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HomeLiteracy/ESLThe New Free Voluntary Reading?

The New Free Voluntary Reading?

Kenneth S. Horowitz finds a parallel between the use of video games and Krashen’s theories of Free Voluntary Reading and Free Voluntary Surfing

ESL teachers often wonder how it is possible that the same students that have difficulty with texts assigned in class, who often struggle with composing a cohesive paragraph in English and would often prefer a failing grade to giving an oral presentation, are so readily — and easily — working around the language barriers they encounter in the social and recreational environments they find online. The answer is could be tied to what Krashen refers to as Free Voluntary Surfing (FVS), a variation of the term Free Voluntary Reading”(FVR). In this case, Krashen refers to learners surfing pages on the Internet in their second language (L2), covering subjects that interest them (Rodriguez & Ramos, 2009).

For teachers here in Puerto Rico, a potential problem with FVS is figuring out how to make the enormous selection of online texts comprehensible for ESL students. FVS suggests that the use of narrow reading (focusing on a single subject, author or genre, depending on the reader’s interest, and then expanding to other areas over time) is the best for optimal language and literacy development. When learners choose what to read and select a subject that interests them, comprehensibility is assured. Moreover, the vocabulary and syntax acquired through narrow reading is carried over to other topics (Krashen, 2007). Thus, Krashen, who is a strong advocate of FVR, suggests that those learners who apply narrow reading when surfing the Internet will benefit in the same way they would from applying it to reading books and other traditional texts.

This is not something entirely confined to higher education either. The use of narrow reading as a means for students to acquire vocabulary and language structure through comprehensible input is widely believed to be beneficial from as early as elementary school (Hadaway, 2009). Today’s Puerto Rican ESL (PRESL) learners are well prepared to apply these techniques to a digital medium and have acquired this knowledge on their own, with little regard to the use of language. The ability to use a computer and access the Internet is not entirely dependent on proficiency in English, and learners are bringing these computer skills to their reading. More importantly, these digital and language skills are already being carried over to other mediums, where learners are applying them regularly. Video games are one such area.

PRESL learners of all levels avidly play video games regularly and with little difficulty, despite the fact that the games are not in their first language. There seems to be little correlation between the need for a game to be in a particular language and the ability of PRESL learners to play it through to completion. The appeal of video games seems to overpower the barrier of a foreign language, especially if the learners already have an educational background with said language. It is estimated that around 73 percent of young adults in the U.S. between the ages of 18 and 29 make use of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, an increase of almost 20 percent from 2006 (Choney, 2010). With today’s young adults maintaining a constant online presence, the amount of time dedicated to digital entertainment has greatly increased, and now even the most unconventional of learners can access a myriad of game titles of all genres, and most importantly, all in English. Our students are joining make-believe mafias, attending to farms and cafes, and solving all kinds of puzzles, right there on their computers — completely in English —  and with little regard to the language difference that we, as teachers, so quickly and readily identify. For example, Farmville, a game where the player maintains and expands a farm with the help of online friends, has a base of over 80 million players worldwide (McElroy, 2010). Furthermore, it is estimated that a whopping 97 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games, which means they are well established in this area by the time they reach university (Rich, 2008).The use of video games for English teaching is not a new thing.

Research, as well as actual implementation of games as a tool for ESL teaching, have been going on for most of the past decade. Studies have already been done that involve the use of video games such as Sony’s Everquest as tools for L2 teaching, and these have included such languages as Chinese and Spanish (Waters, 2007).PRESL learners are already benefiting from such experiences, and they have the tools to apply the narrow reading techniques described above for reading books and using the Internet to video games. Those PRESL learners who have played video games, whether it be on a traditional game consoles such as the Nint­endo Wii, Playstation 3 or Xbox 360, a portable system like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, or even casually on web sites like Facebook or, have been doing so out of their own interest, with no formal accountability (grades or other evaluation) and at their own pace. Arguably video games are more interactive than books and the Internet.

Depending on the game, it can providevisual and audio simultaneously at a consistent rate, and can engage the player in real-time decision making. All these skills must be used together persistently. PRESL gamers must make on-the-fly decisions based on their readings, and their choices can have lasting effects on the game they’re playing. Furthermore, many games do not have a pause feature, which means that all reading and/or conversations must be done in real time. Most PRESL gamers know enough English to be able to get started in the game of their choice with little trouble. By the time they turn to video games entirely in English, many PRESL gamers have already experienced video games that either require no specific knowledge of English, or more rarely, had a language option. This gives them the necessary background of skills and schema to apply in the second language. (Gee, 2003). Thus they do not have to learn brand new skills just to be able to play games in English.Most single-player video games have no language option, requiring the PRESL player to read only in English to progress the story. Moreover, many games such as role-playing (RPGs) and first-person shooters, while violent, have scripts that contain tens of thousands of words. Bioware’s Mass Effect for the PC and Xbox 360 is one example of a game that creates a high level of immersion for the single player. Bioware’s games average around 500,000 words, and the first Mass Effect game has over 20,000 lines of dialogue, compared to an entire season of The Simpsons, which averages around 8,000 (Zenko, 2007). Another RPG, Lionhead’s Fable II, has 370,000 recorded words (around 38 hours of dialogue), with over 45 actors playing almost 200 speaking roles (Ogden, 2008).The effect is not confined to a single-player experience either. Multi-player games, such as World of Warcraft and the recently released Star Trek Online, offer PRESL gamers the opportunity to interact with other players in real-time, in either a cooperative or competitive setting. Players can form parties that require them to work together to complete objectives, and this constant interaction, combined with the English in-game text, provide simultaneous comprehensible input on several levels.All these factors combine to create what is effectively the gaming equivalent of FVS.

PRESL gamers find their activity interesting and compelling enough to not focus on the fact that the game they are playing is in English. They become so engrossed in the activity itself that they “forget” that the game is in English. This can be attributed to several factors, such as gamers’ familiarity with the language due to formal schooling, consistent exposure from television, the Internet, and movies, and prior experiences playing other games.Video games for PRESL learners seemingly fit the guidelines of Krashen’s theory of Free Voluntary Surfing (FVS): video games are intermediate and authentic texts, video games are genuinely interesting to the gamer but not crucial, and PRESL gamers find the activity compelling enough to avoid looking up words constantly, allowing real language acquisition to take place (Krashen, 2007). This activity is also consistent with Krashen’s Comprehension Hypothesis because PRESL gamers choose which titles they wish to play. PRESL gamers tend to like specific genres and focus their gaming habits on those types. This specific context gives them the narrow focus that helps with language and literacy development. Due to the wide array of genres and styles, most tastes are satisfied, and players are able to choose the types of games they enjoy the most. Furthermore, since most PRESL gamers play different types of games, the syntax and vocabulary acquired in one genre will carry over to others.

In fact, it has been suggested that the reading done by gamers with instruction manuals, strategy guides, and online message boards may serve as a sort of “gateway drug” for more complex reading later on (Rich 2008).Though PRESL gamers usually like a diversity of genres, RPG games require more time for completion, taking usually from 40-100 hours. This usually means that the RPG being played is the only game on which the player is focused for days, if not weeks at a time. Let’s look again to Bioware’s Mass Effect, for instance. Though the actual main quest of the game can be completed in around 20 hours, there are many side quests available that can double that amount. Players are motivated to complete these extra quests because they flesh out the relationships between the main character and his party, and they also provide a deeper look into the game’s overall plot. Mass Effect’s incredibly rich storyline provides the gamers with a fascinating look at all the alien races, planets, and governments featured in the game, and it does this through a combination of text and voice work. What makes games like Mass Effect so useful to ESL learners is that the entire plot is directly influenced by the player and the choices he or she makes. Players can be a paragon of virtue or a dastardly rogue, and virtually every other character in the game will react accordingly. Conversations are controlled by dialogue trees, which allow the player to choose how to answer a question or address a particular situation. The dialogue presented onscreen provides only the intent of the actual choice, so the player has to choose the option to learn the full answer, which is provided though actual voice (Nutt, 2007). Characters can gain or lose loyalty from particular responses, as well as fall in love with the protagonist or even die. This is especially beneficial to language learners, as the game must be completed twice for the player to see the results of the majority of dialogue options to see how the plot develops. Moreover, should players choose to import their characters into the sequel, all the decisions made in the first game carry over, providing them with continuity and allowing them to see the long-lasting effects of the conversations.The use of video games as an effective means of ESL instruction is something that has only begun to be explored.

The pedagogical foundation for its use is there, and the sheer amount of young language learners already engaged in gaming in English is something that should not be ignored. Students learn best when we bring their own interests into the equation. Gaming, when done under the right conditions and in the right context, can provide an excellent means for them to acquire vocabulary and sentence structure from real-time interactions, either in a single-player environment or through online play with other learners.


Choney, Susanne. (2010, February 3). “Most Younger Net Users Get There Wirelessly.” Retrieved February 10, 2010, from MSNBC:, James Paul. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.Hadaway, Nancy L. (2009, April). A Narrow Bridge to Academic Reading. 66.38-41. Krashen, S. (2005). “The ‘Decline’ of Reading in America, Poverty and Access to Books, and the use of Comics in Encouraging Reading.” Teachers College Record.Krashen, S. (2007, July). “Free Voluntary Web-Surfing.” International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 3, 2-8.McElroy, Griffen. (2010). “Farmville Community Surpasses 80 Million Players.” Retrieved February 22, 2010 from Joystiq: Nutt, Christian. (2007, September 7). “AGDC: Bioware Charts Writing for Mass Effect.” Retrieved January 21, 2010, from Gamasutra:, Gavin. (2008, June 26). Fable 2 Dialogue: 370,000 Words Recorded. Retrieved January 21, 2010, from, Motoko. (2008, October 5). “Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers.” Retrieved February 19, 2010 from NewYork Rodgriguez, J. M., & Ramos, F. (2009, January). A Conversation with Krashen. Language Magazine, 8, 28-30.Waters, John K. (2007, October). On a Quest for English. Retrieved February 19, 2010, from The Journal Zenko, Darren. (2007, November 4). Killing? Sometimes. Talking? Constantly. Retrieved January 20, 2010, from

Kenneth S. Horowitz ([email protected]) is a professor in the Department of English, Pontifical Catholic University, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. He has been an English teacher on the sunny Caribbean isle of Puerto Rico for 13 years, where he has worked with students who have been raised with English virtually their entire lives yet still see it as something foreign. He has a BA and MA in ESL and teaches undergraduate English courses from the basic level to ESL majors working towards board certification. He is currently working towards completing his Ed.D in ESL.

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