Get smart: Fire your teachers, read for pleasure

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 06/06/2009 12:27 PM  |  Opinion

Can literacy competence be developed without instruction? More specifically, can our ability to read and write mature styles, complex grammatical structures and good diction improve automatically without the assistance of instruction?

Traditional wisdom suggests it can’t. No pain, no gain has become a common credo in language learning. Direct instruction, after all, is believed to have a powerful effect on one’s language development.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to suspect that literacy development can be facilitated without instruction. Language acquisition theory to date is replete with empirical evidence (well-documented in Stephen Krashen’s The Power of Reading) that reading for pleasure alone is potent enough to facilitate the growth of one’s language development.

Instruction, on the contrary, isn’t always necessary. In extreme cases are findings from research which reveal that people both young and adult are able to read and spell in the absence of formal instruction at home. In fact, these people are already good readers and spellers before attending school.

With growing evidence to support the notion that language competence can be attained without instruction, people don’t always need to resort to learning grammar, vocabulary and spelling, to read and write better.

Research has demonstrated convincingly that the effect of instruction is weak, fragile and disappears over time. Furthermore, given our brain’s limited memory, grammar and vocabulary are too intricate to learn and memorize.

Worse, too often instruction leads students to the path of pain, causing increased anxiety, insecurity and boredom. Homework, for instance, an infamous supplementary device to instruction, has been accused of depleting students’ interest in pursuing something they value most – doing “pleasure reading,” or what Krashen calls “free voluntary reading”.

It is well established that schoolchildren are burdened cognitively with obligatory assignments to read textbooks – books which often disinterest them, or which are not comprehensible or meaningful to them.

Moreover, students are often forced to memorize vocabulary lists or made to understand complex language rules. Instruction has been perceived as a source of frustration. This being the case, we need to advise students to “fire their teachers”.

We should instead exhort our students and children to read for pleasure, to read any kinds of books on topics that interest them, without any obligation to finish them if they choose not to do so.

When they find themselves absorbed and “lost” in books, forgetting their dinner time, play time and bed time, we can be sure they love what they are reading. In such cases, there is no reason to “bribe” and offer them rewards to arouse their reading habits.

Giving children freedom to self-select what they want to read not only offers tremendous pleasure to them, but more importantly stimulates their cognitive development, which eventually accelerates their acquisition of vocabulary, grammar, and written styles, effectively.

A recent reading campaign posted on advertorial boards on many streets around Jakarta, with the slogan Yuk, membaca !(let’s read) is a good step toward boosting pleasure reading awareness, particularly among the younger generations.

Far more important is the establishment of perpustakaan keliling (mobile libraries) and Taman Bacaan Rakyat (community libraries), which have won praise for providing informal education and free access to books to the community.

Needless to say, easy access to libraries is strongly correlated to reading achievement. Those who frequently visit libraries, just to read for pleasure, are more likely to develop literacy skills than those who don’t.

Probably the most important way to stimulate pleasure reading for literacy improvement is through the establishment of print-rich environments in remote areas, where the adult illiteracy rates are still high.

The writer is the chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching. He also teaches English composition at Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.

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