Tuesday Tips: Why Audiobooks Are Not Cheating

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As a small child, I loved my toy record player. Like an actual turntable. What did I play on this record player?  Books.

When I got a little older, we entered the world of cassette tapes, dual tape decks, and Walkmen.  My mom bought us some of the best Disney cassette tape story books.  Anyone else remember these? The soothing narrator who would kindly tell us, “Turn the page when you hear this sound. . .”?

Now as a high school English teacher, sometimes I have a brave student who will proffer one of the following confessions:

“I have a hard time with all the reading.  I like all the books that we read in here, but I reading is hard for me.”

“I fall asleep when I read.”

“The words seem to jump around on the page when I read.”

“I read a page, and I can’t understand what I just read.”

I will then respond with,

“Have you tried audiobooks? Here are a couple of good ones for the book we’re reading right now.”  

“How about the library? They have tons of great audiobooks for you to listen to.  Have you tried that system? Here, let me show you how to use it.”

“Oh, I found a couple of audiobooks for that. Let me show you where to get them. See if either of them are any good.”

A lot of times, the student gives me a perplexed look and whispers, “Oh, is that okay? I thought that would be cheating.”

No. A thousand times no.  What I care about is that they read the book. I don’t care how they digest it initially.  We will be doing all kinds of work with it in class, and trust me, my students will have to practice their close reading skills with the actual text.  How they initially experience what the book is saying does not matter that much to me.

I’ve mentioned before how I rely on audiobooks to help me meet my reading goals, but let me expound a bit more.

The Benefits of Audiobooks

The Personal Perspective

  • Audiobooks allow me to read while I’m doing something else.  I’m not a huge fan of housework, but hey, it has to get done. I guess. Anytime I have a task to do that doesn’t involve a lot of mental energy: cooking, folding laundry, cleaning, even crochet or exercise, I fire up the audiobook.  The only issue with this is that somehow the audiobook is a magnet for other members of my household to try to talk to me right while I’m in the middle of a good part.
  • Audiobooks are great for long road trips. Road trips, at least when I’m driving, mean audiobooks because I’m not the best at driving long distances unless I have something to keep my mind busy.  On our summer vacation to Corpus Christi, my children listened to 5 or 6 Boxcar Children books.  We just have to make sure to strategically sit close to the speakers in the minivan.

The Teacher (but Still Personal) Perspective

  • Audiobooks take away the struggle of decoding and allow listeners to move into comprehension.  Hearing someone read difficult words and names they way they should be pronounced helps with comprehension.
  • Audiobooks help with fluency.  There is a benefit to hearing how someone else reads a sentence or paragraph, where she pauses, what he emphasizes.
  • Audiobooks help readers digest difficult text more quickly.  So you tuned out a little. So you didn’t understand that paragraph. The point is that with an accomplished voice actor reading the story for you, you will move through the text perhaps more quickly than you would if you were sitting in your chair staring at the page. The same page for an hour, perhaps.
  • An audiobook can facilitate the initial reading of the text. Every reading or literature teacher I’ve ever had has emphasized that reading difficult text requires multiple readings: an initial reading to simply get the gist of the story, and subsequent close readings to delve into author’s craft.  I listened to The Aeneid one summer when I was driving back and forth to a conference, and there were several sections where I had no idea what was happening. However, what I did get was the overall sense of the plot and the characters: the coherence of the story was still there.  Then, in my class where we were studying the epic, I was able to review certain passages and read excerpts of the text more closely.
  • Sometimes you may want to divide your reading of a text, and an audiobook can help you do this.  My husband read Anna Karenina a few years ago. Sometimes he would listen to the audiobook while mowing the lawn or cleaning the kitchen (yes, that’s one of the deals we have in our house). Other times he would read the actual book. The only trick with doing this is that he would have to commit to listening to an entire section before switching back to print, or he might get lost. In all fairness, though, this is Tolstoy we’re talking about.

What other benefits have you found for audiobooks?  Do you use them or recommend them to students?

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13 responses to “Tuesday Tips: Why Audiobooks Are Not Cheating

  1. I agree with your comments for low-average and/or struggling readers. How do you feel about audio books or books on tape for average and above average readers? At what point do you think these students need to read books at their own reading level and/or interest level, with support if needed, so they can move at their own pace and learn how to grapple with challenging text by applying decoding and comprehension strategies they are learning? I am looking for studies on this issue, but not finding much for this population of readers.

    • I don’t have any references to studies, but my daughter is reading at or above her grade level. Audiobooks are entertainment (with so many benefits). I feel that audiobooks offer her the same opportunities that they offer struggling readers. She can listen to books that are out of her independent reading level. She’s becoming a great reviewer of readers as well. Jim Dale holds top honors in her book. Any narrator she listens to, she judges. She enjoys performances, not just accurate readings. I think the experience helps her understand effective reading and speaking skills. I also believe it impacts her ability to listen and comprehend what she hears. I teach 6th grade and have had some enthusiastic audiobook lovers each year. I only have a brief time with them, so although I do see many benefits, I see lifelong results of listening to audiobooks in my own child.

    • Gayle, right now I teach primarily Advanced Placement classes, where most students are average or above average readers. This is actually the population of kids I recommend audiobooks for. Every type of reader can become a “struggling” or “developing” reader if the text is difficult enough. The texts they are required to read for my class are largely above their independent reading level, so that audiobook can help them with make it through the text for their initial read. Then, the close reading strategies are what I teach them and what we practice in class. While I want them to be able to use these strategies on their own, I can’t really assess their ability to do this unless we are in a room together. I want them to read through the text to get the gist before they come to class, and then we will practice the strategies in the class. The activities we do in class, however, do require that they have done the initial read-through.

      • I think your method of having the students listen to the book, or story, that is above their independent level so the discussion and strategy instruction will be centered on familiar text is excellent. In a 43 minute period, assuming your class is not blocked and longer, you can only do so much. Some of our teachers are investigating the “flipped classroom” for this very reason. As much as I hate to lead in the “elephant in the room,” however, students are assessed with High Stakes Testing (as well as other ways) and they will need to “close read,” and reread, the text on their own, even though it will most likely be well above their independent, or even instructional, levels. Do you feel your students score better on the AP tests using the method you describe since you have given them the tools they need to be successful? That would be very interesting and useful data. This is the only study I could find on this topic and it is old:
        Cloer, and Denton, T.G. (1984). The Effects of Read
        – Along Tapes on the Reading Comprehension of Middle School Students.
        Gayle

        • I have a few thoughts about this; I’ll try to make them organized! I’m pretty pleased with my students’ ability to do well on the AP Literature exam, so I think that something is working, but it’s a combination of everything we do together. Not all of my students use the audiobooks; it’s just a suggestion I make to help them through that initial digestion of a longer text. For our classroom discussion, they have to be prepared with observations and questions that are supported by textual evidence. For them to be adequately prepared, they will have to go back into the text and close read certain passages even after they have listened to the book. The audiobook is more of a way for them to get a sense of the whole before delving more deeply into the parts for analysis. I like that it can encourage multiple readings of the text for some students. For close reading like standardized tests require, we look at much shorter excerpts and passages in class, some from the assigned reading and some that they have never seen before. Audiobooks are just one tool in the toolbox; I do agree with you that students have to develop their abilities to read difficult texts on their own.

  2. I highly recommend audio books. I use them with students based on the same reasoning. Also, personally, I love them. My daughter keeps the Maximum Ride series and Hunger Games on a loop. She has also listened to 2 Jane Austin books. She’s listened to countless others through my Audible subscription, online library audiobooks, garage sale finds, and Playaways. Harry Potter and Jim Dale – who is the ultimate performance reader – were her first audiobook addiction. The vocabulary from these books – some way beyond her 12 years – show up in her writing. Audiobooks score an A+ for fluency help, vocabulary building, and building a love for the written and spoken word. Did I even get to the plus for listening skills?

  3. Agree completely. I love reading the traditional way, but audiobooks allow me to read more (same situations as u: long trips, housework) plus when i was working on my PhD and had a baby, it was the only way to read for leisure. I am glad someone has written this!

    • Yes! Sitting and reading a print book is a luxury that I don’t have a lot these days. Audiobooks definitely help me get more reading done. I think that this is true for most of my students as well. They are so incredibly busy, with tons of sports, clubs, AP classes, etc. Often reading gets pushed to the last item on their to-do lists, which means it often doesn’t get done. I find that since I’ve been recommending audiobooks, they are more likely to see how to fit it into their lives.

      • Very interesting thread. This has been a topic of discussion for some time in my school among teachers and administrators, in university grad classes that I take regularly, and in grad reading classes I teach. For many teachers, the discussion centers on content. They assert that the delivery of content is their job and if that means audio books, Mp3 files read to the whole class at once, or reading entire books aloud while students listen, then that is what they need to do. Personally, I feel a balance is necessary but that students need to engage with text themselves to learn how to understand and appreciate what is being said, how, and why. I do think these other delivery systems are important, as well, for all the reasons stated, but part of literacy is being able to read independently. That takes practice.

  4. Vocabulary development alone is reason to listen to audio books! I’m currently recording stories we’re reading in class to help those two 7th graders I have that have a difficult time decoding. If they can understand the book/story, they can participate in discussions. If they can participate in discussions, they can delve into the books more. If they can delve into the books more, they can develop a stronger argument or claim (and use more evidence) in their writing. Not EVERYTHING we read has to be a struggle for them. Give them access to the text, so they come to love reading again and give it another shot when there is no other way but on their own through print. THANK YOU for this post.

  5. Funny, I had a student that emailed today asking me if it was okay for him to read audiobooks as they help him read faster! Of course, I replied. I do encourage my students to read along with the audiobook for many of the reasons you have listed above, especially when they are doing the reading for a class discussion as opposed to just entertainment. Although typically, I have only encouraged or suggested this for my struggling readers, I think you have made an excellent point that it is a good strategy for those that we consider strong readers who may be tackling a challenging text!

    • Yes! Anyone can become a struggling reader if the text is difficult enough. Developing good reading skills means developing the metacognition to recognize what I do when I read, what I can do when I get stuck reading, and what strategies or tools I can use to help myself get through a difficult text.

  6. Pingback: Read Like The Wolf Eats | GrowingWriters.com·

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