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A Better Investment than NCLB

Publication Date: 2005-06-19

In the 70ies, I wrote "Smuggling Books into Remedial Reading," an account of making free reading choice the core of a course with 7th and 8th grade so-called reluctant readers. I always figured this article was turned down by all the professional journals because it was, like Krashen's plan, too simple. [It was later a cover story in Learning.]

Most education experts won't advocate for such a plan because they lack faith in kids and faith in books. All their faith seems to be with McGraw-Hill and others of that ilk.

I wish these experts could have witnessed what I did last week in a northern California city. Friends of the Library have organized Books in The Plaza, giving kids a book a week throughout the summer. Kids go through hundreds of paperbacks to find the one they want. It was wonderful to see four 10-year-old boys organizing themselves to grab up consecutive volumes in a popular series, figuring since they can swap, they'll get an even better deal. It was wonderful to see toddlers poring over books, learning to make choices. I didn't tell them what will happen in pre-school.

Did I mention that this event is held outside and it was raining? Nothing can keep kids away from books when they get to choose what they want.

Remarks made from the floor to Kathleen Leos, Associate Assistant Deputy Secretary and Senior Policy Advisor to the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA), in the US Department of Education, following her presentation on No Child Left Behind at the North Carolina State University ESL Symposium, Raleigh, North Carolina, June 2, 2005.

I am sure you have heard complaints about NCLB before; I just want to review them briefly and suggest a way of making your job easier. You have heard complaints about how we are over-testing, how NCLB is turning schools into test-prep factories, and how we are testing children much too early in their school careers.

I am sure you have also heard about problems that specifically relate to language tests, the criticism that testing certain items, eg specific rules of grammar, vocabulary items, and spelling, leads to direct teaching of these items, which is not the way they are acquired. They are acquired by listening and by massive amounts of reading, especially ?free voluntary reading.?

A few years ago I wrote a satirical paper in response to the intensive pressure for testing young children called ?the case for prenatal phonemic awareness training.? The problem was that some reviewers from the journals thought it was real; they said it was a good idea ?but a little extreme.? And recently one writer cited it as real.

I would like to suggest a solution, or at least part of a solution. We know that when children and adolescents have access to interesting and comprehensible reading material, they will read it. We also know that when children and adolescents read a lot, they improve in literacy (reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar and spelling) and general knowledge (readers do better on tests of history, literature, and even ?practical knowledge?). In fact, it may be the case that free voluntary reading is the primary way we develop literacy and gain a extensive knowledge of the world. Students who do a great deal of free voluntary reading do very well on standardized tests.

The problem is that children from low-income families have very little access to books. They have fewer books in the home, attend schools with inferior classroom and school libraries, and live in neighborhoods with inferior public libraries and far fewer bookstores. In fact, the differences in access to reading material are gigantic. Children from higher-income families are ?deluged with books,?
according to Susan Neuman, while children from low-income families have a hard time finding anything to read.

Here is my proposal: A large, one-time, substantial investment in school and public libraries in high-poverty areas. We have plenty of direct, scientific evidence that libraries work, that better school libraries boost reading test scores, and that access to public libraries is related to gains in reading children make during the summer.

A one-time investment of several billion dollars might contribute a great deal toward a permanent solution to the problems children of poverty have at school.: The money could be invested in a fund, and the interest dedicated to school and public libraries in high poverty areas, a source that would never dry up. This is not the complete solution but is an important and necessary step.

Supplementary notes (not included in my comment)

A one-time investment of five billion dollars invested at five percent will yield 250 million dollars per year. If dedicated to the children coming from the poorest families, say the lowest 20%, or 10 million children (50 million children in school in the US total), this amounts to 25.00 per child, which could mean the addition of more than one book per child per year, indefinitely. Compare this with NCLB, which costs us 25 billion per year, each year (and is considered to be under-funded), and will probably cost more as time goes on. Also compare this to the Laura Bush library fund, which allots only about 12 million (mllion, not billion) dollars per year to libraries. I have argued that very few libraries benefit from this fund, and those that do receive only token help (Krashen, 2004).

See Krashen (2004) for research showing that more access to books results in more reading, that more reading results in more literacy development and knowledge, that better libraries are related to higher reading scores, and the lack of access of books for children of poverty. Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Second edition.

?Children from higher-income families are ?deluged with books,? Neuman, S., and D. Celano. 2001. Access to print in low-income and middle-income communities. Reading Research Quarterly 36(1): 8-26.

In her response to these comments, Ms. Laos noted that studies had shown that students, especially second language acquirers, need to develop ?automaticity? in reading before they are ready to read books. In other books, libraries won?t help beginners. I have two

First, I agree that beginners will not profit from recreational reading; texts need to be comprehensible for them to do the children any good. But once they can read independently (once they have reached ?the Goosebumps threshold?) recreational reading can cause huge and rapid gains. And nearly all children eventually reach this level ? some reach it faster than others, but nearly all children get there. I analyzed student writing that was considered to be ?unacceptable? on the NAEP test, given to fourth graders (Krashen, 2002). In all cases, the children clearly had mastered their ?skills? and their writing showed a great deal of competence in basic sound-spelling correspondences and grammar. The low evaluations were based more on what they said rather than how they said it.

Second, I need to point out that there is good evidence that children develop ?automaticity? not through direct instruction but by reading, by making sense of what is on the page. Beginning readers, then, also need access to comprehensible texts, in the form of children?s books and language experience stories.

They also need to be read to, which gives them a knowledge of how the language of books works, and is also is a powerful means of getting them interested in books. Direct instruction in phonics can make a small contribution by making texts more comprehensible, but there are severe limits on how much phonics can be taught, learned, and actually applied to texts when children read (see e.g. Goodman, 1993;Smith, 2005).

Goodman, K. 1993. Phonics Phacts. Portsmouth:
Krashen, S. 2002. Whole language and the great plummet of 1987-92: An urban legend from California. Phi Delta Kappan 83 (10): 748-753.
Smith, F. 2005. Understanding Reading. Erlbaum.

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