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The Goodman/Smith Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, the Comprehension Hypothesis, and the (Even Stronger) Case for Free Voluntary Reading

Susan Notes:

This research appears in Defying Convention, Inventing the Future in Literacy Research and Practice: Essays in Tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman, P. Anders (Ed.).

Stephen Krashen gives an account of a famous double discovery in reading. It is more relevant and need now than ever before.

by Stephen Krashen

Historians of science are very interested in famous “doubles,” cases in which two independent workers appear to have come up with very similar breakthroughs at about the same time. Famous cases include the discovery of calculus (Newton and Leibnitz) and evolution (Darwin and Wallace).

For language and literacy education, our famous double is the hypothesis that we “learn to read by reading,” presented to the world by both Kenneth Goodman and Frank Smith in the 1960’s. (Many of Goodman’s works, including earlier papers, are collected in Flurkey and Xu, 2003; see also the collection in F. Smith, 1972, for early statements of this hypothesis.)

The Goodman/Smith hypothesis claims that we do not learn to read by first learning to isolate sounds, then learning to pronounce letters, then pronounce words, and then move on to larger units. Rather, we learn to read by making sense of what is on the page, and our knowledge of phonemic awareness, phonics, and the ability to read lists of words in isolation is the result of learning to read by reading.

As Frank Smith has pointed out, there has been a confusion between cause and effect: We don’t need an extensive knowledge of phonics to learn to read; rather, a (subconscious) mastery of phonics is the result of reading. As we will see below, reading is also the source of most of our competence in literacy: It is the source of our reading ability, most of our vocabulary beyond the basics, our ability to handle complex aspects of grammar, much of our spelling ability, and our ability to write with an acceptable writing style.

Note that the Goodman/Smith hypothesis predicts that some kinds of information can help literacy development by making texts more comprehensible. This includes background knowledge, and some aspects of language. Occasionally, some consciously learned phonics rules can help by making texts more comprehensible. There are, however, severe limits on how much phonics can be consciously learned (F. Smith, 2004).

The “learn to read by reading” hypothesis is very similar to the Input Hypothesis, the claim that we acquire language, in general, when we understand it, that is, when we get “comprehensible input” (Krashen, 1981). Comprehensible input results in language acquisition, an unconscious “feel for correctness” in language, and the foundation for fluent language production.

It has also been hypothesized that there are affective prerequisites to language acquisition: For input to enter the “language acquisition device,” the acquirer needs to be in a low anxiety state, and needs to consider himself or herself to be a potential member of the group that speaks the language. Similarly, F. Smith (1988) has hypothesized that full development of literacy requires that the reader consider himself or herself to be the kind of person who reads and write: A member of “the literacy club". . . .

You should read the rest of this important work here.

— Stephen Krashen
Defying Convention, Inventing the Future in Literacy Research and Practice: Essays in Tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman.


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