J. 2012. Is the library important? Multivariate studies at the national and international level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education, 8(1): 26-36.
Lance, Keith. The Impact of School Libraries on Student Achievement.
Sullivan, Alice and Brown, Matt. 2013. Social inequalities in cognitive scores at age 16: The role of reading. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies,
Institute of Education, University of London

Postscript: At about the same time this study with its strong evidence for the power of self-selected book reading was released, American Libraries  (Sept/Oct 2013) carried an article by Steve Coffman, "How low can our book budgets get?"
Coffman presented data showing that the public associates libraries primarily with books, but public libraries spend only 11.4% of their budget on books (in contrast, Netflix spends 56% of its budget on content), the number of books on public library shelves has dropped (in 1989, libraries bought 41.3 million volumes, in 2009, only 27.9 million), and public libraries' share of the book market has dropped from 4% in 1989 to 1% in 2009. 
All this while the number of books published in the US has increased from about 47,000 in 1990 to about 325,000 in 2010 and book sales have increased from 4.4 per capita in 1975 to 10 per capita in 2009, and of course while evidence for the positive effects of reading has been growing.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Children should not be allowed to behave like children.

Sent to the Statesman Journal (Oregon), Sept 12.

It's wonderful to know that children in Oregon will be tested on a uniform test just after starting kindergarten ("Oregon kindergartners tested to help gauge first steps in school," Sept 9).

Testing at the beginning of kindergarten testing will ensure that preschools will take firm steps to make sure that children are ready for the rigors of kindergarten, as well as encourage parents to follow strict, sequential standards in teaching their toddlers to count and develop pre-phonics skills to prepare them for preschool.

The unfortunate tendency of children to want to play and enjoy themselves must stop, despite the claims of mushy-minded "experts" who claim that play improves "social and emotional development," whatever that is.

Children should not be allowed to behave like children.

Stephen Krashen
President, Kindergarten Kalculus Association
Author of "Phonemic awareness training for prelinguistic children: Do we need prenatal PA?" Reading Improvement 35: 167-171, 1998

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Never-ending battle to inform journalists about the basics of the scientific method

Published in the South China Morning Post, Sept 19, 2013
Unimpressed by English test result

In the report ("Needy children in Hong Kong benefit from English programme", September 9), you say the children improved 10 per cent in a test in June compared to a test in December.
I am strongly in favour of quality language instruction, but a 10 per cent gain doesn't seem like much for eight months of after-school English study. Were they also taking English in school? Was there a comparison group that did not have the extra instruction?
There are many approaches to language instruction and some are more effective than others. Which one was used in this programme?

Stephen Krashen

original article:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A terrible solution to a non-existent problem

It's time to start testing two and a half year olds to make sure they are acquiring academic language. Really. 

WIDA has announced " Early English Language Development Standards," designed to help "dual language learners" ages 2.5 to 5.5 develop "appropriate academic language." 

The new standards cover: The language of Social-Emotional Development, Early Language and Literacy, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and Physical Development. 

Standards means tests.

WIDA stands for "World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment" and it is clearly deeply involved with assessment – see

WIDA makes it clear that the standards can be used "to help inform standards-based assessments" (WIDA E-ELD Standards, p. 11), and you can be sure this will happen. The result will be testing based on the standards, and efforts will be made to make sure children pass the tests. This means direct instruction in phonemic awareness, story grammars, etc, all elements of these new standards.

 (Despite an "important note" in WIDA E-ELD Standards explaining that there are many factors that "significantly affect the rate and pattern of language development" and that we need to "take great care" when determining language level, WIDA presents detailed descriptions of what children should be able to do at each age.)

WIDA's standards are a terrible solution to a non-existent problem. Academic language comes easily when children become readers, and the best way to make sure this happens is reading stories to children and providing access to lots of books in the first and second language. Instead, we are turning pre-school into test-prep.

Early English Language Development Standards, Ages 2.5–5.5, 2013 Edition (“WIDA E-ELD Standards”). Available at

Monday, September 9, 2013

Adjuncts better than tenured profs? Don't just read the headline.

A misleading headline
Sent to the Chronicle of Higher Education
"Adjuncts Are Better Teachers Than Tenured Professors, Study Finds," (Sept. 9) does not tell us until deep into the article that the difference was only "slightly more than one-tenth of a grade point" in a subsequent course in the same subject. Those taught by adjuncts were only 7.3% more likely to take a subsequent course in the subject.
Buried even deeper in the article is a report of another study showing that full-time instructors got better results than part-time instructors at a community college.
I hope readers did not just scan the headline.
Stephen Krashen
original article:

The "core' or the whole thing?

Sent to the Oregonian, Sept 9.

Limiting grades only to "academic mastery" ("Missing homework, late assignments matter little, as Oregon schools grade exclusively on academic mastery," Sept. 7) means limiting school only to preparation for tests based on the standards.

It means, in other words, that the "common core" is not just the core, not just the basic minimum that all students should learn. Rather, the common core is the whole thing. Gone are all other goals of education, including the goal of helping students discover their interests and explore ideas.

Stephen Krashen

Hat-tip: Ashley Hastings

original article:

The attack on the Master's Degree requirement for teachers

Sent to the Baltimore Sun, Sept 9, 2013

"Md.'s teaching certification law (is) criticized as too tough" (Sept 6) announces that according to a think tank report, requiring a master's degree for teachers is causing a teacher shortage in "crucial subjects." But data presented in the second half of the article indicates that this isn't so: The Maryland State Education does not report significant shortages in these "crucial subjects," and Baltimore City and Baltimore County report few vacancies. I hope readers did not just scan the headline.

Also, the article's opening anecdote does not support the point: It is about a prospective teacher who got into the wrong master's program, not suited to his speciality. He clearly did not examine the college's catalog very carefully. This case has nothing to do with the issue of whether requiring a master's degree is causing a teacher shortage.

Stephen Krashen
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California

Original article:,0,5261314.story

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Do poll results support tough math standards?

According to the latest Gallup Poll of 2000 adults, ages 18 and older, "Americans grade math as the most valuable school subject." (  Math beat English/Literature/Reading easily, with 34% voting for math and 21% voting for English.

I predict that common core supporters will use these results as evidence that tough math standards are a good idea. 

The Gallup Poll did indeed say that math was considered the most valuable school subject. But Gallup did not ask what level of math. 

Those who had a high school education or less were the most enthusiastic about math (43% voted for math, compared to 19% of those with post-graduate college.).  This suggests that people find basic math valuable. I doubt that many people were thinking about calculus or even algebra when they voted for math. I suspect that they were thinking about addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, and percentages.

Friday, September 6, 2013

The testing boondoggle

Sent to the Daily Breeze, Torrance, CA Sept. 6 2013

The new tests that California students may be taking next spring are to be administered online ("Bill would overhaul testing in California schools", Sept. 5). In this year's planned trial run, only districts with enough "technical capacity" will take the tests.

But many districts lack enough up-to-date or even working computers (LA Times, "State speeds shift in student testing," Sept. 5).  If only half of our five million students need new computers, California needs to spend at least an extra 5 billion dollars for the next round of tests.

Also, even if computers are in place, there will be continual upgrades and replacements, as well as major changes as new technology is developed. We taxpayers will have to pay for all of them.

Because no evidence has been provided showing that online testing will benefit students in any way, this adventure must be considered to be a boondoggle: Whether the tests help students or not, computer and testing companies will make a lot of money taking no risk – if student achievement declines, we will be told that we need even higher-tech tests, and we will be presented with nationaltest 2.0.

Stephen Krashen

article at:

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The never-ending and increasing cost of testing

Sent to the Los Angeles Times, Sept. 5

The state hopes that the brave new tests will be covered by the $64 million  California budgeted for the old tests ("State speeds shift in student testing," September 5). But the new tests must be administered online. As the Times notes, many students only have access to out-of-date or nonfunctional computers. It will cost far more than $64 million just to supply up-to-date computers, and the computers will need to be regularly upgraded. And as we know, computers become obsolete within a few years and need to be replaced. And as we know, innovations in technology require a complete change of equipment every few years (remember ethernet?). 

The common core testing program means a continuing and increasing boondoggle for testing and publishing companies forever.  When the new tests fail to produce  improvement in student achievement, teachers will be blamed, and the "experts" will call for more testing and more use of technology.

Stephen Krashen

original article, on-line version:,0,6459120.story