The Power of Reading

On my way back from El Salvador, I ran into a Vancouver couple and we got to talking about language acquisition.  Jackie is a grade 3 & 4 split French Immersion teacher, and her husband Jaques (originally from Quebec) is a paramedic.  Here is what they had to say about the sheer power of what Stephen Krashen calls “free voluntary reading” (FVR).

Jackie said:  Reading is as important as anything else she can do as a teacher.  She has sets of readers in French.  There are 15 “levels” (1 easiest, 15 hardest) and there are about 10 books/level.  The kids pick their book, and every day they get 30 min to read.  Initially, the kids have trouble picking appropriate books, but Jackie asks them questions about what they are reading.  If a kid can’t explain what they are reading (i.e. the basics of plot and characters), she gets them to pick books from a level down.  Once the kids generally know their reading level, they can pick books that work for them.  Typically, they read most of the books from a level before they move on to the next level.  Do they like FVR?  Hell yeah!  Jackie reports that the kids want to read, do read, and report liking reading.

Jackie interviews two kids/day about their reading.  She asks them questions in French, and they can answers in as much French or English as they want (nice– no pressure to use the language).  There are no marks assigned to FVR.  There is no “accountability piece” or other edubabble/admin babble.  The only things she expects are that the kids read, and understand.

Jackie also notes tremendous improvement in both writing and speaking French– generally within two months of the school year starting– as a result of the FVR program.  I asked her how she knew the improved fluency, greater vocab, etc, came from reading, and she said “the kids are using words I havn’t taught them and they are using them appropriately.”

Jackie also commented that comic books– e.g. Garfield translated into French– were probably the best reading tools.  Comics, in Jackie’s opinion, do not— as Ujiie and Krashen have shown— replace other reading.  (In my view, comics are the future of second-language reading.  With visual support for text, story format, Q&A in present tense and narration in past, how could comics not work?)

I looked at Krashen’s summary of FVR benefits, issues, questions & research, etc, and I concluded that, in terms of FVR,  Jackie is doing everything right.

The bottom line?  Give kids lots of choice surrounding, and time to engage in, interesting free voluntary reading, and everyone will benefit.  We should also note that the benefits of reading work in both first and second languages.

Now, Jackie’s husband, Jaques, also had a bunch of interesting things to say about learning English:

— He got English for an hour a day from grade 1 to grade 10 in Quebec, but still couldn’t speak or write it.  There was generally very heavy emphasis on grammar and writing, which he found both boring and useless.

— His favorite English teacher used music cloze exercises (listen to a song, read along, and fill in the occasional blank with what you hear), which Jaques liked.

— When he moved to B.C. at age 17, he had little $$ and spoke basically no English.  So he taught himself by getting kids’ books from the Salvation Army (at first).  Twenty-five cents got you a pile of books.  As he got better at English, he read young adult/youth fiction, and eventually graduated to stuff like “Game of Thrones.”  He was able to do his paramedic training in English with no problems.  He also very much liked comics and read as many as he could. He said that comics were easy to understand (because of the visuals), and a great way to learn slang.

— He does easy crosswords but says that the cultural in-jokes of English make any harder puzzles (e.g. Globe and Mail) impossible.

— He said “When you read a new word in a book, you don’t get it, but if you know the words around it, you can guess what it means.  And if you read it a hundred more times, you get a better idea about it.  Then the next day you hear it on the street, and you get it, and then you have it in your head.”

In other news, we have a short blog summary of veteran and master T.P.R.S. teacher Joe Neilson being observed. This guy has been using T.P.R.S. thirty years and was the guy who pioneered fully unsheltered grammar from Day 1.  Joe is probably the greatest living TPRS practitioner, and certainly among the very best languages teachers in the world.  Anyway, of note here is what Joe does with novels: with very advanced (i.e. 4th and 5th year) students, he is doing “basic” novels like Pobre Ana— to provide a super-easy “input base”– but throwing in very high-level discussion.  Read it here.

My own recent experience with reading:  when I went to El Salvador, it quickly became obvious that I was rusty, very rusty, with Spanish.  As my Mexican friend Mauricio put it in one of our trash-talking text convos, hablas como un pinche gringo maleducado.  So I put myself to work:  I read as much as I could of the newspaper every day (especially comics– I love comics), and I spent a LOT of time in markets, chatting in Spanish.  My brain strained, and new words–guínda, guanaco, púchica– came online.

On my second-last day in the country, I ran into Lucio “Chiyo” Vásquez, 43, a guy who  at age 9 (yes, you read that correctly) joined the F.M.L.N. guerrillas in the fight against an American-backed right-wing asshole government which used voter suppression, poverty, death-squads, media manupulation, military aid, etc, and the usual bag of tricks to maintain a landed aristocracy in wealth and the other 95% of people in horrible poverty.  Chiyo joined the guerrillas after American-trained death squads raped and killed his mother and sister, and tortured and killed three of his brothers and literally hundreds of his neighbours.  As his Dad– still alive today at age 90– put it, “they killed those women like dogs.  But they aren’t going to kill us like dogs.  They’re going to kill us fighting.”

Chiyo became a soldier, then a radio operator for the F.M.L.N.  Anyway, Chiyo had a guitar– a magnificent miked Fender classical given him by a German friend– and no case. My heart went out to that guitar, so I gave him $30 to buy a case, and he gave me a copy of his riveting autobiography, Siete Gorriones, which I started reading on the plane home.  There’s an interview with him about the book here

You could not make up the stuff in that book.  From the insane battle scenes (a guerrilla loses both legs to machinegun fire, begs to be killed, but none of his compas can do it), to the horrifying details (e.g. women giving birth during the middle of mortar attacks), to the heartbreak (losing friends, or having to kill all of the dogs because they could not be trusted to be quiet when the guerrillas were evading military patrols) to the surrealism (Chiyo has always been fascinated with music, and had always wanted to play harmonica, and was delighted when a harmonica player joined his guerrilla brigade…but unfortunately, this guy played harmonica with his nose and so Chiyo understandably never got to try the guy’s harp…), this book is amazing.

So I’m 100 pages into the first book I have ever read in Spanish and it’s been an interesting experience.  This is what I note:

— it works (i.e. is interesting) because it is story-driven.  There is a protagonist, there are clear problems, and there is very little “literary trickery” like interior monologues, multiple points of view, etc etc.  I want to know what happens next and that’s what he shows me.  It’s good writing– Hemingwayesque in its simplicity but not merely lists of facts and events.

I know the context  so I can follow along (background knowledge activated).  A book like this would be impossible for someone who did not know the social and political context of the Salvadorean wars of liberation.

I am not getting all the vocab but I can still follow the story.  When he discusses plants, birds and animals (very important to farmers and guerrillas), I am often a bit lost.  However, the stuff comes back often enough that I am starting to pick it up. E.g.  zopilotes I think must mean “vultures.”  I am also picking up other vocab steadily.  Ponerle la queja de ____ a ____ means “to complain about ___ to ____.”  If I am wrong, big deal…with enough reading most of this sorts itself out.

grammar acquisition is scaffolding off of what I know.  For example, I know that tomate and maíz mean “tomato” and corn.”  My guess: the -al ending in Spanish I think means “a place of,” so a tomatal is a tomato plantation, and a maícetal is a cornfield.  How did I learn this?  Simple– and it illustrates the power that comprehensible input has to “teach” us grammar:

a) he writes fuimos al tomatal.  “we went to tomato-something

b) he writes ibamos al maícetal y regresábamos con elotes: “we would go to corn-something and come back with cobs of corn”

c) -al gets used when the narrator goes somewhere, and where he goes seems to have edible/useful stuff growing there, so– enter hypothesis– -al means “place of growing ____.”

Also I am slowly picking up the Salvadorean vos which has a few weird tweaks– you say vos hablás and vos tenés where others would say tú hablas  and tú tienes (I think– it’s acquisitional early days and I could be wrong, but, again, whatever, I’ll pick it up eventually).  What’s interesting is that this is easy.

there is grammar which I have had explained to me which I still cannot use, or explain, but which I understand.  I don’t get why they say things like se me salió la babita cuando había comida (“I drooled/my mouth watered when there was food”).  I get that salirse means “to come out of” but why do you need the se?  Why can’t you just say  me salió la babita?  Whatever– I will eventually pick it up.

How I Do Reading in my English Classes

Day 1, we go to the library. I tell kids, “read the front and back of a few books, and pick one.

In class, we read at the start of class for 10-20 min every day. There are three rules:

1. You must read a book. Not phones, magazines, crosswords: a– ANY– book. This is to develop long-term memory and focus.

2. You must read. No homework, phones, music or bobble-heading.

3. Your book must not suck. If I see kids bobble-heading, I send them to get another book.

It takes 4-5 days for some of the boys to get sorted, then poof! reading becomes easy and fun. And no, we don’t have an “accountability piece,” other than kids having to read. 😁😁

Ok people, there you go, the power of reading.


  1. Great post Chris. I really like Ben’s PLC that I joined earlier this month, but I’ve always found your blog posts the most helpful and so…realistic. I was able to see and I continue to see a lot of the things that frustrated you about traditional language teaching popping up in my classroom this year. I also really like how you organize your posts with quotes and bullet points; it’s very easy to follow.

  2. Great post, Chris! I especially loved Jacques’ story about learning English. I would love to borrow that book when you’re done – sounds like required pre-reading for teaching Vida y muerte en la mara salvatrucha!

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