Reading & Literacy

High Schools Kids Barely Read. Could Audiobooks Reverse That Trend?

By Elizabeth Heubeck — April 10, 2024 4 min read
Vector illustration concept of young person listening to an audiobook.
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Reading Homer’s The Odyssey has long been a mainstay of high school English literature curricula. And yet it’s hard to imagine today’s typical high school student independently reading all 24 books (akin to chapters) of the ancient Greek epic poem, given that 15- to 19-year-olds read on average less than 15 minutes a day, according to recent statistics.

Joel Garza, who teaches 9th grade English at Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, acknowledged that a lot of his students probably would turn to Sparknotes, the popular study guides that provide abbreviated versions of works of literature, if he assigned The Odyssey today in print form. But the 30-year veteran teacher hasn’t given up on exposing his students to this classic piece of literature. Instead, he’s taken a different tack—one he resisted for quite some time.

Garza now assigns his 9th graders an audio adaptation of The Odyssey by Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, which he describes as a four-hour dramatic retelling of the epic. “The audiobook was not an option. It was required. Nobody had a book in their hand,” said Garza, a member of the National Council of Teachers of English’s National Secondary Section steering committee. “The students really enjoyed it,” he Garza.

So did he. Garza noted the details brought to life by the audio adaptation, from lively dialogue to dramatic sound effects like “big monster chewing noises” as Cyclops eats Odysseus’ men to the roiling sea in which Odysseus gets tossed about by a vengeful Poseidon. But Garza wasn’t always a fan of the format. “I was not a bad teacher when I was suspicious or skeptical of audiobooks. I just wasn’t open to it,” he said.

Garza’s sentiments mirror the mix of opinions about using audiobooks in high school.

“We’re still fighting this misconception that the use of audiobooks is cheating,” said Molly Ness, a former teacher, reading researcher, and vice president of academic content at Learning Ally, a nonprofit volunteer organization that supports educators. But a growing number of educators report finding audiobooks to be a highly accessible and meaningful way to increase student engagement in academic content, from history texts to literature classics.

Science supports relevance of audiobooks

Data show that audiobooks are gaining traction. OverDrive, a digital reading platform used by libraries and schools, announced this March a new agreement with audio content subscription service Storytel that will make 25,000-plus audiobooks in 20 languages available to 92,000 libraries and schools in its global network. Between 2021 and 2022, audiobook sales (from Amazon, Apple, and Barnes & Noble) soared 22 percent, to $3.04 billion, as reported by Publishers Weekly while, in that same period, print books sales dropped 0.6 percent.

There’s also compelling research that compares brain activity during reading with brain activity during listening. In one such study, researchers scanned the brains of participants as they read or listened to stories from The Moth Radio Hour, a podcast. The researchers then analyzed how the brain’s cortex processed individual words, both read and heard. Mapping their findings, they concluded that the stories—whether listened to or read—stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas of the brain. The study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

“If I can show you that your brain is doing the same stuff it’s doing when you’re reading the book, but I can give it to you in a way that’s more accessible and more engaging, why not?,” Ness she said.

It’s a message that speaks directly to students who struggle with reading fluency. “Audio eliminates the burden of lifting the words off the page. We know that when kids spend a lot of time with decoding, if their fluency is low, they can’t get to the meatier stuff of comprehension,” Ness said.

Despite advocating audiobook usage, Ness cautions educators to be mindful of how it’s used.

“If we are trying to help kids improve their reading ability, then matching the speech to print is useful. But if we are a 10th grade history teacher just trying to cover content and give students background knowledge and exposure, then the audiobook a kid has in his earbuds on the walk home from school is just as rich,” she said.

Audiobooks increase accessibility

Wesley Hedgepeth, a 9th grade history and government teacher in Henrico County, Va., can relate. Hedgepeth sees audio as playing a beneficial role for some high school history students. “There are students who don’t do the [assigned] reading,” said Hedgepeth, who is the president of the National Council for the Social Studies. “Maybe they just are uninterested in the assignment. But maybe it’s difficult for them, and no matter how hard they’ve tried, they can’t retain what they’ve read.”

Hedgepeth notes that today’s digital textbooks frequently include audio versions. He sees this option as helpful for students who may struggle with text, such as those with dyslexia or English learners—especially when text accompanies the audio and allows the reader to both listen and follow the words. “As a rule, any way we can get kids to read more is a good route,” he said.

Audiobooks bring authenticity to life

Not only does the format of audiobooks make literature accessible to a wide spectrum of students; it also lends itself to an authentic literature experience. “The audiobook industry is being mindful to publish books in which the narrator of the book reflects dialectical differences,” Ness said.

English teacher Garza points to the audio version of Angeline Boulley’s The Firekeeper’s Daughter as an example. The young adult novel about a Native American teen, he said, is animated and enriched by the voice of reader Isabella Star LaBlanc, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota nation.

“When you hear that actress reading the book, you recognize that this is somebody who knows the culture,” said Garza. “It really made for a deeper experience than I would have had with a book in my hand.”

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