Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Is Listening to an Audio Book Reading?

As the lazy days of July slip into the dog days of August in Washington, DC I begin to feel the anticipation of the upcoming school year. There are many tasks that need to be done to get ready for the teaching I will be doing this fall. Also there is my professional research and writing that takes up much of my day. Yet there is something that I need to do for pleasure each day, yes- need to do…read. So for at least an hour a day I move away from my desk and find a comfy chair, put my feet up, put on my headphones and read. When I read at home I have the book in front of me while I listen. This summer I read/listened to, A Mercy by Toni Morrison, The Lakota Way by Joseph M. Marshall III, and I am in the middle of re-reading/listening to for the first time 1984 (last time I read it was in high school before 1984) by George Orwell. Audio books have become a part of my life- sometimes I do not have the book in front of me and simply listen. The impact has been stunning! Last year while commuting in my car I listened to the 900 pages of Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, a tome I always intended to read which I don’t think I would have had the stamina or time to read without the assistance of listening. I also listened to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers; it was so well read that the voices transported me to the south in the 1930’s. Listening to books has brought a new dynamic and accessibility to reading that I never knew with just printed versions. I read for pleasure more than I ever did before!

We all may agree that books on tape, for an adult who has good reading skills is fine- but what about students who are having difficulty reading?

Fifteen years ago I was advocating for a third grade student diagnosed with a visual processing disability the educational psychologist recommended audio books as an accommodation. The family was able to get all the students schoolbooks on audiotapes through Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Both the student and his parents were excited about the audio books. The parents felt that it would make homework easier and their child would be less frustrated about school. The child always read along in the printed version of the book while listening. The parents noticed that although the child was not doing that much better in school he was happier about going to school and they had seen little successes that made a big impact on their child. The child was delighted to get through his reading assignments, which he rarely finished in the past. In a conference the classroom teacher was against the use of audio books, “This is cheating, if your son listens to the books he is not reading. Even with the audio books at home he is still not reading at grade level.” The mother asked what the child was supposed to be getting out of language arts and the teacher pulled out a chart from her notes and read, a) to improve reading skills, b) to improve vocabulary, c) to understand the structure of a story, d) to be exposed to new ideas and experiences through books e) to understand fiction and non-fiction by developing concrete and abstract thinking skills. The mother argued that listening to a book, while following along and reading, enhanced the reading experience for her son. “He used to struggle to read and now he enjoys putting on his headphones and listening.” Although that teacher and mother did not see eye to eye, her son discovered in third grade that he was a very strong auditory learner. Today, as a successful college graduate he still listens to audio books and has become an avid reader. Times have changed and most teachers would agree there are benefits to using audio books in the classroom.

I am convinced that audio books can assist students through the frustrations of the mechanics of reading and allowed them to “break through” and understand the joy of reading! Madeline L’Engle, author of children’s classics,stated the reason clearly in her own reflections on language. She illuminates the importance of language found through reading.
“The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give to our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves” (1972, p. 149).

This is why we should make books available to struggling readers who may not be able to get through them using only traditional reading methods. Audio books keep struggling readers from falling behind because they are tangled in the mechanics and may be missing the content, vocabulary building and most importantly development of active thinking skills. My opinion as an educator is that even today we need to discuss moving away from a strict definition of reading. I also believe that multi-modal reading instruction, where technology can support reading skills is important for all students especially those with disabilities.

How we achieve this in our classrooms leaves room for discussion.

Is listening to an audio book reading or a new way of reading?

Are there still teachers who resist using audio books? If so why?

Are there creative ways to use audio books in the classroom to assist all students?

Does your school library or classroom offer audio book technology for all students?

What are your feelings on audio books?

There are many free technologies available to assist teachers and parents in accessing audio books. I hope that you will find the resources and articles listed below helpful and I would love to hear your ideas about how you use audio books and what your experiences have been in using them personally and for teaching.


Bradshaw, T., Nichols, Kelly, K. and Bauerlein M. (2004, June). Reading At Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America, Research Division Report #46 Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, online at

Center for Applied Special Technology, CAST

Free Audio Books and Text:

Koffoff, P. B. (2002). Why teachers need to be readers. Gifted Child Today, 25(2) 50-57.

L'Engle, M.
(1972). A quiet circle. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Raskind, M. H. & Higgins, E. L. (1999).
Speaking to read: The effects of speech recognition technology on the reading and spelling performance of children with learning disabilities. Annals of Dyslexia, 49, 251-281.
Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, 800-221-4792 (RFB&D).

ReadPlease: Text to Speech Software:

Serafini, F. (2004). An Educator’s Guide to Utilizing Audiobooks in the
Excerpt from RHI: Reaching Reluctant Readers. New York: Random House. on line at: