App Aims to Boost Comprehension by Putting E-Books to Music

By Ellen Wexler — July 30, 2014 2 min read
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Were you aware that in some 5,000 schools across the world, students are reading e-books that come with sound effects and background music?

They are using Booktrack, an app that combines film-style soundtracks with the texts of popular books. The soundtracks are typically nine hours long, but that changes depending on your reading speed. The company claims to be “transforming reading the way sound transformed silent film.” Others are more skeptical.

The idea started started when New Zealand-based co-founder Mark Cameron tried to read and listen to music at the same time during his morning commutes. When selecting his music, he noticed that he tried to pick songs that matched the tone of the book he was reading. He spoke with his brother, Paul, and the two started working through the logistics of creating soundtracks for e-books. Three years ago, they launched Booktrack.

“Tens of millions of commuters around the world listen to a playlist that’s disconnected from what they’re reading—perhaps a sad song with an upbeat story,” Paul Cameron said shortly after the company was launched. “Now they can replicate a movie-like sound experience and fundamentally transform their reading experience.”

When you read Peter Pan with Booktrack and you reach the part when the lost boys fight the pirates, you can hear the clash of the swords. Sherlock Holmes stories come with crackling fireplaces and ticking clocks. (“I honestly think Arthur Conan Doyle would have loved this,” Brooke Geahan, Booktrack’s vice president of publishing, told The Atlantic). Even the Bible has a soundtrack.

By making the reading experience more cinematic, the company hopes to appeal to students—and, more to the point, to teachers working with reluctant readers. With Booktrack Classroom, the company’s education platform launched earlier this year, students also have the option to create their own soundtracks using audio from Booktrack’s library, and teachers can download related lesson plans.

Earlier this year, Booktrack commissioned a study to look at how the program affected the reading experiences children between ages 10 and 14. Some students read a traditional history text, while others read the same text using Booktrack. When they took a reading-comprehension test, the students who used Booktrack scored 17 percent higher. They also reported 35 percent higher satisfaction with the reading experience and spent 30 percent more time on the text overall.

But some experts are skeptical of the findings. Michael Kamil, a Stanford University professor of psychological studies in education, says that there is little evidence showing that music can improve reading comprehension. “Administrators should be very careful about any product that offers the suggestion it will improve reading without instruction,” he said.

But for Dave Hithersay, the University of Auckland researcher who led the study, the impact of the program was clear.

“There was an instant shift in reading comprehension,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything equivalent that has had such an instant impact on comprehension improvement since the initial invention of the book itself.”

Image: Kevin Morris/Flickr Creative Commons.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.