Story Learning Foreign Languages

Olly Richards' Story Learning

Olly Richards' a polyglot, has a method for language learning he calls story learning. He has actually taken out a trademark on this term, and claims that it protects "the invention of a powerful new method." But in fact patent protects inventions, trademarks only protect trade marks. That said, there is no real invention here, as all the techniques have been well-researched, most notably by Stephen Krashen and his collaborators.

You won’t find this anywhere else. That’s because Olly actually invented this brand-new language learning method.

Nonsense. Of course Olly Richards knows about Stephen Krashen.

I spent a lot of time studying Stephen's work while completing my masters in linguistics.

Language Acquisition and Comprehensible Input

Krashen makes a distinction between language learning and language acquisition. The former is more or less the activities of learning, whereas the latter is the actual acquisition of language (which is not altogether a conscious learning). Krashen has several theories with research that provides good evidence for them. The main point is to focus on comprehensible input, and Krashen says that reading self-selected books for pleasure is one of the most effective approaches to learning acquisition. This of course is Olly's point as well.

Olly Richard's Masterclass

The Story Learning Method

Olly Richard's has a step-by-step approach to reading, and has authored numerous books in several languages that provide the sort of graded reader useful in language acquisition.

  • Choose reading material at your level
  • Read for completion (complete each chapter)
    • Read for gist
  • Go back to the start, read again
  • Check for unknown words, but only those repeated
  • Repeat

Context and Value of Story Learning

Story Learning, aka reading self-selected comprehensible input, is a good approach, as it is completely derivative of the already-understood natural method as documented by Krashen.

The parts of this method that are more dubious is the actual learning material (written by a non-native speaker) which is a not very good attempt to create a graded reader.

I use this book with my students. It's not perfect, but there's not a lot to choose from. A few observations: 1) It uses European Spanish. This means some things sound odd, or even confusing, to Latin Americans like me. 2) It has errors. I purchased the Kindle version of the new edition that will be released in paper in November 2018. This edition eliminated the dragon story and added a space story about a capsule. This story seems rushed, and it not only has errors in the Spanish, but also one in the story itself. Hiring a proofreader won't hurt. 3) It contains too many low frequency words. This is most definitely not for beginners. Some words are unknown even to natives, such as pergamino in the Knight story. I re-typed part of a story into a text editor where I use a user dictionary containing the top 20K Spanish word forms. There's about 6-10% of word forms OUTSIDE THE TOP 20K! Something written for "beginners" should focus on high-frequency words instead. Anything beyond 2% unknown words becomes a chore. 4) Reading is made difficult by the names. Some stories use really odd names instead of native Spanish names. This makes reading more difficult even for natives. 5) As for the stories themselves, the first one is boring. The second one is mildly interesting. The remaining ones are more interesting and I kept reading them like I would with native materials. But sometimes you wonder if something was lost in the translation (Remember Olly's native language is English), because it can be difficult to follow what's going on.

That said, there are several other elements needed for foreign language learning:

  • Learning to hear the unique sounds of a language
  • Learning to read / speak / pronounce written words
  • Learning to write
  • Learning to read fluently (out loud) to capture the meter and tones of the language
  • Access to comprehensible material (audio and books)
  • Access to tutors for conversation, question answering, assessment
  • An overall guide to the language for orientation
  • A spaced repetition system for vocabulary retention

As we can see learning to speak and learning to read are inseparable (as is obvious from a literary approach to second language learning).

We definitely agree with the approach of comprehensible input and self-selected reading. It is how educated people learn literary language and spoken professional languages.