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October 27, 2021

Listen and learn: How audiobooks can support literacy development

As audiobooks continue gaining popularity, some educators and parents of young readers may be tempted to dismiss them as “cheating” or “unrigorous.” But research suggests that audiobooks can aid in the development of some key literacy skills, especially in students who dislike reading, have trouble sitting still, or have ADHD, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. 

The Joy of Listening

Like many kids who had the privilege of being around books all the time, I was a bookworm before I could actually read. My most impactful early literacy experiences were not interactions with printed text, but listening to verbal narratives in the form of bedtime stories, library read-alouds, and radio dramas. Whether it was with my family, with my class, or on my own, these aural experiences with words and stories gifted me with a playground for the imagination unfettered by technical limitations.

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Now that I am a busy young adult, audio media like audiobooks and podcasts have become an essential part of my daily and weekly routines. And I am not alone. Especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, audiobook and podcast listenership have been growing rapidly in the US and the UK. It is easier than ever to discover, access, and consume audio content, and its portability and multitask-ability make audio an ideal medium for information and entertainment in a fast-paced lifestyle.

It is clear that audiobooks are enjoyable and convenient for both kids and adults, but many people doubt that they can help early readers develop their literacy skills. Audiobooks just feel too easy, too much like “cheating.” There are parents that worry that audiobooks may prevent their children from learning to read written text. But education researchers tell us that using audiobooks is NOT cheating, and can be used in different ways to enhance or support students’ learning process. 

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Why Listening is Not Cheating

In this New York Times article, psychologist Daniel T. Willingham explains that reading and listening are actually extremely similar tasks. When decoding, or figuring out letter-sound relationships, is automatic, the mental processes involved in reading and listening are essentially the same, especially when it comes to narrative text. For those who have not yet mastered phonics or gained sufficient fluency—particularly for students with dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), etc.—decoding is an additional cognitive load that can prevent them from using their language processing skills to comprehend the text. Audiobooks can take off that additional load so that, while a student works on their other literacy skills, they can practice the higher-level task of understanding what the text means. 

Willingham also points out some differences between print and audio text that make them suited for different purposes. For example, listening to reading with expressive prosody (pitch, tempo, and stress) can help us understand ambiguous sentences or unfamiliar vocabulary. On the other hand, because reading allows us to slow down, go back, and stop to think more easily than when listening, retention of difficult subject matter is typically stronger with written materials. Understanding the nuances and details in an audio text can be challenging, especially when consuming it while completing other tasks. 

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Some Benefits of Audiobooks for Early Readers

Sources: Reading Rockets, Libro.fm, New York Times, Literacy Trust, We Are Teachers

Building listening skills and focus

Listening is foundational for all kinds of learning, including reading, and active listening requires practice, just like any other skill. Young readers are able to listen to longer books than they are able to read themselves, and their ability to focus on the story can transfer over to their ability to focus on a written text. Having students regularly listen to audiobooks with sustained focus can also help build phonemic and phonological awareness, or awareness of the sounds in their language. In addition, students do not have to sit still to listen to audiobooks as they do with written books, which may make it easier for some to pay attention to the content. 

Developing fluency

Good audiobooks showcase fluent, interpretive reading that both draws in the audience and acts as a model for students to imitate as they learn to read more fluently. A practice called Reading While Listening (RWL) has been shown to improve fluency, especially in second language learners. Fluency, or the ability to read with speed, accuracy, and expression, is the foundation of automaticity, which leads to better comprehension. Listening to fluent and expressive reading can also aid in comprehension.

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Supporting decoding and analysis

Listening while following along on the page also supports students’ understanding of letter-sound correspondence and the pronunciation of more difficult words. 

Growth in Comprehension

When students are still learning to decode, it can be difficult to put the information into a coherent whole as they read. While students do need instruction and practice with decoding, using audiobooks as tools to practice comprehension allows them to take in a story or information and interpret and analyze without the additional mental work of decoding. Audiobooks lower the barrier for students to visualize what is happening in the story, understand the message of the content, use their critical thinking skills, and make connections to what they already know. 

Expanding vocabulary and background knowledge

Students can access books above their reading level on audio, which means they will have exposure to unfamiliar and increasingly difficult vocabulary. Because they can explore a wide range of genres without having to decode new sets of words, they can easily build their knowledge of the world and practice higher-order thinking skills. This is particularly important for older students who are working on more basic decoding and fluency; by circumventing the stressful and possibly shame-inducing process of decoding, they can access grade-level material, as well as content that is more suited to their interests and intellectual capabilities.

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Connection and engagement

Research tells us that audio elicits emotion more effectively than written words. Listening to a human voice tell a story is an experience that we are all wired to find enjoyable and emotionally engaging. Research has shown that even students who usually find it difficult to engage in class participate eagerly in discussions that utilize higher-order thinking when the book is read aloud to them, because listening to the human voice is more psychologically stimulating. There are also studies that demonstrate more physiological signs of engagement with audio than with a video. 

Having a trusted adult like a parent or teacher read aloud to students is an important activity for this reason (with the added benefit of the positive social environment). However, this is not always practical, and there are unique benefits to audiobooks when it comes to engagement.

Listening to many different narrators exposes students to a variety of dialects and accents. More familiar dialects, especially for students who speak a nonstandard variety, can be comforting, while unfamiliar dialects can support more openness to and a better understanding of those dialects. Listening to a book as a family or as a class can be a wonderful way to connect with each other and introduce topics of discussion. Parents can record themselves reading, as well, to connect with their children when they aren’t able to be physically close.  

Audiobooks can also foster educational independence. Students who are allowed to control the audio speed, when to start and stop the audio, which books to read, etc. benefit more from audiobooks because they are able to exercise agency to listen at their own pace and according to their own interests. Engaging with an audiobook can also confer a sense of accomplishment and support students’ confidence. 

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The Next Level: Text to Speech

Although audiobooks are now widely available, not every text can be found in audio form. For many students, particularly those who have learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD, this poses a significant challenge. Assistive technology like text-to-speech software can allow students (and adults) to engage more easily with texts that are not available as audio. The app Speechify, for example, was created by someone who struggled with reading because of his dyslexia and wanted literature and information to be available for everyone, regardless of ability (watch his inspiring TEDxTalk here).

Audiobooks and Literacy

While we at Reading Partners work to support students’ development in all areas of literacy through one-on-one instruction, there are many other ways that students can grow their literacy skills. Engaging with literature and informational texts using audio is an excellent way to build listening skills, develop fluency, practice their comprehension and critical thinking, expand vocabulary and their knowledge of the world, and have positive experiences around reading. 

Text-to-Speech Software

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Where You Can Find Audiobooks

(Sources: Scholastic, ProLiteracy)

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