Carbondale's community connector

Leading literacy expert explores reading debate

Locations: News Published

By Lynn Burton
Sopris Sun Staff Writer

A leading literacy expert explains an ongoing discussion in the education community at the Carbondale Branch Library at 7 p.m. on May 25.

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There are at least two components to this discussion: whether students better develop reading skills through formal study such as spelling lists and grammar/vocabulary exercises, or through reading for their own pleasure.

“Sometimes called ‘free voluntary reading,’ this is the most important tool we have in language education,” Dr. Stephen Krashen told The Sopris Sun in an e-mail.

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Krashen, a professor emeritus in education and linguistics from the University of Southern California, is being brought to Carbondale by the Manaus Fund and its Our Children, Our Schools program. The talk is free and is co-sponsored by the Valley Settlement Project, Raising a Reader and Garfield County Libraries.

Our Children, Our Schools spokeswoman Debbie Bruell (a Sopris Sun board member) said Krashen’s presentation at the library, as well as talks the same day to RE-1 school district educators and Valley Settlement Project mentors, tie in with the district’s efforts to refine and examine how it teaches reading to students.

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“We want to open up to the community conversations (about reading) the (RE-1) staff is having,” Bruell said.

Krashen said there are hundreds of studies in professional research literature that show that children in in-school independent reading programs do better in reading and vocabulary than those who are not.

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His talk is titled “The Power of Reading and Pursuing One’s Passions: Helping children reach their full potential in language, literacy and life competence.”

“Case histories of highly literate people always include lots of access to books and reading, and statistical studies consistently show that pleasure reading is an excellent predictor of how well students do on tests of vocabulary, spelling and writing, as well as standardized tests,” Krashen said. “Reading always does better when compared with formal ‘study’ of language, i.e. spelling lists, grammar exercises, vocabulary exercises. Not only does pleasure reading give us literacy, it also gives us knowledge: Those who read more know more about history, literature, science, and even practical matters.”

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Krashen pointed to an April 26 article in Education Week that cited a nation-wide report that looked at how nearly 3,700 pre-K-12 teachers (including several dozen librarians) and more than 1,000 principals answered questions about student reading time and access to books. “Teachers value independent reading … ,” the report summarizes.

At the Carbondale Branch Library, Krashen will touch on two other related topics as well. One topic is how people get smart (cognitive development). “We don’t get smart by ‘study,’ by deliberately trying to stick facts and ideas in our minds. We get smart by trying to solve problems of interest to us,” he told The Sopris Sun.

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Krashen will also talk about finding your life path and how voluntary reading helps people to do this. To make his point, he refers to a Pablo Picasso quote: “The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.”

An activist

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Bruell said Our Children, Our School is bringing in Krashen in part because he’s an activist. For example, in 1998 he publicly argued against California Proposition 227, which was hostile to “bilingualism,” according to published reports. He also campaigned against “regressive language education policies” around the United States in the 2000s.

“A typical academic, in an ivory tower, doesn’t always connect with schools, libraries and legislatures,” Bruell said. “He doesn’t do ideas just to come up with ideas.”

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Bruell said Krashen is expected to lead off his talk at the library with examples of scientists who had little or no schooling, but who achieved great things.

“Michael Faraday, one of the greatest scientists of all time, came from a poor family, and left school before he was 13,” Krashen writes on his website ( “Faraday worked for seven years as an apprentice bookbinder, which meant he had lots of access to books. His employer encouraged him to read the books around him. Krashen also points to Thomas Edison, who dropped out of school at age eight and was taught to read by his mother. “At the age of 12, he took a job as newsboy on a train that had a six-hour layover. He spent this time in the library! (Schuford, 2005). Note that neither of these accomplished thinkers ‘studied’ or took tests. Instead they did self-selected reading and eventually tried to solve problems that were interesting to them.”

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Published in The Sopris Sun on May 25, 2017.