Engaging Language Acquisition: The Importance of Reading for Pleasure
Fears of declining reading rates have long plagued the United States. In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) released To Read or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence, a report showing that reading rates for all demographic factors had declined. The report shed light on the potentially devastating effects that such a decline may have: this was not about mourning the loss of book sales, but about reading’s impact on citizens’ abilities to comprehend written material, improve their socioeconomic standing, and maintain a successful career.
This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Veronica B. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.
What the study suggests, although it does not thoroughly delve into, is the way reading positively affects one’s language acquisition. Surprisingly, the reading that most affects people’s long-term success is not of texts assigned by teachers in schools, but that which is done voluntarily. Input has long been considered essential for language acquisition, but it is becoming clear that the type of input is of utmost importance. It is only through exerting the effort to read and engage with the material of one’s choosing, in one’s own time, that language can be acquired and subsequently produced at a proficient level.
What is FVR
Esteemed linguist Stephen Krashen is known for championing the positive effects of what he terms “free voluntary reading” (VFR). In The Power of Reading, he affirms that it is not that people cannot read and write, it is that they cannot read and write well enough, for an elementary level of comprehension and production is not sufficient to be successful in American society. He purports the cure to be in reading for pleasure, which means “no book report, no questions at the end of the chapter, and no looking up every vocabulary word.” While Krashen may be referring to children in this statement, the same applies to adults as well as to those who are learning a foreign language or engaging with their mother tongue. He cites several studies of fifth-grade students that show that reading books outside of school “was the best predictor of several measures of reading achievement,” of which comprehension and vocabulary were included. Multiple facets of language have been shown to improve through VFR: writing style, spelling, and use of grammar are also positively affected by pleasure reading. Krashen goes on to describe a study conducted in 2003 by J.S. Kim that found that even when other factors, such as gender, socioeconomic status, emotional problems, and learning disabilities, were controlled for, those students who had read more over the summer increased their reading comprehension abilities compared to those who did not. These findings are congruent with the NEA’s correlational findings between a decline in reported pleasure reading and stagnation or decline in reading proficiency rates for adults of all genders and education levels.
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Addressing second language acquisition directly, Krashen describes several notable studies that showed the effect VFR had on English language learning students. In one study by Elley and Mangubhai, fourth- and fifth-grade EFL students were divided into three groups for their 30-minute English classes. One group received traditional audio-lingual instruction, one engaged in VFR only, and one engaged in shared reading in which a book was read to them by the teacher and the students engaged with it through discussions, rewritings, and acting out scenes. After two years, both reading groups had surpassed the audio-lingual group in reading comprehension, writing, and grammar. A similar study by Beniko Mason illustrates an equally important result. Not only do students who engage in extensive reading make greater educational improvements than those taught with traditional methods, but their attitudes changed: “Many of the once reluctant students of English became eager readers. Several wrote in their diaries that they were amazed at their improvement.” Thus, reading is integral not just so that students can acquire a language, but so that they are emotionally engaged with the acquisition and become more motivated acquirers.
This emotional engagement is fundamental to effective, engaged learning. Educator bell hooks advocates for philosopher Paulo Freire’s concept of education as freedom and challenges the “banking system” of education, the “approach to learning that is rooted in the notion that all students need to do is consume information fed to them by a professor and be able to memorize and store it” (14). Encouraging every student to be an active participant and not a passive recipient of information allows them to engage with the language and material in a way that suits them, and it circumvents the traditional teacher-as-dictator model. Hooks further writes that her students “rightfully expect that my colleagues and I will not offer them information without addressing the connection between what they are learning and their overall life experiences” (19). Rote language instruction, lacking context, is just that: devoid of all connection with life experiences.
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In the absence of VFR, inattentive teachers risk entrenching potentially dangerous paradigms of dominance. The student who only reads from the assigned traditional western canon, which has long been rightfully criticized for promoting the works of dead white male authors over those of others, is not allowed to hear voices that reflect their own experiences; thus, instruction will not be effective if the student does not seek out material that engages them, that they identify with, that reflects some part of themselves, and that is personally meaningful. Additionally, students who are in a multicultural classroom, as is often the case in the United States, may not feel completely safe speaking aloud in front of others. Hooks asserts that students of color, as well as white women, have expressed fear of being judged as inferior by their peers: “white male students continue to be the most vocal … I have taught brilliant students of color … who has skillfully managed never to speak in classroom settings” (39-40)? The needs of students who are restricted to traditional methods of teaching cannot be met; it is only through an independent engaged study that they will progress.
Free voluntary reading has a clear positive effect on language acquisition, and the continued decline of this pleasure activity puts U.S. adults at risk. However, those who engage in VFR may find more tangible benefits than increased language proficiency. For foreign language learners specifically, reading for pleasure is a form of study that does not feel like studying. It can be done in any location. It allows for immersion in a language without having to uproot one’s home. It affords practice with the language without having to find another person with whom to interact, and it releases learners from fears of being corrected or tested. It provides, most valuably, a stress-free environment in which to acquire language. For the citizen at large, reading for pleasure produces positive consequences in the school, in the workplace, and the broader community. Whether reading a classic novel or the latest in a science-fiction series, reading for personal enjoyment is essential for all to become proficient readers, writers, speakers, and thinkers.
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