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Ending All Literary Crises

Publication Date: 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
literature.

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
anyone.

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
http://www.davidvl.org/research.html).

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.

Notes
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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