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Literacy activist Stephen Krashen delivers an inspirational message about the detrimental effects of poverty on literacy and learning

World-renowned literacy activist Stephen Krashen opened his 2010 Center for Digital Literacy Distinguished Lecture on September 28 with what he sarcastically called a radical hypothesis: “The more you read, the better you read.”

To a standing-room only crowd, Krashen cited a series of research studies that described the extent to which pleasure reading and access to books improved literacy and test scores.

“How do you get kids to read?” he asked. “By making sure there’s a book around. You know that saying, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink? Well, that’s not exactly right. The horse will eventually drink. The same is true with kids and books.”

The No. 1 obstacle to literacy and learning in the United State, Krashen said, is poverty.

“The difference in access between rich and poor is gigantic,” he said. “And school is not leveling the playing field.”

He referenced a study conducted in California comparing access to books in home and schools in two economically diverse school districts near Los Angeles: the wealthy Beverly Hills area and the historically gang-ridden city of Watts.

Students in the Beverly Hills area had on average access to 200 books of their reading level in their home and 400 books in their classroom at school. In contrast, students in Watts on average had .4 books in their homes and only 50 in their classroom, he said.

Another study of young men in reform school shows that those who were given books to read for pleasure showed marked improvement in reading and writing as well as improved attitudes toward school and learning, Krashen said.

He also said the problems people see with education today is not about a decline in the quality of schools, teachers, parents, or students. “It’s poverty,” he said. “My proposal is this: we protect children against the effects of poverty.”

Research has shown that access to books can mitigate the effects of poverty, Krashen said. So, if, in fact, schools, public libraries, and other community organizations can provide adequate access to reading materials for students of all income levels, then test scores and student success would improve, regardless of the income levels of the students’ families.

He also discredited some reports of non-reading approaches to improve reading—including physical exercise, improving balance, learning music, playing chess, and some technologies.

Krashen’s visit was sponsored by SU’s Center for Digital Literacy (CDL)—an interdisciplinary research center at Syracuse University dedicated to understanding the impact literacies have on society.

He also delivered a lecture on September 29 that covered four areas: can reading decrease dementia in older people; are readers boring people; should children be rewarded for reading; and what is the current state of education in the United States.
His lectures were funded by the Center for Digital Literacy, the School of Information Studies, and the School of Education.

Krashen, professor emeritus in the Rossier School of Education's Language and Learning Department at the University of Southern California, has researched reading and language acquisition for more than two decades. He has written more than 350 publications on second language acquisition, language development, and bilingual education. His empirical findings in support of reading galvanized his role as a reading activist, and as an advocate of public and school libraries.

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