California’s Commitment: Literacy, Biliteracy, and Libraries

Stephen Krashen comments on 'California Commits to Literacy and Bets on Biliteracy' (Language Magazine, October 2021)

I have only one critical comment about California’s Secretary of Education Thurmond’s task force report, “California Commits to Literacy and Bets on Biliteracy,” but after that, I have only praise and optimism.

The critical comment: The goal of the task force is that every child in California learns to read by third grade. I suspect that third grade was chosen because of the common assumption that reading ability in grade three is a good predictor of later reading ability and educational success. It is, but there is nothing magic about grade three. Reading ability can improve a great deal after that, in fact at any age, given access to highly interesting and comprehensible reading material (Krashen and McQuillan, 2007).

The usual formula for improving literacy development, as one observer phrased it, is to “starve the children and test them more,” i.e., pay no attention to poverty and increase assessment. But as noted in “California Commits to Literacy…”, Secretary Thurmond is clearly aware that “socio-economic factors… impact a student’s ability to learn to read.” Poverty means, among other things, little access to reading material at home and often little access in school (Krashen, 2011), which brings us to the next point.

The usual prescription for increasing reading ability is heavy (“intensive, systematic”) phonics, teaching all the rules for sound–spelling relationships. This is, however, an impossible task: many phonics rules are very complicated and don’t work very well (Clymer, 1963; Smith, 2004); even the most highly competent readers are aware of only the most basic rules of phonics.1 Also, studies show that the effect of intensive systematic phonics instruction is present when children are asked to pronounce words presented on lists but is miniscule or absent on tests of reading comprehension given after first grade, tests in which children have to understand what they read. Garan (2001) showed this to be the case in studies reviewed by the National Reading Panel, and a similar pattern has been found in a number of additional studies (Krashen, 2009).

Most of our knowledge of phonics rules beyond the basics is acquired by reading, not study. In Becoming a Nation of Readers, Anderson et al. agree and conclude that “phonics instruction should aim to teach only the most important and regular of letter-to-sound relationships… once the basic relationships have been taught, the best way to get children to refine and extend their knowledge of letter–sound correspondences is through repeated opportunities to read. If this position is correct, then much phonics instruction is overly subtle and probably unproductive” (Anderson et al., 1985, p. 38).

Secretary Thurmond clearly understands that access to reading material (books) must be a huge part of any attempt to increase literacy. Those who read more show superior development of vocabulary, spelling, writing, and of course reading comprehension (Krashen, 2004), but reading in quantity requires sufficient access to reading material.

I assume the task force also knows about the powerful potential impact of libraries: for children of poverty, libraries are often the only source of books. Studies have found that children in schools with well-stocked libraries and with credentialed librarians show higher reading competence ( Research also tells us that “there is a positive and statistically significant relationship between children’s services in public libraries and early reading success at school” and “the greater the amount of circulated materials and the greater the attendance at (public) library programs, the more likely kids will do well in reading” (Lance and Marks, 2008).

Secretary Thurmond also understands the importance of developing literacy in both the first and second language. There are no disadvantages to biliteracy, only advantages. First-language literacy is a powerful help in developing literacy in the second language (e.g., Dow, Krashen, and Tinajero, 2009/2010), and advanced literacy in both languages is related to school success and economic success for the individual and society (Cho, Shin, and Krashen, 2004).

There is also growing evidence that a route to high levels of biliteracy that includes heritage-language literacy is reading for pleasure in the heritage language (Cho and Krashen, 2000; Tse, 2001). This is not always possible, however, as access to interesting, comprehensible reading material in the home/heritage language is rarely available (Pucci, 1994; Ashtari and Krashen, 2020). This is a problem that is easy to solve with a greater investment in reading material in the heritage language in school and public libraries and classes that promote the enjoyment of reading in the child’s first language (Ashtari, 2020).
A final word: “California Commits to Literacy and Bets on Biliteracy” is an accurate and strong title, but an even better one would have been “California Commits to Literacy, Biliteracy and Libraries.”

I conducted an informal experiment with 25 native speakers of English, mostly professionals in language arts. I first asked them to read the words bomb, bombing, and bombard aloud. They all did it correctly, not pronouncing the second b in bomb, bombs, or bombing but pronouncing it in bombard. Then I asked them if they knew the phonics rule that explained when you pronounce the second b and when it was silent.

Only eight knew the rule for the silent b in bomb (it comes after the letter m at the end of the word). Only one knew the rule for not pronouncing the second b in bombing and bombs but pronouncing it in bombard. (The second b remains silent before a grammatical suffix, as in bombing and bombs. If the suffix is not a grammatical suffix, b is pronounced, as in bombard.) I had to look up both rules. Most of us had not “learned” these rules but acquired them.

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Stephen Krashen taught at University of Southern California. He is now professor emeritus.


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