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October 1, 2007
Vol. 65
No. 2

The Case for Late Intervention

Appealing books and no timetable are all some students need to break through to reading.

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To help struggling readers, schools and teachers have often focused on early intervention. To be sure, early intervention is effective in many situations. But educators can also achieve great success by paying attention to late intervention, and late intervention is done best when it consists of massive “free voluntary reading.”
Free voluntary reading means reading because you want to: no book reports, no comprehension questions, and the freedom to put the book down when it is not right for you. It is the kind of reading nearly all literate adults do all the time.
There is overwhelming evidence that free voluntary reading is effective in developing literacy. When such programs operate for a sufficient length of time and when interesting reading material is available, students who participate typically outperform students who don't participate on tests of reading comprehension. Correlational studies confirm that students who do more free reading read better, write better, spell better, have better grammatical competence, and have larger vocabularies (Krashen, 1997, 2004; McQuillan, 1998).
For free reading to work, readers need easy access to books. Those with more access to books read more, and those who read more, read better. But access is a serious problem for children living in poverty: These children have fewer books in the home, live in communities with inferior public libraries, and attend schools with inferior classroom and school libraries. (Krashen, 1997, 2004; McQuillan, 1998).
Much research and many individual cases support the view that late intervention based on free reading can work for struggling readers, that there is no “critical period” for learning to read, and that improvement in literacy can occur at any age.

Countries That Start Later

Elley (1992) studied reading ability in 32 countries and found that “countries which begin instruction in reading at age 7 have largely caught up with the 5- and 6-year-old starters in reading ability by age 9” (p. 37). Figure 1 (p. 71) presents reading test scores for 9-year-olds in four countries in which reading instruction began at age 7. Clearly, students who were introduced to reading after age 7 had average reading scores above the norm by age 9. Note that Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland all rank among the highest countries in the world in their economic development. All four reported that their communities had a plentiful supply of books in students' homes and school libraries and that public libraries and bookstores were available to students. Elley's findings suggest that a late start is not a problem when children have access to reading materials.
Figure 1. When Reading Instruction Begins at Age 7

The Case for Late Intervention - table


Average reading score of 9-year-olds


Average number of books in home

This figure shows how 9-year-old students in four countries where students start reading instruction at age 7 scored in Elley's 1994 study of reading in 32 countries. In the first column are the average scores on an assessment developed by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (international mean score is 500). Rank indicates position of the country's reading scores among the countries studied.
Source: From Achievement and Instruction in 32 School Systems: The IEA Study of Reading Literacy by W. Elley, 1994. Oxford: Pergamon Press. Copyright 1994 by Elsevier. Adapted with permission.

Cases of Home-Schooled Children

Learning to read late did not prevent many eminent people from reaching the highest levels of literacy. Einstein is reported to have learned to read at age 9, Rodin at 10, and Woodrow Wilson at 11 (Schulman, 1986). In addition to these famous cases, there are also accounts of home-schooled children who learned to read late with little or no formal instruction.
Mason (1993a) reports that her daughter, K. M., “could not/did not want to read” at 8-and-one-half. Having tried earlier to push her daughter to learn math, and finding that the pressure made her “hate arithmetic,” Mason decided not to intervene on reading. Then it happened: Around her 9th birthday, her daughter began to read and two months later she could read at the level of her literate friends. Then she extended her reading, and now (age 15) she reads the way very literate adults do. (p. 28)
Mason (1993b) also describes the case of her son, D. M. The summer D. M. was 10, Mason reports, he could only read a word or two. In the fall, according to his mother, D. M. began to read store signs and notices with a vengeance. . . . [One night] sometime past midnight, he read his way through a fat Spider-Man annual his older brother Luke gave him for his birthday. (p. 11)
D. M. also began reading the sports page of the local newspaper. One day, Mason took D. M. to a science museum, where he read aloud “long paragraphs of technical writing discussing ‘atmospheric conditions’ and ‘helium gases in the stratosphere’” (p. 11).
In another home-schooling case, H. K. was reading at a “bare Cat in the Hat level” at the age of 10-and-one-half (Kerman, 1993). Her mother reports: During the course of the next year, she did learn the basics about reading, although I shall never know how, since she refused instruction as much as always. We continued to read out loud to her, and she rarely read to herself. My main consolation was that she loved books and didn't think badly of herself. At the age of 14, she started to read Scott O'Dell's books. The first one took her two months to read. Two months later, she was reading full-length adult fantasy novels. . . . She reads voraciously now at the age of 16. (p. 27)
These cases have several features in common: Little or no formal instruction was required, the parents put no pressure on the child, and all the children made rapid progress once they began reading material they were genuinely interested in of their own volition. Finally, all these children had the advantage of access to a great deal of reading material.

More Breakthroughs Through High-Interest Reading

Recovered Dyslexics

Another set of cases of readers who started late but caught up through voluntarily reading comes from Fink (1995/96). Fink studied 12 people who were considered dyslexic when they were young and who all eventually became “skilled readers,” according to Fink. Nine of the 12 had published creative scholarly works, and one was a Nobel laureate. Eleven of these people reported that they finally learned to read between the ages of 10 and 12, and one did not learn to read until the 12th grade. According to Fink, these readers had a great deal in common: As children, each had a passionate personal interest, a burning desire to know more about a discipline that required reading. Spurred by this passionate interest, all read voraciously, seeking and reading everything they could get their hands on about a single intriguing topic. (p. 272)

Malcolm X

The case of Malcolm X confirms that reading in areas of interest can cause profound literacy development well beyond elementary school age. Malcolm X had early success in school and was president of his 7th grade class. As he recounted in his autobiography, however, his life in the streets “erased everything I'd learned in school” (El-Shabbazz, 1964, p. 154). He described his literacy level by the time he was imprisoned in his early 20s as very low. The change came in prison, through massive reading: Many who hear me today somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I've said, will think I went to school far beyond the 8th grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies. . . . In every free moment I had, if I was not reading in the library, I was reading in my bunk. You couldn't have gotten me out of books with a wedge. (pp. 171–173)Malcolm X gave reading the credit: “Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, ‘What's your alma mater?’ I told him, ‘Books’” (p. 179).

The Success of Self-Selected Reading Programs

The success of in-school, self-selected reading programs provides clear evidence that late intervention through free reading works. In these programs, time is set aside for students to do selfselected reading, and accountability is either nonexistent or very low.
Sustained silent reading and related programs have been put to the test many times. When compared with students taking traditional language arts or English as a second language classes, those in self-selected reading classes do at least as well and very often better on tests of reading comprehension, vocabulary, and writing.
For in-school reading programs to work, several common-sense conditions need to be met. The most crucial conditions are that students have sufficient access to interesting reading material and that the program lasts a sufficient amount of time. Those that last longer than an academic year are consistently successful. We find it interesting that in-school free reading works with all age groups tested so far, including university students (Lee, 2005; Liu, 2005).
One clear case of success is a summer reading program designed for California 6th graders with low reading proficiency (Shin & Krashen, 2007). The participants read whatever they liked for two 40-minute sessions a day, discussed books with their peers, had individual conferences with teachers, and participated in group discussion of selected novels, such as Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins.
This program clearly met the conditions for successful late intervention: Students had time to read and access to interesting books. The school's library and classroom collections had been strengthened enormously, with special attention paid to procuring books the students were sure to enjoy, such as the Goosebumps series.
Comparison children followed a standard language arts curriculum during the summer. The groups made equivalent gains on the Nelson-Denny vocabulary test, but the students in the voluntary reading group did far better on the Nelson-Denny reading comprehension measure, gaining well over one year after only five and one-half weeks of reading. They also gained about five months on the ALTOS Reading Achievement Test, whereas students who followed the traditional curriculum declined slightly.

Facing the Objections

  • Poor readers don't read well enough to read on their own.
  • Poor readers don't like to read.
  • If readers read whatever they like to read, they will read only junk.
We can refute each of these objections.

Poor Readers Can Read on Their Own

Connie Juel's study of poor and good readers (Juel, 1994), often cited as an example of the importance of early intervention, actually provides indirect evidence that late intervention can work. Juel found that poor readers in 1st grade still read below grade level in 4th grade, reading at the 3.5 level as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills Reading Comprehension Test. However, these poor readers could still read well enough to read many interesting texts. Some comic books are written at the 2nd grade level, and a few of the Goosebumps books are written at the 3rd grade level.

Reluctant Readers and Home-Run Books

Juel (1994) reported that the poor readers she studied disliked reading; one child, in fact, told Juel, “I'd rather clean the mold around the bathtub than read” (p. 442). Even with obvious access to books, some children will not read. Pack (2000) described a group of “library latch-key” children whose parents used the public library as a free source of child care after school. Despite the presence of so many books, some children never read but spent their time “hanging out” with other children or using the library computers.
There are ways to deal with reluctant readers. There is evidence that seeing other people read encourages reading (Wheldall & Entwhistle, 1988). Reading aloud to children helps (Brassell, 2003); and, of course, providing time for reading, as in sustained silent reading, helps. Students who participate in sustained silent reading classes read more outside school than do comparison students after the program ends, even years later (Greaney & Clarke, 1973).
Direct encouragement also works, if done right. Carlsen and Sherrill (1988) describe cases in which readers happily followed suggestions from teachers and librarians that led to successful reading experiences. In every case, the suggestions were right for the reader—not only interesting, but also compelling. In every case, the reader was capable of doing the reading, and in every case the suggestion was a suggestion and the reader had free choice, as in this example: After I made several trips to the library, Miss B. became aware of the interest in horses that had grown in me and recommended book after book on horses for me to read. I went through all of Walter Farley's books as well as every other book on horses that the library owned. (p. 113)
In cases in which encouragement didn't work, the conditions listed above were not met: The librarian . . . always tried to interest my friend and me in books that had won Newbery prizes or books of exceptional quality for our age bracket. At the time (grade school), I was more interested in horses, so I generally resisted his efforts. (p. 115)
It may be easier to solve the problem of the reluctant reader than we think. Trelease (2006) suggests that one positive experience with a book, one “homerun book experience” can create a reader. A series of studies confirmed the existence and importance of the homerun book: More than half of the middle school children interviewed in these studies agreed that there was one book that started them off reading (Ujiie & Krashen, 2002; Von Sprecken, Kim, & Krashen, 2000). One student remembered, “Captain Underpants! That book turned me on because it was funny and an adventure”(Von Sprecken et al., 2000).

Will They Read Only Junk?

Many educators worry that if students are allowed to read whatever they want to read, they will stay with easy reading and never progress. This is not a problem. First, the books children select on their own are sometimes more difficult than the reading material teachers assign (Southgate, Arnold, & Johnson, 1981). In the summer reading program for low-proficiency 6th graders studied by Shin and Krashen (2007), children selected books that were right for them, at the exact level they scored on the pretest given at the beginning of the summer.
Second, even if this were not so, there is no cause for concern. Children who get involved in reading eventually choose what experts tend to label “good books” (Schoonover, 1938), and young readers eventually expand their reading interests as they read more (LaBrant, 1958). Research also tells us that middle school boys who read comic books also read more, and read more books, than those who do not read comics (Ujiie & Krashen, 1996). Light reading appears to be a conduit that makes heavier reading attractive and possible.

The Need for Late Options

Arguments for late intervention are not arguments against early intervention. The current “official” approach to literacy development, however, only recognizes early intervention. Late intervention is not even an option, thanks to policies that discourage in-school free reading programs (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000; but see Krashen, 2001); the false belief that “once a poor reader, always a poor reader”; and the fact that little is being done to increase access to books for students from low-income families. But once we make reading material available and give children the time needed to get interested in reading, late readers can catch up easily. This can happen anytime.

Brassell, D. (2003). Sixteen books went home tonight: Fifteen were introduced by the teacher. The California Reader 36(3), 33–39.

Carlsen, G. R., & Sherrill, A. (1988). Voices of readers: How we came to love books. Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Elley, W. (1992). How in the world do students read? Hamburg, Germany: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

El-Shabbaz, E. (1964). The autobiography of Malcolm X. New York: Ballantine Books.

Fink, R. (1995/96). Successful dyslexics: A constructivist study of passionate interest reading. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 39, 268–280.

Greaney, V., & Clarke, M. (1973). A longitudinal study of the effects of two reading methods on leisure-time reading habits. In D. Moyle (Ed.), Reading: What of the future? (pp. 107–114). London: United Kingdom Reading Association.

Juel, C. (1994). Learning to read and write in one elementary school. New York: Springer Verlag.

Kerman, K. (1993). A mother learns to understand her child. Growing Without Schooling, 92(27).

Krashen, S. (1997). Bridging inequity with books. Educational Leadership, 55(4), 18–22.

Krashen, S. (2001). More smoke and mirrors: A critique of the National Reading Panel report on fluency. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, 119–123.

Krashen, S. (2004). False claims about literacy development. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 18–21.

LaBrant, L. (1958). An evaluation of free reading. In C. Hunnicutt and W. Iverson (Eds.), Research in the three R's (pp. 154–161). New York: Harper and Brothers.

Lee, S-Y. (2005). Sustained silent reading using assigned reading: Is comprehensible input enough? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching, 1(4), 10–13. Available: www.tprstories.com/ijflt/IJFLTFall05.pdf

Liu, C-K. (2005, November). Self-selected reading effects significant gains in vocabulary size and reading comprehension. Paper presented at The 14th International Symposium on English Teaching, Chien Tan, Taiwan.

Mason, J. (1993a). Without a curriculum. Growing Without Schooling, 94, 28.

Mason, J. (1993b). Reading at 10. Growing Without Schooling, 91, 11.

McQuillan, J. (1998). The literacy crisis: False claims and real solutions. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction(NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Pack, S. (2000). Public library use, school performance, and the parental x-factor: A bio-documentary approach to children's snapshots. Reading Improvement, 37, 161–172.

Schoonover, R. (1938). The case for voluminous reading. English Journal, 27, 114–118.

Schulman, S. (1986). Facing the invisible handicap. Psychology Today, 20, 58–64.

Shin, F., & Krashen, S. (2007). Summer reading: Program and evidence. New York: Allyn and Bacon.

Southgate, V., Arnold, H., & Johnson, S. (1981). Extending beginning reading. London: Heinemann.

Trelease, J. (2006). The read-aloud handbook(6th ed.). New York: Penguin.

Ujiie, J., & Krashen, S. (1996). Comic book reading, reading enjoyment, and pleasure reading among middle class and Chapter I middle school students. Reading Improvement, 33(1), 51–54.

Ujiie, J., & Krashen, S. (2002). Home run books and reading enjoyment. Knowledge Quest, 31(1), 36–37.

Von Sprecken, D., Kim, J., & Krashen, S. (2000). The home run book: Can one positive reading experience create a reader? California School Library Journal, 23(2), 8–9.

Wheldall, K., & Entwhistle, J. (1988). Back in the USSR: The effect of teacher modeling of silent reading on pupils' reading behaviour in the primary school classroom. Educational Psychology, 8, 51–56.

Stephen Krashen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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