The Case for Audio Books: “Magic” to their Ears

One of my favorite memories of my childhood is of our cross country road trips as a family. My Dad is a history buff and loved taking us to Civil War memorials and American Revolution reenactments. We would stuff the car with snacks, coloring books, water, and toys to keep us company. During that time, the Harry Potter novels were coming out and so my mom would make a quick trip to the library and rent the cassette tapes or CD’s to play during the trip. As much as I liked the monuments and the reenactments, the memory that sticks out the most will always be the sound of Jim Dale’s voice in my ear as the trees, cows, and hills outside the window raced by. Sorry, Dad!

Fast forward about fifteen years later. I’m teaching at Nameless Charter School, and I’m about to start my Fantasy Literature Unit for my Literacy classes (Grades 6-8). My supervisor shows me a stack of small iPods that she keeps in her classroom for her students, complete with a subscription to Audible. I then tailored my lessons to include reading time, with the option to listen to the audio book on the iPod, and then prepare for Book Club discussions through questions and worksheets.

Soon came the days when they were Sorting themselves and giving themselves House Points!

Every day, my students would rush into class to put on the headphones and listen to the audio books for Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia while they were reading. Many of the students that I was working with had Generalized Learning Disabilities, which often included issues with processing text or comprehension. Some of the kids had test scores that showed a 3rd grade comprehension level- in Middle School, that’s a tough road on which to catch up. I only had one rule for these audio books- they had to be reading along as they were listening. They could pause the recording at any time to jot down notes or questions, and they could slow down the recording if it was too fast. Ultimately, it was up to them how they understood the reading and how they used the technology to help them, and they did. They were engaged, they enjoyed the story, and they enjoyed asking me questions about the books. My only regret was that I wasn’t able to bring Turkish Delight to class!

This child would complain every day about reading, but he loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!

Every teacher has different feelings about technology in the classroom. Some say, “no way!” and will never allow a cell phone or computer to cross their threshold. Other teachers and schools mandate iPad use and require that students use a plethora of apps, videos, and presentation materials. In my view, it’s all about finding what works for you and your kids. Knowing that every child learns differently, and that every child can access a text through different modes is critical for their growth. For my kids at Nameless Charter School, they needed a different pathway to access the text. The audio books made a difference to them, just as Jim Dale’s voice made a difference to me as a child. If it works, give them that access- whether its a free YouTube video or an Audible subscription. It might just make the difference that gets them reading independently.

There are lots of ways to bring audio books into your classroom or your home. If you have old iPods lying around your house, label them by number and turn them into a resource for students to quickly access them. Set norms for storage, classroom use, and upkeep (They have to stay charged, after all!). Write a grant or If iPods aren’t an option and your class is reading a book together, play the audio book over the loudspeakers. Better yet, use Audacity or other recording software on your computer to have your students make a class audio book to help exercise their fluency skills. The possibilities are endless!

Author: Elise TC

Fantasy Literature Scholar and Literacy Educator MA: Teachers College Columbia University and Signum University

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