School librarian Mary Ann Scheuer remembers a second grader who couldn’t keep up with the class during reading time. The child was a grade-level behind in reading, and while the rest of the class could sit quietly for 30 minutes, engrossed in Horrible Harry, this child began to act out after ten frustrating minutes with the book. On Scheuer’s recommendation, the teacher introduced the student to the same story via an audiobook; he listened to the story, and then sat alone with the book to read on his own. Scheuer recalls the boy saying, "I read it so much faster by myself after I listened to it!." She added, “It was a game changer for him.”
Teachers and parents who read aloud to children have long known that good stories have the power to captivate the most restless of kids. Before books became the main means of conveying information, spoken word was the vehicle for sharing culture, tradition and values. The continuation of those experiences depended on the attention of the listener. Being able to listen well and remember what was said was an essential part of the oral tradition.
Research underscores the link between listening and literacy. Work by Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that the vocabularies of three-year-olds were predictive of their language and reading skills at age ten. Studies carried out at Stanford showed a gap in vocabularies between children of the well-off and those with lower socioeconomic status is apparent in children as young as 18 months. And professor Nina Kraus at Northwestern University, who explores the complexity of sound processing in the brain, has found that a variety of factors, including income level and a mother’s education, play a role in how well children process sound—which in turn affects reading ability.
Educators like Mary Ann Scheuer, who has taught with and promoted audiobooks in the classroom -- and began her own blog Great Kid Books -- sees how exposing kids to the spoken word via rich stories improves literacy. While books require readers to decode every word, stories told aloud free up the listener to connect with the story and the storyteller. “It provides an emotional connection to the narrator,” Scheuer said, which in turn motivates kids to continue listening. Well-told stories can also fill the vocabulary gap for those students who haven’t been exposed to a rich array of words over their lives. For children with already abundant vocabularies, listening to stories with more complex language expands their stable of words and exposes them to more sophisticated stories. Scheuer said her 8th grade daughter, who struggles with ADD, listened to Walter Isaacson’s massive biography of Steve Jobs—something she would have given up on in written form—while doodling in a notebook. “It pulled her in and kept her attention,” she said.
For Ashley Alicea, a third grade teacher at W.J. Gurganus Elementary School in Havelock, North Carolina, audiobooks have been most transformative for those kids who hate to read. “It almost seems to open up a world of reading for them,” Alicea said. She encourages kids to make a movie in their minds while listening—to visualize the story they’re hearing. Absent the need to decipher each word, reread for content, and then picture the story, these struggling readers listening to stories soon fall for the book itself, and are able to participate in class discussions about plot and character. Many kids go on to read the books after hearing them read aloud. And audiobooks help all readers improve their fluency: Alicea sometimes plays a paragraph, and invites her students to read it aloud and try to match the narrator’s pacing, tone, and expression. “Every modality and learning type can benefit from audiobooks,” Alicea said.