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Reading and L2 Acquisition

By Carol Fedyk

Have you ever watched a child as she becomes enchanted with a story? The characters live in her imagination; the setting becomes imprinted in her mind's eye. Children learning English as a second language should have a portion of their class time dedicated to reading. Reading English texts will lead to increased language acquisition for the child learning English as a second language; the child will have an increased sense of confidence when reading, writing, and speaking English. Whether the student reads independently or is read to by the teacher, a designated reading time will increase her L2 acquisition.

To aid in the discussion of reading and L2 acquisition, we must define the concept of language acquisition. Language is a method of communication whether written, oral or gestured, "the process by which human creatures communicate with each other" (Harlan and Hansen 330). Acquisition means "to gain by one's own effort" (Webster's Dictionary 5). For the purpose of this paper language acquisition is defined as a person using individual effort to learn and utilize the English language. In the article Helping ESL Students Improve Their Writing, it states "language acquisition theory means that reading and listening to a large amount of comprehensible English is essential to improving a student's English language ability" (2). Reading increases a student's competency and confidence when learning English as a second language.

There are two aspects of language, the surface structure and the deep structure. The surface structure of language is the actual words, the black ink on white paper - the spoken word as noise. Smith labels the surface structure of language as the "physical aspect" (25) of communication. The deep structure of language is the association of the written words on paper with the meaning of those words; the interpretation of the spoken word into a mental representation of that word. Smith defines the deep structure of language as the "meaning of language." (25) Prior experience will affect a L2 student's individual deep structure of language. An example of the two structures of language can be found in the word 'cat'. When a child first encounters the written word cat, she first denotes the letters c-a-t (surface structure) to mean cat. Cat then invokes the image of a furry animal with whiskers (deep structure). Having seen a cat before will aid the L2 student's association between the word cat and the animal cat.

There are two types of reading, oral and silent. Oral reading can be teacher or student led. Student led oral reading, the student reading out loud to the teacher or to the entire class, builds experience with the written word and a repertoire of spoken words within the English language. Student led oral reading increases the L2 student's confidence in oral usage of words and her ability to speak English.

Teacher led oral reading, the teacher reading to the student(s), models proper word pronunciation, characterization, and inflection; "hearing stories has a direct impact on literacy development" (Krashen, Power of Reading 39). Listening to the teacher read aloud aids the student(s) in decoding for future silent reading sessions.

Silent reading can also be referred to, according to Stephen Krashen, as Free Voluntary Reading (FVR). In many Canadian schools silent reading is also known as Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading (USSR). Both models are based on the same concept; the student chooses the material to be read and reads as a part of classroom time. As Krashen outlines in his text The Power of Reading, silent reading has been proven to be the primary source of vocabulary building. Reading, whether oral or silent, increases a better understanding of the surface and deep structure of the English language. This increased understanding of the English language will increase the L2 student's confidence when reading, writing and speaking English.

Reading increases the student's exposure to the English language which in turn increases the L2 student's vocabulary knowledge. As a result the L2 student's general language competency also increases. Stephen Krashen is adamant that "FVR is the way to achieve . . . advanced second language proficiency . . . the research in second language reading . . . strongly suggest that free reading in a second or foreign language is one of the best things an acquirer can do to bridge the gap from the beginning level to truly advanced levels of second language proficiency" (Power of Reading x).

Providing a consistent time within the classroom for reading increases a student's motivation to continue to read, this further enhances all other outlined benefits of reading. Stephen Krashen states, "When second language acquirers read for pleasure, they develop the competence they need to move from the beginning 'ordinary conversational' level to a level where they can use the second language for more demanding purposes" (84). Reading increases the confidence of individual performance in English as a second language. Once a L2 student is confident reading English she will be more confident writing and speaking English.

Providing a regular reading time within the classroom is necessary because "literature contributes to language growth and development" (Galda 7). A regular reading time also gives the student(s) the opportunity to apply already known or developing skills to their acquisition of English as a second language. As Palmer states in Second Language Acquisition in Childhood, "listening, practice, and repetition are the means by which children learn their first language, and these processes should be employed in second-language learning as well" (12). As Stephen Krashen discovered in his research, all learners of a new language "acquire language when we receive comprehensible input in a low anxiety situation, that is, when we understand what people say to us and when we understand what we read" (Dealing with English Fever 3). Reading gives each L2 student the opportunity to utilize and develop the skills necessary to become proficient with the English language.

Reading, whether silent or oral, creates an opportunity for both L2 students and L2 teachers. Through reading on their own students are exposed to the English language and all its intricacies. By mastering the art of reading English, the students increase their ability to read, write, and speak English. By providing reading opportunities for the students, teachers create an atmosphere that facilitates learning. When students are able to learn in a relaxed, stress-free atmosphere they will excel in their education and be more willing to continue their learning opportunities outside the classroom.


Bell, Timothy. Extensive Reading: Why? And How? Internet TESL Journal. Retrieved October 14, 2003, from

Galda, Lee and Bernice E. Cullinam. Literature and the Child. Chicago: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002.

Geva, Ester and Ludo Verhoeven. "Introduction: The Development of Second Language Reading in Primary Children - Research Issues and Trends." Scientific Studies of Reading 4(4) 2000: 261-266.

Harm, Michael W., Bruce D. McCandliss and Mark S. Seidenberg. "Modeling the Successes and Failures of Interventions for Disabled Readers." Scientific Studies of Reading 7(2) 2003: 155-182.

Krashen, Stephen. "Dealing with English Fever." The Twelfth International Symposium on English Teaching. Taiwan, 2003

Krashen, Stephen. The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research. Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, Inc., 1993.

McLaughlin, Barry. Second Language Acquisition in Childhood. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1978.

Smith, Frank. Understanding Reading. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988.

Stewig, John W. Exploring Language with Children. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1974.

Verhoeven, Ludo. "Components in Early Second Language Reading and Spelling." Scientific Studies of Reading 4(4) 2000: 313-330.

Von Sprecken, Debra, Jiyoung Kim and Stephen Krashen. "The Home Run Book: Can One Positive Reading Experience Create a Reader?" California School Library Journal 23(2) 2000: 8-9.

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