I heard Dr. Stephen Krashen talk at the ACTFL convention last year in Boston about reading is instrumental in helping people acquire language. He told the story of a woman that he had met who could speak over twenty languages, most of which she had initially acquired through reading texts in that language. I was absolutely floored by this story and it convinced me to go back to my classroom and incorporate an independent reading component in my second language classes.
Some people refer to independent reading in a second language classroom as FVR (free voluntary reading) and others may refer to it as SSR (silent sustained reading), but no matter what you call it, the procedure is the same. Students read books, comics, children’s books, or magazines in the target language for a set period of time. In my classroom, my students read every Monday at the beginning of class. We have been doing this since December, and now that the school year is coming to an end my students have reported that they are reading both faster and more fluently than they were when we started this activity in December. They are also starting to pick up new words from their reading, and if I happen to introduce one of those words in another class activity they will comment that they already know that word from a book they’ve read.
Dr. Krashen’s website has a whole page with links to research about acquiring language through reading. It may convince you that you too would like to incorporate independent reading into your classroom routine. Here are some tips to get you started.
1. Gather a collection of compelling reading material in your target language. I recommend that you start by purchasing books through either TPRS books or Fluency Matters. Their materials are written specifically for language students, are categorized by ability level, and come with a glossary. These are the best books to start out with because they are very student friendly. If you start with the books like these first, students will be more likely to buy into the idea of reading in a second language because they will be able to read them easily. Unfortunately most titles are only currently available in Spanish or French. Mike Peto showcases books in other languages on his blog but many teachers of other languages have gotten resourceful and have started to write some stories and/or books themselves once they’ve exhausted the supply of books available for purchase.
I also have children’s picture books in my classroom library, but I find these books to be either hit or miss depending on how complex the language is. I have reviewed the ones I have and have made sure that my students would be familiar with a majority of the vocabulary words in each book and/or will be able to infer meaning by context. I recently learned that Scholastic publishing has been releasing children’s nonfiction books in Spanish and may soon be adding some of those to my offerings.
I have purchased almost all the books in my library with personal funds. This way I can take them with me if I ever change jobs. Some teachers are lucky enough to get money from their school to purchase books and others raise funds through other means (One teacher reported that she funds her library through profits from selling Pop-Tarts). Very few of us have the means to create a full library overnight. Be patient but persistent and eventually you will have enough titles to create a healthy classroom library.
2. Explain to your students why you think it is important for them to read in the second language. They will be more likely to buy into it if they know why they are being asked to read.
3. Start with a small increment of time and gradually increase the amount of time as the year goes on. We started with five minute increments and are currently at twenty minutes.
4. Lead by example. Read with your students. They are less likely to disrupt the class reading time if you are reading also. You may also want to comment on your book to generate interest in it, and you will be better equipped to make suggestions when students are looking for a new book to read.
5. Do not hold them accountable for what they read. Having them fill out a reading log, answering comprehension questions, or having them write book reports sucks all the joy out of the process and turns it into a chore. We don’t want the reading to be a chore. We want it to be something students are willing to do.
6. Do not monitor students during reading time. I do not walk around the room and “proctor” the way I do when I’m giving a test. By all means, I make sure that students are not sleeping, playing on their phones, talking, or doing homework during reading time, but if certain students just want to open up a book and stare, I don’t make a big issue of it. Even my laziest students have started to realize that looking at the same page for twenty minutes is really, really boring, and have eventually come around. I find that not forcing students to read virtually eliminates avoidance behaviors like getting up to blow ones nose, or asking to go to the restroom.
The added bonus of independent reading in my second language classroom is the improvement in my own language skills. Over the summer I am planning on brushing up on my Italian through independent reading. I’ll let you know how it goes.