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Ending All Literary Crises

Posted: 2008-05-15

from Language [pdf file], May 2008

Stephen Krashen presents some very good news about children̢۪s literature, some very bad news about access to books, and a solution to end all literacy crises.

A Golden Age

This is a strange time for children̢۪s literature, with powerful positive

and powerful negative forces at work. One strong positive force is the

obvious fact that we are living in a Golden Age of children̢۪s and adolescent


In fact, children̢۪s and adolescents̢۪ books are so good these days

that they cross-over; adults read them too. I agree with most people

and think that the Harry Potter series is wonderful. It has provided me

with a genuine role model, a person after whom I have decided to

model my entire career, Gildaroy Lockheart. And in The Order of the

Phoenix, Rowling has demonstrated her keen understanding of the

field of education with her character Dolores Umbridge. Ms. Umbridge,

I am told, is a leading candidate to be appointed to the next vacancy

on the California Board of Education.

We can all produce evidence that adults like current children's and

adolescent literature. I was visiting my son a few years ago when he

was a graduate student at the University of Texas. He reads Kant and

Shakespeare for pleasure. I was reading Animorphs. I left my copy of

Animorphs number one in his apartment. He not only read it, he read

the next five, and bought extra copies of number one to give to friends

who had children who might enjoy it.

Here̢۪s another one: Ying Chang Compestine̢۪s Revolution is not a

Dinner Party aimed at young adults, but is a compelling reading for


Young People Like to Read

More good news: Contrary to what you read in the newspapers, as a

group, children and teenagers like to read, are reading a lot, and are

not reading any worse than previous generations, which is undoubtedly

influenced by the phenomenally high quality of literature available

(Krashen, 2001, 2008; Krashen and Von Sprecken, 2002).1

Home-Run Books

I have even more good news: It appears to be easy to get children

interested in reading, and the best way is the most obvious: Exposure

to good books. Jim Trelease has done a heroic job informing the public

about reading aloud to children (Trelease, 2006).2

Trelease has also suggested that one very positive reading experience

can create a reader, one "home run" book experience (Trelease,

2006). My colleagues and I have confirmed that Trelease̢۪s idea was

right: We found that more than half of the middle school children we

interviewed agreed that there was one book that got them excited

about reading (Von Sprecken and Krashen, 2000; Von Sprecken, Kim,

and Krashen, 2000; Ujiie and Krashen, 2002).3

More Reading Ergo More Literacy

And finally, the rest of the good news: We know that the more children

read, the better their literacy development. There is now overwhelming

research showing that free voluntary reading is the primary source of

our reading ability, our writing style, much of our vocabulary and

spelling knowledge, and our ability to handle complex grammatical

constructions. It has also been confirmed that those who read more

know more: They know more about history, literature, and even have

more "practical knowledge" (research reviewed in Krashen, 2004).

Research tells us that better libraries mean higher reading scores

(see McQuillan, 1998, and studies reviewed in Krashen, 2004) and

Keith Curry Lance has provided evidence confirming the positive

impact of school library quality and library staffing on reading achievement

(Lance, 1994; for easy access to the many Lance studies, see


Poverty and Access to Books

But there are negative forces. One is the fact that today̢۪s excellent literature

is not available to everybody. Several studies show that children

of poverty have little access to books at home, in their community,

and at school.

Children of poverty have far less access to bookstores: Smith,

Constantino and Krashen (1996) reported that the average child they

interviewed in Beverly Hills could walk to five bookstores; the average

child in Watts could only walk to one. Neuman and Celano (2001)

found that for those in low-income areas, the only books available in

stores were in drugstores, with nothing for the older child or teenager.

But children of middle-class families had access to several wellstocked

bookstores, which had magnificent collections of children̢۪s

and adolescent literature.

These studies also show that school libraries and public libraries in

wealthier areas are far better than those in low-income areas (e.g. De

Loreto and Tse, 1999; Neuman and Celano, 2001). In addition, school

libraries in wealthier areas are more likely to have a credentialed librarian

(Neuman and Celano, 2001), a factor known to be associated with

higher reading achievement (see Lance studies cited above).

The Altered State of California

California is the worst offender among the states. California̢۪s school

libraries are drastically under-funded and understaffed. I have documented

this in my books and papers, and California librarians, such as

Richard Moore and Sandy Schuckett, have tried very hard to inform

the public about this sad situation. Recent data released by the

National Center for Library Statistics (Holton, Bae, Baldridge, Brown

and Heffron, 2004) shows that only 79 percent of schools in California

have libraries, compared to the national average of 92 percent

(California is last in the U.S.), and only 24 percent of California schools

have a library with a certified library media specialist, compared to the

national average of 75 percent. (Again, California is in last place.)

The low quality of California̢۪s public libraries has been documented

(McQuillan, 1998), and again recent data confirms this. According to

the most recent "America̢۪s Most Literate Cities" report (Miller, 2007),

California has the worst public libraries in the country: Out of 69 cities,

Los Angeles and Sacramento public libraries were tied for 65th place,

Stockton was in 67th place, Anaheim 68th and Santa Ana̢۪s public

libraries were dead last in 69th place. No wonder California's reading

scores are so low.

California is also well-represented at the bottom in terms of bookstores

(based on bookstores and members of the American

Booksellers Association per 10,000 people), with Los Angeles ranking

59th out of 69, San Jose at 62, and Santa Ana and Stockton in 67th

and 68th place. The only bright spot in California is San Francisco in

second place among the 69 cities.

How to End All Literacy Crises

I think the good news is stronger than the bad news. But the good

news is not going to help us if nobody knows about it. People are

convinced that children don't read, don't like to read, and don't read

very well (see footnote 1), and an influential federal report, the report of

the National Reading Panel, concluded that there was no evidence

supporting the practice of allowing time for self-selected reading in

school, a conclusion I have strongly disagreed with (e.g. Krashen,

2001, 2005).

Somehow, we have to get the good news out: Self-selected voluntary

reading is beneficial and pleasant, and is highly effective. Also, it is

not difficult to get children involved in reading. For a fraction of what

we are investing in testing, and in programs that clearly do not work,

we could easily ensure that all children have access to quality reading.

When this happens, literacy crises, real or imaginary, will be a thing of

the past.


1 A recent report from the National Endowment for the Arts Report

claimed that young people are reading worse and reading less than in

previous years. A closer looks shows they are not reading worse:

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