Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways To Help Our Students Become Better Readers

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 07, 2012 5 min read
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Even though I’m receiving plenty of questions from readers (but could always use more!), I periodically take on a “Question That’s Been On My Mind.” This post is a the first in a four-part series responding to one of them:

“What is the best advice you would give to teachers trying to help their students become better readers?”

I’ll be sharing my own advice in a future post in this series, as well ideas from other guests and readers.

I’d like to start off the series with guest responses from two educators who have had a major influence on how I -- and many others -- help students become better readers. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe Stephen Krashen and Richard Allington as giants in the field.

Response From Stephen Krashen

Stephen Krashen is Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Southern California. He is best known for developing the first comprehensive theory of second language acquisition, introducing the concept of sheltered subject matter teaching, and as the co-inventor of the Natural Approach to foreign language teaching. His recent papers can be found at his website:

My advice is guided by one central hypothesis: We learn to read, improve in reading, and develop most aspects of literacy (phonemic awareness, most of phonics, vocabulary, spelling, knowledge of text structure) in just one way: When we understand texts, when we understand what is on the page, and especially when we find the messages we are reading to be very interesting (or compelling). This “reading hypothesis” originated with Frank Smith and Kenneth Goodman, and has enormous empirical support. It is consistent with the more general Comprehension Hypothesis, which claims that we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand messages.

If the Reading Hypothesis is correct, the way to become a better reader is to be engaged in texts that are comprehensible and that are extremely interesting, This is true for all levels of reading ability, but details differ at each level.

A typical path for those who eventually develop “academic language” (the ability to read specialized texts and to write in an educated style) is as follows:

1. At the beginning level, read-alouds give children input in the form of stories, helping them acquire the language of books, and they also stimulate interest in reading.

2. The next part of the path is self-selected reading, often fiction, and often “narrow,” focusing on certain authors and genres, gradually widening or changing as interests change and reading competence grows. This kind of reading provides the language competence and background knowledge to make at least some professional or “academic” reading comprehensible, and serves as a bridge to academic language.

8. Academic language is also acquired through self-selected reading of academic texts
that are of great personal interest. Reading that helps us develop academic language competence is not done for in order to acquire academic language, but is done because the reader is very interested in the message.

Assuming this view is correct, what can we do?

- Provide access to reading material, through classroom and school libraries. This is of crucial importance for those with little access to books at home and in their communities.

- Stimulate interest in reading and help make reading more interesting and comprehensible: Compelling read-alouds at all ages do this, as does discussion of stories. For those who have begun to read independently, providing time to read (eg SSR), discussion of some (not all) of what is read (among students as well as conferencing), and occasionally students writing reflections relating what they have read to their interests, will help students find more to read of interest to them and make texts more interesting and comprehensible. All of this is what is known as “language arts” or “literature.”

What about skills?

What I have described above is the core of language arts. On the periphery, there is some room for “skills,” but the ones that should be taught are those that make reading more comprehensible. Some basic rules of phonics do this, as do a few reading strategies. Strategy teaching, I suspect, is “deprogramming,” helping readers move away from inefficient and unnatural practices they have learned in school.

Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Publishing Company, and Westview, CONN: Libraries Unlimited. Second Edition.

Response From Richard Allington

Richard Allington is a professor of literacy studies at the University of Tennessee and past president of the International Reading Association. You can find his books and papers at his website:

All students need to engage in lots of reading every school day. Most of this reading should be self-selected reading. Skip the worksheets, skip the low level interrogations, and provide the time to read and the books that kids want to read and can read. While the kids are reading, move about the room and engage readers in literate conversations about what they are reading. Literate conversation focus on thoughtful dialogue about the characters, the plot, and the responses the reader is having as he/she reads.

If your students are not very adept at selecting books they can read and want to read it may simply indicate that they are relatively unpracticed at this activity. So help them by blessing 3 or 4 books every day. Blessing books is easy. Just hold up the book and tell the readers something about the book. Perhaps read a page or two aloud to allow them to hear what the book sounds like.

If you don’t have many books available in your classroom, begin an effort to change that. You can ask kids to bring in books they have already read and donate them to the classroom. You can even create stickers that say, “This book was donated by XXXX.” Ask your principal for funds to expand the collection you have. Explore the sources for free books. They exist. My experience suggests that every classroom should have a collection of roughly 1000 titles. Work toward that goal - 1,000 titles that will interest your students and represent the range of text complexity that will be needed to provide multiple titles for every reader in your room.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here. I’ll be compiling reader suggestions in a future post in this series.

Thanks to Professors Krashen and Allington for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I won’t be posting a new “Question Of The Week” until this series is completed in four weeks, but feel free to send a question in if you have one in mind! And don’t forget to contribute your own advice on teaching reading...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.