(This article was originally published in the International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching (IJFLT), Summer, 2005 edition under the title Another Win for Harry Potter: More Evidence of the Value of Free Reading. I’m still learning from this kid.)

Here is the article in a pdf format.

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For years Dr. Stephen Krashen has extolled the benefits of free voluntary reading, allowing the interests of readers to drive them ahead in literacy.  In study after study his results have indicated that reading is the fastest and surest way to learn language.  Krashen’s theories have always appealed to me intuitively and I have read many of his books, but I had never witnessed the phenomenal power of reading to develop language first hand until I met Roberto Ortega.

When he was twelve years old, Roberto came to the United States from Lagunillas, Zulia, Venezuela.  He lived in Lakewood, Colorado for one year and went to middle school there till August of 2002, when he went back to Venezuela for the 2002-2003 school year. He returned to the U.S. in August of 2003 and was enrolled as a 9th grader at Roosevelt High School in Johnstown, Colorado. In September of that year, he was given the Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey.  As measured by the survey, he knew enough English and was no longer required to take ELL classes.  Many English language learners do not reach this level after years of study in ELL classes.  He tested out of ELL classes after having lived in an English-speaking country for just one year. How did Roberto learn English so quickly?

He attributes his rapid learning of English to reading.  But how did he manage to read in a language he barely knew?  Roberto was briefly in my ELL class last year and this school year he was in my AP Spanish class.  Through his essays, and those of his older brother in AP, I began to learn parts his story and was intrigued to find out more. His AP Spanish class essays indicated that Roberto believed that he has learned English rapidly and thoroughly simply by reading the Harry Potter books.  I wanted to find out the details, so I interviewed Roberto to find out his story:

Did you know much English when you first arrived here?

No.  I only knew how to say ‘Hi’ and ‘I want to go to…’  They don’t teach you very much English over there.”

So, you didn’t speak English in your home in Venezuela?

No, never.  Nobody knew how to speak English except my father, but he didn’t speak it to us at home.

Did you have any English classes in Venezuela before you came to the U.S.?

I had three years of English classes, but they don’t teach you much.  You don’t learn from those classes. You just learn simple nouns and stuff like that.

You have said that you read a lot when you first arrived in the U.S., and you think that it helped you to learn English.  What did you read?

I read all four Harry Potter books.  I read the first Harry Potter Book twice, and then I read all of the rest one time each.  I didn’t get to read the last chapter of the last book because I had to go back to Venezuela.

How could you read when you didn’t know the language well?

Spanish is almost like English. It’s not like it was Chinese or some language that is very different. I didn’t understand everything at first, but it wasn’t that hard. There were many words that I didn’t know, but I just kept going. I looked for key words, words that looked like Spanish words, and I just figured it out.

But if you didn’t know a lot of the words, how did you read?  Did you look up words in the dictionary?

No, I hated to look up words in the dictionary.  It was too much work. By the time I had started to read the third Harry Potter book, my mom had bought me a Franklin translator [an electronic dictionary]. You just type in the word. It was faster, so it was easier to look up words. But I still didn’t look up that many words. I wasn’t reading to learn words.  I was reading because of the story.

If you didn’t look in the dictionary much, how did you figure out the meaning of words you didn’t know?

Sometimes if a word kept coming up, I would ask my brother.

But you didn’t ask your brother all the time?

No.  He wasn’t home much, and he would also get mad if I asked him too many words, so I didn’t ask him much.

Big brothers can be like that.  How did your older brother know so much more English than you?

Because in Venezuela he listened to music in English a lot, he knew the lyrics and he read the words, and so he was ahead of me.

How much did you read during that year?

I read about three hours a night, because I didn’t have anything to do. We lived far from the malls and the family did not allow us to go there much so we couldn’t go hang out a lot.   There was technology in the house, but my uncle didn’t let us use it too often, so I couldn’t use it much.  We had a TV, but we didn’t watch it much.  We mostly just played chess and read a lot.

Why did you read so much?

I had just arrived here. I had a lot of free time. I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t speak English.

Your brother told me that it took you one whole month to read the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Why did you want to read that book so much that you took all that time and effort?

Almost every night the family played a Harry Potter game, so I wanted to play the game and I wanted to learn more about it.  It made me want to read.

Who were you living with at the time? 

My uncle and aunt and my nephews and my brother. My nephews grew up here, so they did not speak much Spanish; I had to talk to them in English.

Did you have any ELL classes at the time?

Yes.  I was in 7th grade at Carmody Middle School in Bear Creek [Lakewood, Colorado]. I had a teacher that helped me all the time. It was hard, but it was good. There were just three people in class, but nobody knew how to speak Spanish. There was a girl that spoke Japanese, a boy that was Danish, and a boy from Brazil that spoke Portuguese.  That helped because it forced me to speak English. There was a girl from Mexico, but she came in later.  I didn’t talk to her much.

What kind of school did you go to when you returned to Venezuela?

A private school, almost all of the good schools there are private. There are a few public schools, but they are not very good.

When you went back to Venezuela again did you take any English classes?

I took an English class—you have to take one there, but it did not help. They are way behind there. I actually lost some English because I didn’t speak it at all for one year. That year I wasn’t studying much. I was just having fun. I didn’t think my grades would matter.

What do you mean when you say the schools in Venezuela are “way behind” in the way they teach English?

They just use a textbook with fill-in-the-blank answers. They don’t speak that much English.  It was an easy class. It really didn’t help me learn much.

Have you continued to read on your own at home?

Sometimes, but not as much now.  I read the fifth book in the [Harry Potter] series last year, and my mom has already ordered book number six which is coming out this summer.

So, the Harry Potter books are the main thing you have read?  Why?

I just like the author.  It’s interesting.  I don’t know the reason.


Robert’s grade level equivalents (& scores, in parentheses) on the Woodcock-Muñoz Language Survey demonstrate his steady improvement in English:

.                                             Broad                             Oral                                         Reading/Writing

9/18/2003                         6.6 (3/4)                          7.5 (4)                                    6.1 (3)

4/16/2004                        8.6 (4)                            10.5 (4)                                    7.5 (3/4)

4/19/2005                       12.0 (4)                            11.4 (4)                                    12.6 (4)

These are amazing results. Many students that are native speakers of English would not have test scores this high.  Roberto Ortega is an interesting case.  He is obviously an intelligent and gifted young man, but we can learn something from his journey.

How did Roberto Ortega learn English so fast and so thoroughly? Robert’s family situation was a perfect storm of language acquisition. Many elements seemingly conspired to teach him English. What can we learn about language acquisition from Roberto’s story? It seems to me that we can take away the following ideas:

Boredom isn’t all bad.  The boredom, frustration and isolation of his situation drove Roberto to learn more English.  He had a lot of time on his hands.  He was not allowed to spend a lot of time watching TV and playing video games.  He couldn’t hang out with friends because he didn’t have any and, by his account, there was no place to go.  He was isolated socially and linguistically.  He couldn’t even competently participate in the nightly Harry Potter board game with his young cousins.  All these elements steered him towards reading.

Don’t look up words all the time. When Roberto didn’t know a word, he would ask his brother, but not often because his brother would get mad if he asked him too many words. Perfect storm. Roberto would only ask for a word’s meaning when he was desperate, otherwise, he would just continue to read. It’s best to keep on reading and go with the flow.

Access to books matters.  Roberto was provided with books that interested him and encouraged to read.  Every time he finished another Harry Potter book, he was provided with the next one in the series.  Roberto was not setting out to learn English quickly and well.  He was reading because he liked it.  He kept on reading because the content fascinated him.  Robert shows us that an interesting book can compel voluntary learning at a high level.

Reading the right way matters.  Roberto didn’t interrupt his reading by stopping to ask about or look up every single word he did not know.  He didn’t break the flow of thought.  Having an older brother in the house that spoke English turned out to be a marvelously helpful way to acquire English.  Roberto could always ask if he absolutely HAD to know a word, but he normally just kept on reading because he was always taking a chance by asking his brother too many words (big brothers being notoriously impatient).  He normally didn’t risk the humiliation and pain of bothering his big brother and just kept on reading the story in spite of occasional words he did not know, but the help was always there if he really needed it.

Motivation matters.  Roberto was not trying to test out of ELL classes. He wasn’t trying to pass a class.  He was trying to escape from a difficult emotional situation for a few hours a day.  He was engrossed in a story.  He wanted to find out about Harry Potter, a character that he could identify with.  Reading also empowered him.  Almost every evening he could talk about what he was reading.  His young cousins had read all of the books in the series and whenever Roberto read a new passage, he could discuss it at the dinner table and apply his new knowledge of Hogwarts in the nightly board game.

Will all language learners learn as quickly as Roberto Ortega?  No.  Not many will have the same motivation, time and opportunity.  Most will not have the emotional and intellectual wherewithal to keep at it for as long as he did.  But language learners can apply the lessons Roberto Ortega has demonstrated to us and those that Dr. Stephen Krashen (a real-life Professor Dumbledore?) has been telling us:  a little boredom, access to interesting books, reading for content, and a little motivation can achieve magical results.

(Roberto’s comments and test scores appear with the permission of his mother.)

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