Is “free” reading what it’s really worth?

Free-reading is great. Everyone wants a classroom library. Everyone wants to have kids sitting quietly, absorbed in authentic materials in the target language. But is it the best use of acquisitional time for a novice-level learner?

I say no. Because free reading is less-than-100%-comprehensible immersion.

I am thinking of novice-level learners here: first- or possibly second-year students for the most part, though second-year TPRS-taught students will have more language to leverage. The use of “immersion” in novice-level programs these days is being touted everywhere, with anyone who uses the native language vilified as not providing a Good Environment. And I’m thinking of the typical kinds of “free reading” materials, which are purchased children’s books, supplemented perhaps with some of the more comprehensible, vocabulary-limited TPRS-type readers. If you have an entire library of graded reading materials based on the order of presentation of language in your classroom, that’s a different thing entirely, but that’s almost impossible.

Someday it will be a great use of time for these students — when they have enough linguistic foundation to handle unknowns in a way that leads to acquisition. But for greatest efficiency, free-reading (<100% CI) has to be preceded by reading (=100% comprehensible based on what the student has already acquired). Asking students to acquire language AND learn to read at the same time just doesn’t make sense.

Why do we want students to do free reading? To broaden their pool of language, and to get into the habit of reading (presumably so that the student will read on his own, for the purpose of…? Oh, yeah — broadening his pool of language.) If you can’t read fluently, you are unlikely to acquire much language through free reading anyway. Sure, you’ll get something — but you’ll get something paging through an old AL-M textbook, too. Or the phone book. The question is, how much return are we getting for that 15 or 20 minutes of class time, times how many days, out of the 108 hours we have a year (if we’re lucky)?

In TPRS, since we know that everything needs to be über-comprehensible for novices, we would never say that it was okay to include totally unknown words in oral input. We make everything comprehensible, and provide the meaning without any guessing involved. We realize that students will eventually need to be able to guess in the FL, but life is long and Spanish I is short. Given that idea, though, how is it that we think it’s okay to give readings with unknowns because “it’s free reading” so it doesn’t matter. (By “okay”, I mean “the most efficient use of limited classroom time for acquisition”, not that Western civilization will end if we do…)

I think free reading IS okay – at a certain point. But we need to think about what reading is. It’s listening in written form, at the novice level. (For some languages, it is truly learning an additional sub-language since the written form does not correspond with the spoken form, but let’s conveniently ignore those languages for the time being.) To automatically recognize language in its written form, that language has to be in the head first, so it can be recognized.

Students have to be able to read in that L2 first. They need to have gained some facility with linking the written forms to the oral language that is already in their heads before they can link a new written form with — what? To learn to read fluently in the language, they need to be reading things that are easy — much easier than a children’s book in the TL (which typically are loaded with unknowns).

When we give them reading with unknowns, we’re having them go backwards — asking them to take a new written form and construct a link to a word they’re only beginning to acquire that very second (if it’s the first time they’ve seen the word, and assuming that the meaning of that word is both obvious — really really obvious — and they are correct in their interpretation of that word in the first place). It doesn’t make much sense to ask for so many things to happen at once if it’s not necessary.

My feeling is that free reading is overrated for kids who have not yet acquired a certain mass of language, precisely because of this. Sure, free reading looks great. It may have non-fluency or non-acquisitional benefits. It’s motivating. It gives the teacher a break and it’s a change of activity. It provides autonomy to learners. But wouldn’t a sign-out, take-home library provide the same benefits outside of class time? For those students who “won’t do it on their own”, what are they really doing while they’re sitting there for that 15 minutes of class time? Just because they look like their complying doesn’t mean they’re gaining anything from the exercise.

I think we need to think carefully about what the best use of our 108 hours a year (in most programs) is. IMO, class time is for input as much as possible. Reading as a class provides high-quality oral input while also making texts accessible and 100% comprehensible.

Perhaps “free reading” could be replaced with the idea of “democratic reading” where the students have some say in what is read as a class (thus maintaining the gains in learner autonomy and motivation, while keeping the modality of the reading the one that is most likely to provide huge gains for novice learners.) Let your superstars sign books out and take them home. If free reading is a must, provide mp3 files of the books you have for free reading, read at an acquisitional pace based on their level. Anything to scaffold the linkage between an oral form that isn’t there yet, and the written form on the page.

Free reading: an idea whose time hasn’t come for novices. Yet. Go ahead, shoot me. 😉

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