If you need any persuading when it comes to the value of reading aloud to children, and encouraging them to read on their own, look no further than The Power of Reading by the noted linguist and researcher Stephen Krashen.
A compact and accessible book, Krashen summarizes decades of research and makes a thoroughly convincing case for putting the highest priority on promoting a love of reading and a print-rich environment. If there’s one book I would consider a “must-read” for parents when it comes to the development of their children’s language ability—whether those children are bilingual or monolingual—it would be The Power of Reading.
The answer is simple
I first read the The Power of Reading (the first edition) while teaching English to bilingual children at Hiroshima International School and it really opened my eyes—in fact, it shaped the whole way I set up my classroom space and worked with my students. If, as Krashen argued, “the impact of direct instruction [on literacy development] is typically small or nonexistent” and “reading is the only way we become good readers, develop a good writing style, an adequate vocabulary, advanced grammar, and the only way we become good spellers,” then the answer to nurturing good English ability was more simple than I had imagined.
Don’t get me wrong. Direct instruction has its place, when it truly seems useful, but ever since I read The Power of Reading, I have emphasized the following five things with my students and with my own children. (Below each one I quote Krashen.)
Five steps to literacy
1. Read aloud to them regularly.
Children who are read to at home read more on their own. Reading aloud has, apparently, multiple effects on literacy development. …it has an indirect effect—hearing stories and discussing stories encourages reading, which in turn promotes literacy development. There is a great deal of evidence that hearing stories has a direct impact on literacy development as well. In controlled studies, it has been shown that children who are read to regularly for several months make superior gains in reading comprehension and vocabulary.
2. Flood their environment with suitable reading material.
The research supports the commonsense view that when books are readily available, when the print environment is rich, more reading is done. A rich print environment in the home is related to how much children read; children who read more have more books at home.
3. Model a love of books and reading.
Children read more when they see other people reading, both at school and at home.
4. Encourage “light reading.”
Perhaps the most powerful way of encouraging children to read is by exposing them to light reading [comic books, series books, magazines]. Several case histories support the view that light reading is the way many, if not most, children learn to read and develop a taste for reading.*
There is evidence that light reading can serve as a conduit to heavier reading. It can help readers not only develop the linguistic competence for harder reading but can also develop an interest in books.
5. Create opportunities for reading.
Given extensive free reading…readers will acquire nearly all of the conventions of writing. With enough reading, good grammar, good spelling, and good style will be part of them, absorbed or acquired effortlessly.
Bathe them in books
For the most part, then, I just bathe children in books and literacy, and over the years the results have been very gratifying: not only have my students and my own kids developed good all-around English ability, they’ve grown to enjoy reading and books. Some may read with more enthusiasm than others—every child is different, after all—but all of them have gained a positive view of books and literacy that will serve them well throughout their lives.
At the conclusion of The Power of Reading, Krashen sums up his argument in this way:
My conclusions are simple. When children read for pleasure, when they get “hooked on books,” they acquire, involuntarily and without conscious effort, nearly all of the so-called “language skills” many people are so concerned about: They will become adequate readers, acquire a large vocabulary, develop the ability to understand and use complex grammatical constructions, develop a good writing style, and become good (but not necessarily perfect) spellers. … When we read, we really have no choice—we must develop literacy. We rarely find well-read people who have serious problems with grammar, spelling, and so on. They write acceptably well because they can’t help it; they have subconsciously acquired good writing style as well as the conventions of writing.
*Some of my fondest memories from childhood are reading stacks of comic books, like “Archie” and “Richie Rich”!