(Unbeknownst to either of us, Eric Richards has recently posted something very similiar on his blog about this topic - "Why Level-Appropriate Reading?" Take some to read it - very good and has research to back it up!)
If you are familiar with Krashen's theories related to Comprehensible Input, you should know the concept of "i+1 (input plus one)" - according to this hypothesis, Krashen states that while comprehensible and understandable input (i) is 100% necessary for language acqusistion, the "+1" represents the next level of understanding which is needed for a learner to progress in the language. Without oversimplifying this concept, our goal should then be to deliver messages and content which are completely comprehensible for students but also slightly (key word is slightly) challenge their current level of understanding in order for them to progress.
In this blog post, however, I am going to argue the absolute vital necessity for the opposite: i-1 (input MINUS one) when it comes to reading, especially Free Voluntary Reading (FVR).
Krashen is a HUGE advocate of reading and firmly believes that this is a major component of language acquisition:
"Our reading ability, our ability to write in an acceptable writing style, our spelling ability, vocabulary knowledge, and our ability to handle complex syntax is the result of reading."
"The ability to speak is the result of listening [and] the result of reading."
I have heard many CI/ADI teachers say that when we have students read L2, our goal for them should be that those messages translate into "moving pictures in their heads," i.e., that these messages should go beyond just words to them. While I am fully on board with this goal, I will also argue though that as novice language learners, our brains will automatically translate L2 messages into L1 (whether we like it or not), because our brains are trying to create mental representations of that L2. In order for our brains to transform L2 messages into "moving pictures in our heads," those messages then need to be BELOW our current level of reading proficiency so that these messages immediately "translate into images."
When novice language learners read messages in L2, numerous brain functions are occurring simultaneously:
- what does this individual word mean? (meaning)
- what does the form of the word tell me? (grammar and syntax)
- what do I do with this word? How do I put all of these words together to create overall meaning? (translation)
As a result, reading can be very overwhelming for novice language learners (and they may already struggle with reading in their L1) if too much is going on in their brains. When students encounter unknown vocabulary and forms, this can impede reading flow, because they are forced to stop to establish meaning. While some students are meta enough to persist in establishing meaning, most will not.
When a reading is targeted at i-1, although the reading is targeted at a level below students' current reading proficiency, students are receiving repetitions and robust exposure to language with which they are already familiar, thus refnforcing the subconscious nature of the language acquisition process. When learners have constant robust exposure to vocabulary, the words can move from just being words to now "images in their heads."
So when it comes to FVR (Free Voluntary Reading), although we want students to read for pleasure to reinforce language acquisition, the messages which they are reading need to be 100% understandable. In your own experiences, do you tend to read for pleasure messages which are above your current reading profciency? I would argue that most people do not. For the record, People Magazine is written at an 8th grade reading level.
Here is an example from my own experience. I HATE reading research articles; to me, these articles are written at a i+100 level!! If you want to torture me, forget waterboarding - force me to read academic articles! Whenever I read research articles, I can definitely tell you that there are NO MOVING PICTURES IN MY HEAD! Honestly, I am doing everything which I can to stay afloat in comprehension when it comes to reading scholarly material, because it is so above my reading proficiency level. To me, reading academic material is like translating one of Cicero's Latin speeches into English (Latin folks, you will understand that reference).
I would love to hear your take on "i-1 in reading" in the comments!