For Stephen Krashen, the disruption to traditional education during Covid-19 may reveal some unexpected benefits.
Krashen is a leading world scholar, emeritus professor of Education at the University of Southern California, and author of several books on language acquisition.
In a recent conversation, Krashen discussed how teachers and parents can harness the opportunity to teach language—including heritage languages—during remote learning. Here are his expert insights:
1. Less Traditional Instruction May Be a Good Thing
Many parents and teachers are understandably anxious about remote learning, as instruction has become less traditional.
However, Krashen notes, “We do not acquire language by study, or by speaking or writing. We acquire in only one way: by understanding what we hear or read. What we call ‘comprehensible input.’ The ability to produce language is the result of getting the right kind of input.”
With less focus on traditional language education, i.e., practicing memorized rules and grammar through speaking until they become automatic, students are free to acquire language in a more effective way.
What Is Comprehensible Input?
According to Stephen Krashen’s theory of language acquisition, comprehensible input is language that can be understood by listeners even if they don’t fully comprehend all of the vocabulary and grammar in use. Input is essential to acquisition, as it informs learners’ subconscious understanding of a language.
As Krashen noted in a recent webinar for USC Rossier’s Master of Arts in Teaching—Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (MAT-TESOL) program, “We [acquire language] when we understand what people tell us, and understand what we read.”
2. Remote Learning Can Easily Support Language Acquisition
While online education may isolate students at home, it shouldn’t negatively impact language learning. “We don’t need massive amounts of interaction to acquire language. We need massive amounts of input,” says Krashen.
Here’s how teachers and parents can continue to provide rich input during Covid-19.
Practice More Storytelling
In early foreign language classes, studies show that students learn more effectively by listening to stories told to them by their teachers than from traditional study. Listening creates a path to reading, which is key for input for language acquisition.
Allow Students to Read for Pleasure
“Self-selected pleasure reading is the source of most of our vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and the ability to write with an acceptable writing style,” notes Krashen. Studies show that those who read more know more about science, literature, history and even practical matters.
How can teachers encourage students to read for pleasure? Guide them by choosing possible reading material based on difficulty and the readers’ interests.
3. Parents Should Share Heritage Language at Home
Heritage language is an indigenous language spoken by a student’s family. For students whose dominant language is English, remote learning presents a key opportunity to continue acquiring their heritage language while at home.
In addition to the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, learning a heritage language integrates students into their family, allowing them to learn from their experience and wisdom.
While at home, parents should talk to their kids in their heritage language, ideally sharing stories about their family. Reading is also a critical tool. Try to entice your children with easy texts, such as comics or beginner books.
Just remember to avoid being too critical of their competence. In order to learn their heritage language, they will need permission to make mistakes.
4. Encourage Students to Read Fiction
When it comes to language acquisition, fiction is the most beneficial form of input. Fiction (especially science fiction) has a wide range of vocabulary and can educate students about history, science, geography and more—and is more enjoyable than academic texts.
In fact, for a cousin (now age 93) who was planning to learn about law by reading classes, Krashen instead recommended the novels of John Grisham. They offer insight into the world of law, use relevant vocabulary, and are more pleasurable reads. Krashen reports that his cousin is doing just that, learning a great deal about the world of law, and loving it.
5. Avoid Self-Instruction Language Learning Texts
If you want to continue a heritage language education at home, or supplement your child’s bilingual study, avoid self-instruction books.
In a study by Stephen Krashen and Nooshan Ashtari, PhD, self-instruction books for Farsi from a branch of the Los Angeles Public Library were examined for wear and tear.
They applied a method developed by a previous scholar to determine whether library books were not just checked out from the library, but actually read.
This table highlights their findings:
The results indicate that the traditional methods of language learning that stress grammar and vocabulary aren’t very appealing.
6. Find out if Your Library Is Open Online
The closure of public libraries during Covid-19 is a blow to students and families, especially low-income families who rely on them for free access to books. However, some library systems, such as the Los Angeles Public Library and the Santa Monica Public Library continue to make their digital offerings available online (and temporarily waive late fees).
While this unfortunately doesn’t help families without WiFi or digital devices, it allows more language learners to continue to self-select books for pleasure, or receive guided selection from parents during the pandemic.
7. Language Scholars Should Increase Access to Publications
Despite the devastation of Covid-19, a unique opportunity has emerged within education and language instruction. Many scholars often can’t access research and publications from their colleagues because it’s expensive. Traditionally, publishers gate content online or require it to be purchased.
However, because educators are in isolation, they may be more motivated to share their work for free. Stephen Krashen is trying to lead by example, sharing short publications designed to generate dialogue among scholars as well as aspiring language teachers (although as a retiree, he acknowledges that he’s free from the pressures of tenure committees.)
By increasing access to research and findings, and keeping it short and digestible, more educators can improve education for students throughout the pandemic, and beyond.
To learn more about USC Rossier’s Master of Arts in Teaching—Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages program, contact admission staff.