April 24, 2018

Return on Reading | Backtalk

There have been many efforts to quantify the return on investment of a library. Researchers take into account the cost of public meeting space, computer use, books checked out, and other factors, and have found that libraries return several times more value to the community than they cost. While those factors may be easier to quantify, I would like to revive a simpler definition of a library: it’s a place with books. The benefits of these books to the community are difficult to quantify, but research on the effects of reading shows us that the benefits are also difficult to overstate. As we adapt to the Information Age, we must be cautious not to forget about one of our core services.

Remember your high school foreign language class with its endless grammar exercises? In a study in 1998, Spanish professor Jeffrey Stokes and his colleagues tried to determine which factors best predicted a student’s ability to correctly use the Spanish subjunctive, a notoriously difficult form for Americans. They found a long list of things that were not significant predictors: time spent in the Spanish classroom, time spent on the subjunctive, and time spent in Spanish-speaking countries. The only factor that predicted competence in the subjunctive was the amount of free reading in Spanish done by the student. This finding isn’t surprising, given the body of evidence supporting free voluntary reading (FVR).

Stephen Krashen, in The Power of Reading, defines FVR, as “reading because you want to: no book reports, no questions at the end of the chapter. In FVR, you don’t have to finish the book if you don’t like it. FVR is the kind of reading most of us do obsessively all the time.” Krashen summarizes evidence which supports striking improvements in a number of intellectual skills as a result of free reading, including reading comprehension, writing style, vocabulary, and spelling.

What’s provocative about Krashen’s argument is that he claims reading is more important than direct instruction. Krashen writes, “Every Monday, in thousands of language and language arts classes, children are given a list of 20 vocabulary words . . . If you show the list of 20 words to a child who has read, who grew up with books, he probably knows 15 or 16 of the words already. He has seen them before, in Choose Your Own Adventure, Harry Potter, and Batman Returns. If he studies, he gets an A. If he doesn’t study, he gets a B. If you show the list of 20 words to a child who did not grow up with books, the situation is very different. He may know five or six of the words. If he studies, with a heroic effort, he might get a D+.” Direct instruction, according to Krashen, all too often simply rewards readers and sets up non-readers for failure.

Krashen argues that the sheer size and complexity of language makes it impossible to learn by direct instruction. To take a single measure of the difficulty, one conservative estimate puts the number of words known by the average college freshman at 12,000. To learn these directly would be a Herculean task. On the other hand, a child can learn thousands of words by reading millions. This sounds huge, but a million words is the length of the Harry Potter series, or about 20 Lemony Snicket books. Our goal should be to get kids excited about reading and give them access to books.

The public library generates excitement and provides access. Last year Phillip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, talked about the first time his mother took him to the public library: “All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination . . . . Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?”

The empirical literature is equally excited about the power of a big pile of books. The more books a child has access to, the more he or she reads. Krashen describes one study of prospective teachers who identified themselves as “reluctant readers,” which found that all of them had limited access to books as children. Another study found that the closer a child lives to a public library, the more he or she reads. Another found that fifth graders read more over the summer if they said it was easy to access the library. Yet another found that of kids who hate to read, few have visited the public library.

The evidence, then, is clear. Reading is extraordinary. It captures a child’s imagination while teaching him or her how to read, how to write, and how to think, and the mere existence of a public library causes children to read more. Encouraging parents to bring their children to the library is even better. When you discuss the broad array of services provided by public libraries, don’t forget the books.

Stacking Up and Defying Time (+1) by Susana FernandezAttribution-ShareAlike License

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  1. I love this article! Yes, yes, yes!

  2. Gregory Fisher says:

    As a former foreign language teacher, I am fascinated by this information. A colleague recently retired from teaching rhetoric at university level relates that we have three vocabularies in descending amounts of recognition and usage: reading being the largest, writing next, and speaking the smallest “reservoir”. Of course the normal order that humans learn language skills is different–hearing, speaking, reading, and finally writing. In my own retirement, I only read fiction in the target foreign language to maintain and expand vocabulary.

  3. I couldn’t agree more! As a non-native but fluent Spanish speaker, I would add that listening to music in Spanish and learning the lyrics helped me tremendously in getting the grammar right.