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The power of reading — two stories

In his article The comprehension hypothesis and second language acquisition, Stephen Krashen (University of Southern California) describes two cases of students who completely changed their English because of reading:

The case of L.

This case was described in a paper by J. Segal (Summer Daze, written in 1997), and then by Stephen Krashen. We have shortened and simplified the original text.

L. was a 17 year old student in Israel. She spoke English at home with her parents, who were from South Africa. But she had serious problems in English writing, especially in spelling, vocabulary and writing style. Segal, who was L.’s teacher in grade 10, tried to help her in many ways:

“Error correction was a total failure. L. tried correcting her own mistakes, tried process writing, and tried copying words correctly in her notebook. Nothing worked. L.’s compositions were poorly written and her vocabulary was small. We discussed the format and ideas before writing. We made little progress. I gave L. a list of five useful words to spell each week for 6 weeks and tested her in a friendly way between classes. L. did well in the tests in the beginning, but after six weeks she started misspelling the words again.” L.’s mother also got her a private teacher, but there was little improvement.

Segal also taught L. in grade 11. At the beginning of the year, she had her students write an essay. “When I came to L.’s composition I stopped still. I was looking at an almost perfect essay. There were no spelling mistakes. The structure was clear. It was interesting and well-written. Her vocabulary had improved. I was surprised but at the same time uneasy ...”

Segal discovered why L.’s English improved so much: She had started reading books in the summer. L. told her, “I never read much before but this summer I went to the library and I started reading and I just couldn’t stop.” L.’s English in grade 11 was excellent and she kept reading.

The case of Cohen

This case was first described by Y. Cohen in a paper titled How reading got me into trouble (1997).

Beginning at age 12, Cohen went to an English-language school in Turkey. During the first two years, there were intensive English classes, and after only two months, Cohen started to read in English. “...as many books in English as I could get. I had a large library of English books at home ... I became a member of the local British Council’s library and sometimes bought English books in bookstores ... By the first year of middle school I had become an enthusiastic reader of English.”

Because of her reading, an unpleasant thing happened to her in middle school: “I had a new English teacher who assigned us two compositions for homework. The teacher returned them to me. She was angry and she wanted to know who had helped me to write them. They were my work. I had not even used the dictionary. She would not believe me. She showed me a few underlined sentences and some vocabulary and asked me how I knew them; they were more advanced than the level of the class. (...) I felt sad. I could not explain how I knew them. I just did.”