Free Voluntary Reading at Home and in the Classroom

In his fabled garden, Pareto observed that 80 percent of the peas were produced by just 20 percent of the pods.

It’s uncanny how the Pareto Principle works in everything around us. Sometimes called the 80-20 rule, the Pareto Principle states that 80 percent of the results are produced by 20 percent of the effort. For example, 80 percent of the peas in a vegetable garden are produced by just 20 percent of the pods.

This number can be even more skewed in some circumstances: 85-15, 90-10 or even 99-1. You’re probably familiar with that number from economic discussion during the last decade – It stems from this non-linear distribution that occurs almost everywhere in nature. Note: If you weren’t familiar with this concept previously, you’ll probably start to notice it being talked about everywhere. That’s what happened to me when I first learned about Pareto and his fabled garden.

Applying Pareto’s Principle to Language Acquisition

For language acquisition, it’s clear that the vast majority of gains comes from one source: the unconscious/subconscious processing of comprehensible input. I can’t give an exact percentage, but I’d imagine that something like 95 percent of acquisition happens from input. Since we have such limited time with learners in the college setting, helping them seek out their own sources of comprehensible input is vital for their continued acquisition in and beyond our classroom.

My favorite source of comprehensible input is reading level-appropriate fiction.* Dr. Stephen Krashen, famous author and Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has long championed this activity. I am in total agreement, and have started a steady diet of reading in my own language acquisition endeavors.

Krashen terms pleasure reading as Free Voluntary Reading (FVR), which is a term you’ll see thrown around the storytelling and the comprehension-based communicative language teaching community. Many instructors have even started using FVR as a part of their weekly routine (some twice per week, some every day).

My firsthand experience with FVR in French and Brazilian Portuguese have convinced me that reading is the most important source of comprehensible input for language learners. In terms of a Pareto distribution, I’d wager that FVR produced 90-95% of the gains I’ve made in those two languages (I’m still acquiring!). I found that more I read, the easier it is to think in those languages.

If you aren’t learning a new language right now, I recommend that you try, and to do so with FVR. It will remind you how difficult it is to learn to speak a new language and how powerful reading is. I’d also challenge you to not look up grammar rules or verb tables (at first). Instead, focus on processing as many messages as you can in your new language. Below is my daily routine for language acquisition:

1. 10 minutes of Duolingo in the TL as a warmup 
2a. FVR – at least two pages of a level-appropriate novel
2b. Watch at least 10 minutes of a show in TL (with subtitles in TL) / Listen to at least 10 minute of a podcast in TL (with transcript in TL, if available)

*What is “level-appropriate fiction”? I don’t know that there’s a good answer. I’ve heard people say if you understand 98% of a text without having to look words up would make it level-appropriate. Naturally, there is some wiggle room in the exact percentage.

FVR at Home

Since I have had such good success with FVR on my own, my initial idea to implement FVR in my courses is to ask students to read at home too. This frees up class time for more listening and structured reading input, but therein lie two potential problems.

1) Students don’t have access to an abundance of level-appropriate fiction. That means if a reader finds a particular novel boring, they can’t just put it back and grab another. This is a tenet of FVR. If the student isn’t enjoying a given text (for any reason), they just return it to the shelf and select something else.

2) I can’t be sure that learners are actually reading if I don’t have a system of tracking (e.g. number of pages, word count, number of books, etc.). Such as system is not viable, and even if it were, it wouldn’t be fair. I, for one, am a slow reader. It would take me much longer to read a certain number of pages than it would someone who reads quickly. 

The only thing that I can think of that might work as a tracking system is some sort of a streak system. For example, students might post to Canvas (Blackboard, Moodle, etc.) that they read their nightly two-four pages in L2. That’s still the honor system, though. It’s not ideal, but at least it’s a feasible option.

I don’t ask my students to do FVR at home, but I’m still convinced there is a way to make it work. It’s what I do on my own, but I’m highly motivated to keep learning. I’ll continue working on a viable solution to this.

FVR In Class

Implementing a FVR program in class is, in my opinion, the best solution for presenting to learners a wide range of pleasure reading texts. A growing number of instructors are building personal libraries of level-appropriate novellas and allowing students to self-select a book to read. They act as curators of fascinating stories for their students to peruse, and they give access to books in L2 to students who wouldn’t have it otherwise.

This is a flexible option that you can easily add to your teaching repertoire. For instance, you might plan for students to have 10 minutes of FVR time, three days per week (perhaps after doing routine items such as the date, weather, etc.). If they respond well, you could up it to four or five times per week.

The goal is to get learners to fall in love with reading in L2. In this way, they will continue to seek out things to read on their own and extend their language acquisition journey indefinitely, well beyond the 10-15 weeks they spend with us.

As instructors, we know that those who read more have better vocabularies and command of grammar. Scheduling a time to pleasure read in class is a way to ensure that learners actually get that opportunity.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, FVR is actually an efficient use of class time. Why wouldn’t you want your students to read more? Give them the opportunity, and they will benefit greatly from it!

A Call to Authors and a Thank You

The thing about story is that we have an insatiable appetite for it. To this end, there are many storytelling educators who are trying their hand at writing short, level-appropriate novels for language learners. I am one of them. Below are the FVR novels I have published to date, and there are more on the way. I am sincerely grateful to all those who have read my work and/or have supported me to this point. It’s been quite an adventure. 

Las tres pruebas – Spanish
La vida loca de Marta – Spanish
La espía huérfana – Spanish
A espiã órfã – Portuguese

If you have ever thought about writing a novel, I highly encourage you to do so. It’s easier than ever to publish a novel, and our students need many thousands more titles to choose from. Perhaps this is the medium for you. There’s something deeply spiritual about an artist journeying to and from the divine.

Disclosure: Please note that some of the links above are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you decide to make a purchase after clicking through the link. Please understand that I have experienced all of these books/products and I recommend them because they are helpful and useful, not because of the small commissions I make if you decide to buy something through my links. Please do not spend any money on these products unless you feel you need them or that they will help you achieve your goals.

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