Transcript – The Power of Reading by Stephen Krashen
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Hello and welcome to another episode of the COE Lecture series where we bring you lectures, discussions and workshops on a variety of topics related to the broad fields of education. Today we bring you the first of two recent seminars presented by Dr. Stephen Krashen, Americas Professor of Education at the University of Southern California. His topic today: The Power of Reading. Dr. Krashen’s visit was co-sponsored by the Department of Language and Literacy Education and the LLE Graduate Organization.
They have to do this first. Okay. It says turn off when you go to the bathroom. Okay. Did you see that movie? Remember it’s one of the Police Story movies with the guy kept – ok. Thank you, Christine, for that wonderful introduction. I do have some comments on the introduction, though. I have to add some information. It’s true about the black belt. That is true but I got the black belt on the basis of the written examination. As for the weightlifting, that part is true and that part is — that’s from my days in Venice Beach California in Gold’s Gym where I worked out with Arnold. You want some Arnold stories? This is usually the only thing people remember from my talk, I mention this.
Yeah, I worked out with Arnold in the old days in Venice Beach and in Gold’s Gym and I got to tell you a real story about Arnold. Nice guy. No question, absolute Prince. Arnold was legendary on the beach for being a nice guy and being a big help. You’d be working out by yourself doing your concentration girls and Arnold would come over and say, can I make a suggestion please? And so, try it like this, don’t quite extend, put your mind in your bicep. Always right. Everything he said turned out to be true. We would share things. You know, Arnold told me, he told me – and he was always right. He was already the world’s number one bodybuilder, Mr. Universe three times when he came.
As for governor, oh my… airplane pilot needed, no experience necessary, learn on the job, and a colleague of mine have an article coming out about how Arnold really learned English. Did he go through immersion or was it bilingual ed which he imposes? He was bilingual ed. He had a good background in the first language.
Let me reintroduce myself a little as well too, because Christine has emphasized my background in second language acquisition, foreign language and bilingual education which is where I come from with all this. But I feel like a country-western singer crossing over in that today I’m going to be talking entirely about literacy in general. In fact, I’m going to be talking about the literacy crisis in America.
Now what makes me an expert on the literacy crisis? I am an expert and I want to give you my credentials. I was there when the literacy crisis began. The literacy crisis began officially October 4th, 1986 on a Thursday afternoon three o’clock Pacific Coast Time. It began on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Now what was I doing at home: watching Oprah Winfrey. At the time I was a tenured full professor at a major research university. Are there any questions? What a job, it was great anyway. Every time they tell you we feel your pain – no, they don’t, anyway. Oprah had this show and you know what, Oprah is very influential. She did this very compelling program about these 6 adult illiterates. These are guys who had gone to our schools in the United States and were native speakers of English and never learned to read and write at all. They got passed along every year, you know, social promotion and they described in great detail all their strategies for getting through the day, making people think they were literate. They go to restaurant, wait to see what you’re going to order and they order the same thing et cetera. The reason this is part of our national fabric is because of Oprah.
Well, it was very compelling. I sent for the transcript, in fact. After that, there was a made-for-TV movie with Dennis Weaver about an adult illiterate and then we had Stanley & Iris, Jane Fonda, full Robert De Niro feature film about an adult illiterate. If you read the newspapers, you get the impression that our schools are turning out millions of students, millions of children who can’t read and write at all. Guess what? It’s not true. Of course, they also say that teachers are to blame, that’s not true either.
In fact, if you look at the research and I’ve looked at, I just told you I’m a professional. You look at the research you see that literacy in America – all right, this big enough so the first three rows can see – literacy in America has been on a steady increase for the last 100 years. In fact, it’s very hard to find anyone in this country who’s gone to our schools who’s completely and totally illiterate. These people are very rare. In fact, they’re so rare when you find them they get on Oprah Winfrey. That’s how rare they are.
There is a problem but it’s not the problem that the media has been talking about. In fact, I am so down on the media. I don’t even believe the sports section anymore. I mean that’s how cynical I have gotten, okay. Anyway, are you sure that was the score? Okay. Anyway you look at research on literacy, you see we are a very literate country. Literacy, as I’ve said, has been rising for the last 100 years, told the literacy is extremely rare. The problem though is that the demands for literacy have been increasing faster. That’s the problem.
Our teachers have been very successful at making people literate. The problem is getting harder and harder. That’s the problem. If you talk to automobile mechanics, for example, they’ll tell you the reading and writing they have to do is much more demanding than it was 15, 20 years ago. Computer manuals, technical forms, legal things et cetera.
So the issue is not how do you get from no literacy to low levels of literacy. Everybody gets there. Let’s call this basic literacy somewhere between second and fourth grade literacy. Everybody gets there. They get there at different rates. Are you with me? Say yes, okay. They get there at different rates because human beings do everything at different rates.
The typical definition of low literacy is the lowest quartile. The lowest 25%. So newspaper article says 150,000 kids sent to summer school because they’re low literacy. Well, they’re the lowest quartile. You could quadruple literacy scores and you would still have the lowest 25%. Am I the only one who understands this? We have a math problem in this country really. While I’m on this, let me use my therapy group for a moment. This is very frustrating. We want all kids at grade level, right? You heard that? You know what grade level is? It’s 50th percentile. You see what’s wrong. We want everyone above average. No, it can’t be done. When I tell people about that, they say well, we will try hard. This is a math crisis.
Anyway we want to get — with this we’ve done, we want to get to the higher levels, the sixth grade level, the 10th grade level, the twelfth grade level. That’s what we’re really interested in. Okay, if that’s Lady Gaga, the answer is no.
I know how to do it. I know how to get from lower levels to high levels. I know how to develop academic literacy. I know how to bring people to the highest levels of literacy. I know all about it because I’m an expert. And the answer we all know is one word: Reading. And there is one kind of reading that works better than any other and it was the kind of reading you did last night before you fell asleep. How many of you read last night before you fell asleep? How many of you like me read last night even though you shouldn’t have, it was too late? This is addiction. The kind of reading that really counts is the reading you and I do all the time that we do obsessively. We call it Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), reading because you want to. No book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter. You don’t like the book, you put it down, you pick up another one.
Free Voluntary Reading is the source in my opinion of our reading ability. It’s the source — the source of most of our vocabulary, all of our educated vocabulary just about comes from reading, in most cases. Our ability to handle complex grammatical construction, our ability — most of our ability to spell, to spell well not perfectly but to spell well, all of this our ability to write with a good writing style, much of our knowledge of the world comes from reading.
Now I don’t want to oversell this. I don’t want to say if kids read a lot, they’ll all go on to the university and get master’s degrees that may or may not happen but if they start to read, they’re going to have a chance. If they don’t start to read, they’re not going to have a chance. I want to take a few minutes — we have till what — 7:30, is that all right. I have ordered pizza for 6 o’clock, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, right?
Anyway, I want to show you a little bit of the research and I’ve got some charts here to back it up. The case for free voluntary reading and I really want to go through this to some extent because this research for many of you who are becoming teachers is going to make your lives easier. This is a money-back guarantee. If this does not work for you, I will return the entire $50 honorarium and divided equally among you.
This research is going to make your professional life about 5% easier. That’s not bad. But let me give you the data behind it. No discussion of reading would be complete without talking about how it started in the United States. And it started in a book — with the book that came out around 1965, which you can still get in paperback. It’s called Hooked On Books. The author is a guy named Daniel Fader. Daniel Fader worked with boys who were in reform schools. Reform school boys, juvenile delinquents — native speakers of English, juvenile delinquents between ages 12 and 15.
One group got the Hooked on Books program. Each boy was given a paperback book. This is yours, do with it what you like. If you read it, fine. If you don’t read it, fine. If you want a new one, turn it in, you get a new one. No overdue fines, no book reports, no, nothing. They had a pretty good idea what the boys’ interests were. Now this is back in the ‘60s. The favorite author: Ian Fleming, James Bond. The boys read the books. When you give kids interesting things to read, they will read them. No question.
Some of the boys, in fact, averaged the book every other day for the whole year. All voluntary. He gave them test at the end of two years. The readers improved in everything: attitude towards school, writing fluency, writing complexity, et cetera. The comparison group stayed the same or went down.
Now Fader was clever enough not to just rely on test scores. He looked at the boys’ behavior in their daily lives. For example, he looked at their behavior during basketball games when they watched their school team play against other schools. During halftime, timeouts, free throws, some of the boys were looking at their books which they had in their back pockets. We’ve known this since 1965.