Book Review: ‘The Power of Reading’ by Stephen Krashen

The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Stephen D. Krashen. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann/Libraries Unlimited. 2004. 151 pages, plus notes after each chapter, 32 pages of references, and 11 pages of researcher and subject indices. ISBN: 1400053145. Available from Amazon.com for $10.85.

“I first heard about the literacy crisis in 1987 on the Oprah Winfrey Show. Oprah Winfrey had four adult “illiterates” as guests, people who, it was asserted, were completely unable to read and write. Their stories were touching, and by now, familiar to the reading public. They told how they had been “passed along” in school, surviving by paying careful attention in class and relying on friends. They had evolved strategies for getting through the day…

Thanks to television shows such as Oprah Winfrey, these films [dramatizing adults who were illiterate], and numerous articles in the press and in popular magazines, the public has the impression that a sizable percentage of the public is completely illiterate, that the public schools are graduating hordes of young people who can’t read…”

So begins Stephen Krashen in his introduction. He continues:

“There is no literacy crisis, at least not the kind of crisis the media have portrayed… There is…a problem. Nearly everyone in the United States can read and write. They just don’t read and write well enough.”

In other words, they’re functionally illiterate. They can read, but they can’t ‘process’ what they read. So when they become adults, they’re unable to sufficiently comprehend operating manuals for possibly dangerous equipment at work, or hospital prescriptions and instructions.

Educator and author Stephen D. Krashen has spent ten years and more researching literacy around the world, and advancing his theory of free voluntary reading (FVR) as a way to increase literacy in the United States.

Free voluntary reading advances the theory that it doesn’t matter what children read – graphic novels, teen romances, the sports page, or literature, only that they do read something. Krashen presents the results of decades of research into this theory within these pages.

First he presents the evidence that free voluntary reading works, by presenting various ‘read and test’ studies, and contrasts that with the efficiency of the current method, ‘direct instruction,’ as well as the benefits of reading to the general public – reading influences cognitive development; people who read more, know more; they test better on cultural knowledge; and they can express themselves better.

Next he presents ‘the cure’: providing access to books (and other items such as comic books) children ‘want’ to read (as opposed to classics that they’re ‘made’ to read), reading aloud, and providing time to read.

Then he discusses other issues, and makes his conclusions. He emphasizes the importance of writing as well as reading, points out that more television does not necessarily mean less reading, and second language acquisition.

This is a scholarly work, but written in an accessible way, for the most part, so that any parent or interested individual can understand the evidence, theories and methods of teaching that he presents. Teachers in particular will find this book of interest.

There are some gaps, however. Although he discusses the effects of too much television on reading, he makes no mention of computer games. Parents buy their six year old children X-boxes or GameBoys, which they then take on school bus rides, cross-country trips, etc., making it even less likely that the child involved will ever willingly open a book when they can play a game instead.

He also doesn’t consider the gender difference – why girls usually read much more than boys from an earlier age. In fact he doesn’t identify students by gender at all. None of the many tables and charts differentiate between the sexes. Whether this is political correctness, or whether he feels that free voluntary reading works regardless of a child’s age or gender he does not say. (Comic books are typically read by males, teen romances are typically read by females. In the discussions in these two sections the examples from readers are always male for the comics and female for the teen romances, so one can infer from that…but still, all of the research should have been identified in this way.)

Nevertheless, this book contains good and thought-provoking material, and advocates for literacy need all the ideas they can get.

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