I often hear teachers, parents, and students make implicit or explicit comments that reflect a bias against audiobooks. Some even argue that listening to books should not be confused with reading at all.
“I’m fine having Sam listen to audiobooks in the car, but I want him reading real books the rest of the time,” a parent might say. Similarly, Sam might believe that he can’t include audiobooks on his independent reading record for his teacher because he didn’t actually read them.
These devaluations and qualifications give me pause. Casually dismissing a reading platform that can build a student’s knowledge bank, appreciation of story, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and verbal fluency seems unwise.
There is, in fact, a strong correlation between academic achievement and the amount of independent reading done outside of school. Listening to an audiobook is essentially the same as reading in print. The only difference is that reading text requires decoding and listening to an audiobook does not.
Pitting reading instruction against audiobooks sets up a false choice."
Though the research doesn’t establish whether higher achievement is tied to the act of decoding, I would argue that increased exposure to words, information, and ideas, regardless of format, plays a big role in helping students improve academically.
For those who are still skeptical of audio, it begs the question: What is reading anyway? Is it the act of decoding words, or is it making meaning out of those words? Does decoding add value to the reading experience, or is it merely a delivery system?
I would argue that reading is simply the processing of language into story and information, and it has value for readers whether it’s on paper or through sound.
A Boon to Struggling Readers
Some opponents of audiobooks claim that the time spent listening to them precludes decoding practice for struggling and dyslexic readers. But pitting reading instruction against audiobooks sets up a false choice. The two are not mutually exclusive. We should be encouraging students who are receiving decoding instruction to also read audiobooks that correspond with their interests, comprehension, and intellectual abilities to engage them.
It’s also important to mention that teachers deliver negligible amounts of effective decoding instruction in the upper elementary grades and beyond. If older students are still not reading at their intellectual or grade level, are we to restrict them to limited ideas, knowledge, and vocabulary? Given what we know about the value of reading, readers cannot afford to put their learning on hold while they learn to decode.
Audiobooks can enhance comprehension for readers who need more supports, because they communicate additional information through vocal changes in pacing, rhythm, and pitch.
Technology Combines Text and Audio
For those educators who still argue that listening to books takes time away from reading text and building the decoding muscle, there’s new technology that brings text and audio together.
Innovative synced ear-and-eye reading systems allow our students to read highlighted text and listen simultaneously. These systems offer audio support so struggling readers can read text at their intellectual or grade level rather than their lower reading level.
Bookshare, a free service, and Learning Ally, a subscription service, are organizations that provide audiobooks to students who have a diagnosed reading difficulty. These synced audio programs enhance students’ fluency and comprehension and improve concentration. Bookshare’s audiobooks can pair with reading tools like Voice Dream Reader, which delivers highlighted text with synthesized voices, while Learning Ally uses human voices to deliver its content.
Audiobooks in Action
This fall, I facilitated a learning panel for my school’s 5th graders. I invited successful former students with unconventional learning profiles (those with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning differences), to speak about the tools and strategies that they use to help them thrive in the upper grades.
During the panel, something happened that nearly knocked me off my stool. All four of the student panelists claimed that synced reading systems had notably improved their ability to read text. I had always suspected that the platforms would help them decode by pairing letters and sounds and modeling fluency, but these unsolicited observations stunned me.
One student even said that she no longer depends on audiobooks. This was the same student who had confessed minutes earlier that prior to switching to Learning Ally in 5th grade, she had never finished an entire book. As her teacher, I remember watching in awe as the new system transformed her into a bookworm.
Hopefully, we can all agree that how students gather words and ideas is less important than how many words and ideas they gather. Ultimately, if we want to build rich reading lives for students, we need to find ways to encourage and validate all kinds of reading for all learners, whether they experience the text with their eyes or with their ears.