Audiobooks can be a great alternative for students who struggle with reading. However, many people think listening to audiobooks is somehow “cheating” at reading. This opinion is both harmful and incorrect.
What is the point of reading? Fundamentally, reading is a way to convey information. A textbook and an audiobook both convey information.
Why are students given reading assignments in school? Reading is generally assigned for two reasons: as specific instruction or practice in the technical skill of reading the written word, or as a way to learn new information about a content area (e.g., history or biology). While audiobooks are not suited for instruction in the act of reading the written word, there’s no reason not to use them for learning in other subjects.
Traditionalists may say, “But if the student is not reading text in all their subjects, they’re not practicing the skill of reading as much they need.” This point misses the fundamental nature of dyslexia. Here is where the specific paradox of dyslexia comes up.
Diane Kennedy, on her blog Mind Spark, explains it well:
One of the hallmarks of dyslexia is a discrepancy between reading level and oral language level. Often, in fact, these kiddos are really verbal and have been forever… This discrepancy means that children with dyslexia can comprehend books that they hear at a much higher level than they can read. So, to keep developing their oral language, including their vocabulary and their understanding of literary syntax, they need to be exposed to books at their oral comprehension level, rather than being limited to books they can read independently.
When students with dyslexia are forced to take in information by reading, they can actually be held back from learning critical information about other subjects. Many people seem to forget that “English Class” is not just about learning to read; it is also about improving comprehension, appreciating literature, learning vocabulary, and understanding the fundamentals of writing a compelling argument. Kennedy continues:
Since one of the greatest long-term disadvantages children with dyslexia face is the growing gap in vocabulary, literate language and content compared to their fluent reading peers, it is especially important to supplement what they can read with literature they can listen to.
Perhaps the greatest benefit that students can gain from reading, whether from a text or an audiobook, is a love of literature. If you want to encourage a child to be a lifelong reader, it follows that reading should be interesting to them. When I was young, one of the most frustrating things about having dyslexia was that everything I could successfully decode was so boring! It is no fun to trudge through books that are well below your intellectual level.
Audiobooks allow students to engage with challenging texts without being held back by weaknesses in reading text. Many dyslexic students associate reading with pain and difficulty. Encouraging them to listen to audiobooks can help reverse this feeling of powerlessness by showing them how enjoyable books can be. In fact, the audiobook may be more engaging for many students. Another bonus to listening to audiobooks is that many of them are extremely well produced and are more like radio shows with multiple narrators and even sound effects!
Quick Tip! Listening to an audiobook can often take more time than sight reading the same book. However, with practice students can actually train themselves to listen at faster and faster speeds. It may sound strange at first, but the ear will quickly adjust. The Audible app has features that allow readers to speed up narration in small increments. After a few months of practice, I typically listen to books at 1.5x speed.
I hope this post clears up some of the misinformation surrounding audiobooks and encourages you to recommend this format to your students. Who knows, you might even find that you enjoy audiobooks yourself, especially if you have a long commute. Happy listening!
- Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager