The power of reading: Case histories of second and foreign language readers
Renandya, W.A., Jacobs, G.M., Krashen, S., & Ong, Crystal Hui Min. (2019). The power of reading: Case histories of second and foreign language readers. Language and Language Teaching, January 2019.
We present two case histories of acquirers of English as a second/foreign language. We focus on how their reading habits resulted in remarkable improvements of their linguistic competence. The case histories provide additional supporting evidence for the Reading Hypothesis, which claims that high achievement is possible when L2 learners engage in self-selected reading that contains comprehensible and compelling language input.
Case histories have the potential to make important contributions to both theory and practice (Nye, 2012). In terms of theory, they have been largely used to help generate new hypotheses, but they can also be used to test existing hypotheses, supplying either supporting or contradictory data as well as give us guidance on application, through examining cases of successful and unsuccessful implementation. They can also serve to inspire other language acquirers and demonstrate that high achievement is possible.
The case histories presented here focus on the Reading Hypothesis, the claim that we develop language and literacy through meaningful reading. The Reading Hypothesis derives from the more general Comprehension Hypothesis, which claims that we acquire language when we understand messages, when we obtain comprehensible input.
Research strongly suggests that the most potent form of reading is reading that is not only comprehensible, but also “compelling,” or highly interesting (Krashen, Lee, & Lao, 2017). A good way to increase the likelihood of obtaining compelling input is to encourage self-selection.
There is strong evidence from experimental and correlational research that self-selected reading leads to superior development of literacy, including vocabulary, grammar, writing style, reading ability, and spelling (Krashen, 2004, 2010; Krashen, Lee, & Lao, 2017).
We examine two cases of self-selected reading to explore whether the Reading Hypothesis is supported, intending to add to the modest number of case histories already reported. Superficially, the cases are different: in one case, the person’s reading habit started before she began school, and was in a second language that she spoke very well. The second is about a reader who developed an English as a foreign language reading habit as a young adult. In this second case, there was clearly room for improvement in his foreign language competence. But in both cases, the similarities are far more important than the differences.
Crystal Ong Hui Min
Crystal Ong Hui Min was born in Singapore in 1998. The reading culture of her family was and is somewhat varied. Her maternal grandmother grew up in Malaysia at a time when the view was that girls did not need to go to school. Thus, she was illiterate, a fact which she bemoaned till her death. Hui Min’s maternal grandfather left school at about the age of 12, but he did learn to read, and he continues to read a daily Chinese newspaper. On Hui Min’s father’s side, her grandmother came to Singapore from China, and lived her life as a non-reading Hainanese monolingual speaker. The paternal grandfather, who passed away long before Hui Min was born, stopped schooling after primary school and was literate.
Hui Min’s parents left school after the secondary level, and their continued reading is largely newspapers, with the mother preferring Chinese newspapers, while the father prefers English newspapers.
Since birth, Hui Min has lived in a multi-generational home, with extended family members in the same flat. Currently, 10+ people live in the same flat. Mandarin was the main language spoken in the family, but Hui Min has been quite comfortable in English since she was very young. She attended a bilingual preschool, and spent the weekends with one of the authors of this paper (GJ) and his wife. Conversation with GJ was in English and he and his bilingual wife read aloud to Hui Min in English. In fact, it is accurate to describe Hui Min as an English dominant bilingual.
Even before starting primary school, Hui Min stood out as an avid reader of fiction in English. Her family supported her reading habit by taking her to the well-stocked public libraries and bookshops, and her aunt (Hui Min’s father’s sister) who lives in the U.S. regularly sent her English books.
A few things stood out about Hui Min’s reading habits. One, she would read the same book as many as five or more times. Two, she enjoyed series books, such as the Junie B. Jones series, as well as books by the same author, such as Beverly Cleary and later Jodi Picoult and Haruki Murakami. Three, she was a quick reader, as GJ realized one day when he asked the then eight-year old Hui Min how she was enjoying a book she had been reading. When Hui Min said that she had already finished the book, GJ was very surprised. So, being unable to escape his background as a teacher, GJ decided to read the book himself and give his niece a quiz, which she passed with flying colors.
A fourth characteristic of Hui Min’s reading was her insistence on reading fiction exclusively. Even when she was told about the many academic and knowledge benefits of including non-fiction in her reading portfolio, and even when she was offered inducements, she insisted on keeping to fiction for her out-of-school reading. Fifth, Hui Min read anywhere and everywhere: at the dinner table, on public transport, and after she was supposed to be asleep.
What have the results been so far for Hui Min? She has consistently been a top student in all levels of school, and at the time of this writing was about to begin studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, rated among the world’s best in many international indices. Along with excelling in her studies, Hui Min also has an active social and extracurricular life. In contrast, Hui Min’s only sibling, a brother born in 2001, never developed a reading habit, despite receiving the same encouragement that his sister received, and despite having his older sister as a role model. According to our observations, to date he has been markedly less successful in his studies and markedly less active in social and extracurricular activities.
Willy A. Renandya
Willy Renandya was born in Indonesia and did all of his primary, secondary, and undergraduate education in the same country. Like most Indonesians, he acquired several languages, including Indonesian, Javanese and a bit of Mandarin and Hokkien, which was spoken mainly by his father and his circle of Hokkien-speaking friends).
The reading culture in the family was rather poor during his childhood. Besides school textbooks, there were practically no reading materials at home. When he was in secondary school, he started reading comics and series books in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language of Indonesia. These were books that he borrowed from the neighbourhood libraries. He became a ferocious reader of serialized fiction; rarely, if ever, did he read nonfiction such as newspapers, magazines, or any “serious” books.
His favourite author was Asmaraman Kho Ping Ho, a Chinese Indonesian writer, who wrote some 120 serialized kungfu stories. His novels were among the best sellers back then, attracting millions of fanatic readers who impatiently waited for the next title of his book to be printed and released. His books were not just about fighting and revenge, the usual staple of kungfu stories. He skilfully infused other powerful ingredients into his stories: love, friendship, hatred, loyalty, and betrayal. Born in 1926 into a Chinese Indonesian family, Kho died in 1994. Many of those born in the 50s and 60s fondly remember reading Kho’s delightful novels.
Like most of his peers who spent six years studying English in high school, Willy’s English proficiency was close to being non-functional, probably in the A1 level at the CEFR band scale. He knew some words and how to put these words into sentences, but that was about all. He had never used the language for any meaningful communication either orally or in writing.
Willy graduated from high school in 1975, and armed only with this very basic knowledge of English, he applied for admission into the English language education department of a teacher’s college in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. And, by sheer luck, he got accepted. All lectures were conducted in English, so it was quite a struggle for him to understand the lessons. Most of the time, he was just listening but not really comprehending much of what was happening in class.
The English department had a small reading library that was managed by the students themselves. The books consisted mainly of simplified classics (e.g., Moby-Dick, David Copperfield, Wuthering Heights, and Oliver Twist) which he had to read and then write book reports on. He found the books, for the most part, boring, and the book reports burdensome. His initial enthusiasm quickly died down and he began to lose interest.
Then one day, he stumbled upon a novel in a local book shop: a Perry Mason book written by Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason is the main character of Gardner’s more than 80 detective novels). He had never heard of the author before, nor had he watched the Perry Mason TV series. He picked up the book simply because the title and the book cover looked attractive.
Although it was an unabridged novel, he was able to read it with sufficient comprehension. This was perhaps partly because the novel contained a lot of dialogue written in simple, conversational language. There were words and expressions he didn’t understand, but the storyline was so captivating that he continued reading the whole book and finished it within hours.
He felt exhilarated. He was able to finish reading an entire English novel with comprehension and enjoyment! This produced a strong urge to read more books by the same author. He went back to the bookshop and bought a new Perry Mason title. Five more Perry Mason books resulted in addiction: He kept going back to the shop and eventually bought and read about 50 Perry Mason titles. He then moved on to the Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot series. In the meantime, his classmates continued to read graded readers from the department library.
This self-selected reading of series books had a huge impact on his language proficiency. He started out at the bottom of the class in terms of language proficiency and was falling behind with his studies. His classmates were already quite fluent (most were able to express themselves clearly), and they didn’t seem to have difficulty with the lessons. But by the end of his undergraduate studies, he had become very fluent and was able to communicate in English orally and in writing as well, if not better, than most of his classmates, and he graduated with the highest GPA in his class. Other than his reading habits, there was nothing that would explain his extraordinary progress. He did not have friends or family members with whom he used English; neither did he travel to English-speaking countries to practice his English.
Soon after Willy completed his education degree, he landed a teaching job in an English language school in Indonesia. It was a sizable language school with about 10 English teachers. Because of their varied educational backgrounds, their levels of proficiency in English were rather mixed. To support their professional development needs, the school asked these teachers to take the TOEFL test (the paper-based test) so that they could identify skill areas that needed improvement. All 10 teachers signed up and took the test. The majority scored slightly above, at or below the mean score of 500. However two teachers, both of whom were avid readers of English novels, scored above 600, placing them roughly at the 85th and 97th percentiles.
At the time, Willy was not aware of how he managed to learn so much English in a fairly short period of time. When people asked him how he did it; he simply said, “I don’t know; I just did”. It was very much later when he did his graduate studies in TESOL that he was introduced to the works of Stephen Krashen, Richard Day and other SLA experts, which helped him understand the power of self-selected narrow reading on language development.
The impressive language growth of the two people portrayed in these two case studies is consistent with the results of experimental and correlational research, as well as previously reported case histories (e.g., for reviews, see Krashen, 2004, 2010. Recent results include Sullivan and Brown, 2014, Yeo, Chew, and Krashen, 2016, Cho, 2016, 2017; Mason and Krashen, 2017).
The two readers both showed unexpected and unusual development in literacy and school performance. Their reading was not with the purpose of improvement, but for pleasure. In fact, in some previously published case histories, superior language development and school success were unexpected and came as a surprise (e.g. Lin, Shin, and Krashen, S. 2004; the case of Cohen, in Krashen, 2004, and Mason 2017).
Outside of their schoolwork, both people described here read largely fiction, which they selected themselves. Both were “series” readers, readers of books by a single author continuing the same story or theme. Previously published case histories show that dedicated readers preferred fiction and stayed with favourite authors and series books. (e.g., Cho, 2006, 2007, Mason 2017) with a preferences for series books (Cho, 2006, Henkin and Krashen, 2015; Mason, 2017).
Both readers maintained their reading habit for a number of years. Based on case histories of second language acquirers who were long-term pleasure readers in English, Cho and Krashen (2016) concluded that the following conditions contributed to the establishment and maintenance of a reading habit:
- An initial pleasant reading experience
- Access to interesting reading material
- A time and place to read regularly
- The freedom to select their own reading
- No tests, no workbook exercises and no rewards for reading
It appears that these conditions were met in the cases presented here.
The two case histories presented here thus confirm not only the Reading Hypothesis, but are also consistent with other findings, e.g. the power of fiction, self-selection, and series books, and the requirement that long-term reading requires access to books, a time and place to read, as well as self-selection.
Meeting these conditions can result in impressive achievement while doing something pleasant.
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