Free Reading and eReaders Can Raise Achievement

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

In Valerie Strauss’s Washington Post blog, Answer Sheet, guest writer Joanne Yatvin, in “Why Kids Should Choose Their Own Books to Read in School” (8 Sep. 2014), makes an impassioned defense of reading for pleasure. Yatvin is “a one time Principal of the Year in Wisconsin and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English.” In today’s test-driven school climate, free reading has been replaced with reading that focuses on developing test-taking skills. Yatvin says, “Consumed by the urgency to raise students’ reading scores, policy makers and school officials have forgotten that children learn to read by reading.” She goes on to talk about balanced literacy and the benefits of independent reading.

Reading such as that needed for academic work and test taking definitely has a place in schools. Students develop analytical skills by reading for details. However, reading for pleasure and being able to choose your own reading materials also has a place in the classroom. Pleasure reading, also called extensive reading, promotes learner autonomy; improves general language competence, not just reading skills; helps students develop general knowledge; promotes vocabulary growth; helps improve writing; and motivates students to read more.

These claims are supported by research in literacy and in second language acquisition. One of the strongest proponents of free voluntary reading is Dr. Stephen Krashen who sees the importance of light reading as a bridge to more challenging reading. He also contends that not only does reading improve reading skills, it is also necessary for developing good writing skills. 

In a paper presentation at the RELC conference, Singapore, April, 2004, Krashen (2004) discussed research, applications, and controversies about independent reading. Ten years later many of the same questions and arguments are still around. Krashen pointed out that there were several key elements to making free voluntary reading successful. These included books being available for the students, so that they did not have to bring books from home, and a teacher who took the time to read while the students were reading, modeling the activity.

I would like to connect this issue to another educational issue, the push for more and more technology use in the classroom. A large amount of money has been spent on initiatives for buying computers for kids and iPads for all students. However, the connection between technology use and reading is often ignored, as is its usefulness for promoting reading.

In an article for Scholastic, “Using Digital Books in the Classroom” (26 Apr. 2012), Mary Blow talks about ways to make reading accessible for more students. She points out that “[m]any eReader apps allow you to register more than one device to your account, which means that more than one student can read a book at a time.” She also suggests that reading on a digital device is an incentive for some reluctant readers. They may not want to read a physical book but will be interested in reading on an e-reader device.

One app that she singles out is Scholastic’s Storia. A teacher can use this app to create digital literature circles, a type of reading group. The teacher can also add books to the “bookshelf” so that all students can find some they can read, including those who need accommodations. The ability to use some assistive technology is another reason that Blow sees digital devices as useful for promoting reading. All of these ideas are aimed at motivating students to read.

I imagine that those who favor the systematic approach to reading, which purports to prepare students for college and the workplace by raising their test scores, would fail to see the effectiveness of letting students use “expensive technology” for reading that is not academic.

However, using digital devices for pleasure reading in the classroom is an efficient and effective use of technology. Students would be building technology skills as they become stronger readers, who actually enjoy reading, and better writers. One advantage to reading on a digital device is that if students run across a word they don’t know, they can just click to look it up. Another advantage is that if they are reading for pleasure and something piques their interest, they can easily look up more about it. Therefore, there is a movement between reading for pleasure and reading for information. Pleasure reading then becomes the motivation for reading to learn something.

2 Responses

  1. Lynn, my elementary school teachers were all great readers, and they were able to make stories come alive for us. They took us on visits to the school library every so often, and we looked forward to these because librarians were the best readers. They got and kept our attention on books. But the very best readers were at the public library, and we took excursions there once or twice a year. The best part was that, after the readings, we could borrow books of our own choosing — and this is where free reading came in. The public library became my favorite place outside of school because I could borrow books that took me on adventures with Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, Buffalo Bill, Jim Thorpe, Chief Joseph, etc. And this love affair stayed with me throughout my schooling. One of the results is that I realized I could learn almost anything on my own if I could find the necessary books. Free reading creates life long independent learners. As a writing teacher, I’ve found, repeatedly, that gifted writing is directly related to love of reading. If all students loved reading and read copiously, we wouldn’t need writing teachers. I really believe this love affair has to be nurtured and developed in the earliest years when children are just beginning to discover language and the world of stories. And it needs to continue, unabated, throughout the grades. If we’re replacing activities that make reading attractive with activities to increase test scores, then our priorities are all wrong. With eReaders, we have a means to give children access to the best books of their own choosing regardless of where they live, 24/7. Thanks for spotlighting this critical issue. -Jim

  2. I came to reading late — seventh grade. Before that, I only read assigned books. Two blocks from my school, there was a small library annex (long gone today). I couldn’t believe the number of books in that small room (small compared to a typical library) all organized. The librarian was an elderly lady (so stereotypical) who helped me figure out the card system and helped me order books from the county library system. After that, I almost always had one or two books on loan.

    I’d love to see a reading device that has the facile ability to look back a few pages to something that a sentence on the current page triggers. I’d love to have a reading program that allows you to find a specific spot in a book by quickly browsing through a book. As many benefits as electronic readers have, they are missing some crucial (to me) features of the reading experience. Why can’t some clever programmer make electronic books a superset experience of physical books? Why must we give up some aspects of the reading experience to gain others?

    I also started writing, except for assignments, very late in life. Like reading, writing requires something in which you have an interest.

    By all means, encourage children to read for pleasure. As soon as they feel comfortable with it, do the same for writing. Reading allows for discovery. Writing exercises our creative side. Discovery and creation are two of the wonders of humanity. We’re the only creatures who do these things and seem to be driven to do them, a sort of primal urge. These two things are too often suppressed in traditional education by the emphasis on test scores and on memory as the way to “learn.”

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