Audiobooks Can Support K-12 Readers in the Classroom

By Kate Stoltzfus — September 19, 2016 3 min read
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In a digital age, with the increasing use of technology in the classroom and in school libraries—69 percent of school libraries provide students with digital content—audiobooks are gaining ground. In fact, they are the fastest-growing sector in the book-publishing industry, spurring publishers and authors to focus on audio storytelling, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Audiobook sales increased by 20.7 percent in 2015 from the previous year —thanks in part to digital downloads for smartphones and other electronic devices, according to the Boston Globe. Though the sales weren’t broken down by age demographics (and there is evidence that many K-12 students still prefer print books), today’s generation of students now has more options for reading media than any other.

But Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at University of Virginia and author of the book Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (Jossey-Bass, 2015), acknowledged in a post on his personal blog that some people question whether audiobooks are “cheating.” The traditional act of reading involves two processes—comprehension and “decoding,” or the act of reading words in print. Though audiobooks don’t involve decoding text, Willingham cited studies that show comprehension is about the same whether a reader is listening or reading.

The audio format has actually been shown to aid more readers in the K-12 classroom—particularly those who struggle to read print books. Audio recordings have long been used as a reading-intervention assist, according to a 2012 study by the American Association of Schools Libraries. But after surveying the effects of audiobooks on a group of elementary students, the researchers found audiobooks improved students’ reading scores, increased students’ positive attitudes about their reading ability, and offered students more personal choice in what they read. A service called Learning Ally that syncs written text with audiobooks helped some students with dyslexia become avid readers, wrote teacher Kyle Redford in a 2015 blog post for Education Week Teacher.

Building listening skills in combination with reading isn’t limited to audiobooks. A partnership announced earlier this year between NPR and curriculum provider Listen Current shares NPR stories for the classroom with subtitling to help students become critical listeners. This is especially helpful for English-language learners. Another free digital book service provided by the nonprofit Bookshare allows students to magnify or listen to the text, according to their needs.

The use of audiobooks can help all students read books above their reading level or learn new vocabulary, build critical listening skills, and experience storytelling in new ways, according to Denise Johnson, an assistant professor of reading education at the College of William & Mary in Virginia in an article for Reading Rockets, a national multimedia literacy initiative. Audiobooks also provides opportunities for new reading lesson plans, wrote Hannah Hudson in a blog post for the resource website We Are Teachers, including the option for classes to listen to a book together.

As schools build audiobook collections in their libraries and classrooms, there are many services that offer free audiobook downloads. The Audio Publisher’s Association offers some suggestions for what readers can listen to with the 2016 Audie winners for best audiobooks, including Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan (read by Mark Bramhall, David deVries, MacLeod Andrews, and Rebecca Soler) for middle-grade readers, Lair of Dreams: A Diviners Novel by Libba Bray (read by January LaVoy) in YA, and Little Shop of Monsters by R.L. Stine and Marc Brown (read by Jack Black) for children.

Photo credit: Getty

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