Hands down, reading is one of the most powerful tools for facilitating acquisition of vocabulary—whether it is vocabulary from a first, second, or third language. Most educators acknowledge the power of reading to enhance one’s first (already-established) language (i.e., expand vocabulary, develop writing skills, and improve spelling), but many overlook the power of reading for facilitating acquisition of a second language (L2), particularly as it pertains to novice-level learners who have not yet developed strong listening-comprehension skills.
Reading in and of itself is a language skill; it is simply oral language in a written format. Comprehension of a written text is dependent upon language development—listening comprehension in particular. Although oral/aural language and reading acquisition are linked, they do not necessarily develop in alignment. It is possible to have acute listening-comprehension skills and minimal to no reading-comprehension or literacy skills. The opposite, however, is not possible. One cannot comprehend written text without also having a minimal level of comprehension of spoken language.
If novice-level language learners have minimal listening-comprehension skills, it may not seem plausible that that they would be able to successfully decode a text in L2 (recognize that each group of letters represents a specific spoken word) and derive meaning from it. Without meaning, there is no comprehension, and without comprehension (or comprehended input), second-language acquisition (SLA) is not possible. Comprehensible input (CI) is a critical element for second-language acquisition. Not a single research study has been able to counter the claim that for SLA to take place, an extraordinary amount of CI must be present. How, then, is it possible for a novice-level language learner with minimal listening-comprehension skill to acquire language from reading?
The answer is quite simple: comprehension-based (CB) readers. Comprehension-based readers have been transformative in helping language educators provide the right conditions for SLA. Vastly different from traditional texts/novellas, comprehension-based readers are strategically written with an exceptionally low unique word count and an unusually high frequency factor (the number of times core words and phrases are repeated within a text), which makes them highly comprehensible—even to novice-level learners and/or weak readers. Each story is strategically woven together using very few unique words and numerous cognates (words that are similar in two languages). They provide a powerful context in a rich tapestry of comprehensible language.
The goal of every CB reader is to mesmerize learners, lulling them into a story world that inconspicuously provides repeated exposure to high-frequency words and phrases. SLA takes place through repeated exposure to comprehended linguistic data (words and phrases). Each encounter with a word or phrase—whether in oral or written language—initially results in processing for meaning and the development of mental representation. Mental representation is what language looks like in the mind. Words and phrases may have specific meanings/definitions, yet humans rarely have definitions readily available. They simply know what words mean based on the mental representations that they have implicitly developed in their linguistic systems. Take the word circle, for example. Everyone knows what a circle is, but very few people can easily articulate a formal definition. That is because we have a mental representation of what a circle is, not a formal definition. “The mental representation of language in a speaker’s mind/brain consists of abstract properties of language that exist outside the speaker’s ability to describe” (VanPatten, “The Two Faces of SLA: Mental Representation and Skill”).
Dr. Bill VanPatten, a leading expert on SLA processes, has written over 120 articles and at least a dozen books on the topic of language acquisition and its implications for classroom practices. In his newest book, While We’re on the Topic (a must-read published by and available from ACTFL.org), Dr. VanPatten describes language and mental representation as follows: “Language is an abstract, implicit, and complex mental representation. Language as mental representation is too abstract and complex to teach and learn explicitly [consciously]; it cannot be taught and learned explicitly, as happens with regular ‘subject matter.’”
The implication for language learners and teachers is that memorization, conjugation, and examination do not result in fluency. To develop mental representation (language), one must be in the language and understand messages. Just as it is impossible to learn to swim without being in water, it is impossible to acquire language (develop communicative competence) without being in the language. Comprehension-based readers provide a portal to being in the language in a compelling, contextualized, and highly comprehensible format that is conducive to language acquisition.
In spite of being written in easy-to-understand language, comprehension-based readers feel like authentic literary works. They easily engage learners due to their comprehensible and compelling nature and inherently carry readers into a state of “flow.” Flow, also known as “the zone,” is a state of consciousness in which one is fully immersed in performing an activity with energized focus, full engagement, and complete enjoyment. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does and a resulting loss of one’s sense of space and time. According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, an “optimal experience” is one that is genuinely satisfying and results in lasting enjoyment. A large-scale study in Germany revealed that the more often people report reading books, the more flow experiences they claim to have, while the opposite trend was found for watching television.
Dr. Stephen Krashen referenced flow and the pleasure one derives from reading in his paper “The Compelling (Not Just Interesting) Input Hypothesis”: “[Compelling input is] input that is so interesting you forget that it is in another language. It means you are in a state of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). In flow, the concerns of everyday life and even the sense of self disappear—our sense of time is altered and nothing but the activity itself seems to matter. Flow occurs during reading when readers are ‘lost in the book’ (Nell, 1988) or in the ‘Reading Zone’ (Atwell, 2007).”
Being lost in a comprehensible, compelling book creates an optimal condition for acquiring language. The more compelling the story, the more likely learners are to tolerate a bit of “noise” in the text and the more likely they are to stay engaged in the language. Humans love stories. They are powerful tools for sustaining engagement and for providing CI in a cohesive, contextualized, and compelling way. “We do not experience language in isolation… but always in relation to a scenario, some background or person and actions and events from which the things that are said derive their meaning” (Halliday, Language as a Social Semiotic).
The caveat to using stories to facilitate SLA is that they must be comprehensible enough to feel effortless, compelling enough to sustain attention, and robust enough to provide adequate exposure to linguistic data. In other words, stories must contain quality input to be conducive to SLA. Ironically, the caveat to stories is the power of comprehension-based readers. CB readers are full of quality level-appropriate input, as recommended by VanPatten. “Instructors and materials should provide appropriate level input (and interaction). We should take the fundamental roles of input and communication as the fundamental centerpieces of the language learning/teaching enterprise and create curricula reflective of them” (VanPatten, “CLT Principle 4,” While We’re on the Topic, pg. 57). Not only are language learners who frequently and consistently have access to quality input likely to achieve communicative competence, they are likely to reach a minimum threshold in the L2 to put them on a trajectory to becoming life-long learners (acquirers) of language.
There are two facets to comprehension-based readers as they pertain to the language classroom, and both consistently demonstrate strong correlation between reading and language growth. The first is SSR (sustained silent reading) or FVR (free voluntary reading). SSR refers to class time (usually ten to 20 minutes) that is dedicated to reading, while FVR is reading that can be done in or out of class time and is self-selected and completely voluntary. During FVR/SSR, students (and their teachers) read a book, a magazine, or any text and spend an allotted amount (or any amount) of time with the intent of reading for pleasure. The relationship between FVR and literacy, writing, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary acquisition is remarkably consistent. The more students read for pleasure, the greater the gains (Krashen, The Power of Reading).
When dealing with beginners in the language and/or weak readers, many teachers opt to use CB readers as a shared reading experience. As a whole-class read, the teacher uses various guided reading strategies to help learners decode text, develop an ear for the language, and deepen comprehension. While strong readers are capable of creating powerful mental images and often unconsciously engage in a written story to the point of laughter, tears, and/or fear, weak readers rarely connect to the text enough to visualize or feel the story. Weak readers rejoice over the movie version of a book, while strong readers are generally left disappointed—movies rarely depict the characters and places as vividly and creatively as they had pictured them in the mind’s eye. A shared reading experience gives the teacher an opportunity to train readers (learners) to actively construct meaning, visualize events, and emotionally connect to the text.
Sharing the reading experience has the added benefit of providing a cohesive theme and numerous interrelated topics that naturally inspire relevant and comprehensible discussion. “Narrow” input derived from the rich context of each CB reader naturally provides repeated exposure to high-frequency words and continuously recycled, topically driven vocabulary (Krashen, “The Case for Narrow Reading”). In addition to providing a framework for guiding ongoing comprehensible discourse with learners, CB readers are also powerful tools for teaching content in the context of a story. Fiction and nonfiction stories provide a natural backdrop to teaching and discussing current events, history, and culture. Like communicative competence, intercultural competence is best achieved by being in the target language and in the culture simultaneously. CB readers provide a virtual cultural environment that cultivates a deeper understanding of the target culture’s products, practices, and perspectives, which is the first step toward intercultural competence.
Although reading culturally rich and/or nonfiction stories is powerful, reading fiction can be just as powerful in terms of SLA. Universally, there is a strong correlation between any type of reading and improved vocabulary, language skills, and spelling. Studies show that books, no matter the type, increase language comprehension, vocabulary, and brain activity (Ward, “Two Science-Backed Ways Reading Fiction Makes You Smarter”). Psychologist Keith Stanovich writes, “If ‘smarter’ means having a larger vocabulary and more world knowledge… then reading may well make people smarter. The data supports this finding time and time again.”
An interesting aspect of reading research is that there is no parameter placed on books, such as genre or level. People most often choose fiction and rarely, if ever, choose a book at their reading level. Choose one of Oprah’s Book Club picks or a novel from Bill Gates’s semi-annual book recommendation, and one will find reads that range from a sixth- to ninth-grade level. Nevertheless, language teachers are notorious for insisting that students read at their level in spite of the fact that they themselves do not. Research repeatedly demonstrates that easy reading of any kind has a positive impact on language development. That means extensive reading of comprehensible texts in L2 will inherently result in higher proficiency levels.
When selecting texts for students, teachers will often use the rationale, “My students would be insulted if I asked them to read this easy book.” The most popular best-selling books generally have two things in common: they generally are fiction and are written between a fifth- and eighth-grade level. Since when do we pick up books for pleasure with the mindset that they are too easy to enjoy? I think I am safe in saying that no one has ever picked up a New York Times best-selling book, inventoried all known words, and said, “I already know all of these words! How insulting!”
In a nutshell, CB readers provide learners with compelling stories that are highly comprehensible, conducive to SLA, and enjoyable to read. They make the exercise of reading feel effortless and result in lasting enjoyment and satisfaction. The byproduct of the experience is SLA and the development of communicative competence. From a teacher’s perspective, CB readers provide a low-stress, low-prep, highly engaging platform to naturally, efficiently, and enjoyably facilitate acquisition. It is not rocket science. It is just comprehensible reading.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial. (2008. Modern Classic Edition: HarperCollins).
Halliday, M. (1978). Language as a Social Semiotic. Baltimore, MD: University Park Press.
Krashen, S. (1981). “The Case for Narrow Reading.” TESOL Newsletter 15: 23.
Krashen, S. (2000). “The Case for Narrow Reading.” (Revised version). Language Magazine, 3(5): 17–19.
Krashen, S. (2011a). “The Compelling (Not Just Interesting) Input Hypothesis.” English Connection (a publication of KOTESOL) 15.
Krashen, S. (2004). The Power of Reading. Englewood, CO Libraries Unlimited Inc.
VanPatten, B. (2010). “The Two Faces of SLA: Mental representation and skill.” International Journal of English Studies.
VanPatten, B. (2017). While We’re on the Topic: BVP on Language Acquisition and Classroom Practice. American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
Ward, M. (2017). “Two Science-Backed Ways Reading Fiction Makes You Smarter.” CNBC Make It. https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/28/how-reading-fiction-makes-you-smarter.html.
Wilhelm, D. (2008). You Gotta Be the Book. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.
Founder of Fluency Matters, Carol Gaab has been providing training in CI-based strategies since 1996. She was presenter for the Bureau of Education and Research for nine years and a Spanish/ESL teacher for 25 years, most notably 20 years directing the San Francisco Giant’s language program. She is the author of the ‘Brandon Brown’ series and numerous other SLA-friendly resources.