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How Audiobooks Help Emerging Readers and Inspire a Love of Books

Audiobooks allow students to enjoy books above their reading level, introducing them to engaging stories that will hook them for life.

May 11, 2023
Goads Agency / iStock

Not long ago, one of my third graders was struggling to find books he liked. His teacher reported that he kept picking up titles that were far too simple or far too difficult for him to manage successfully on his own. In addition to not being able to find books he wanted, he struggled to read them once he had them. 

I’m a pre-K through 6 librarian, so I visited with this student one morning one-on-one to find out what he was looking for. He started telling me that he just didn’t like to read. He couldn’t specifically tell me that he wanted a particular genre or style of book, but after a bit of conversation, he shared that he loved dragons. 

I immediately thought of the Dragon Masters series published by Scholastic in their Branches collection. I took the first installment off the shelf and showed it to him. He started to smile, and when I opened the book, there were illustrations to help him comprehend the story more easily. He was super-excited. 

We sat down to read a bit together to see if it was a good fit as an independent reading title. He launched in with gusto, but it quickly became apparent that his decoding skills were not yet strong enough for him to tackle that book. He was dejected, but I told him I had an idea. 

We logged into his Sora account (a reading app with e-books and audiobooks) and searched for an audiobook version of the first Dragon Masters book. We checked it out, as well as the print copy, from our library and picked up a bookmark to hold under each line as the narrator read so he could follow along. 

His face lit up like a pinball machine! Two days later, he was back in the library doing the “I-gotta-have-the-next-book” dance. We found it on the shelf, and I coached him again through finding it on Sora, downloading it, and following along. 

The last time I checked, he was nearing the end of the series. In the meantime, I will encourage him to check them out again and try to read them himself this time until a new one in the series is published. We’ve now pushed through a major hurdle: the idea that he didn’t like to read. He now knows that he does. 

Another day, a different student was a bit teary in the library. She told me that she really wanted to read a particular book that her friends were all talking about, but she knew she was not a strong reader. 

We found a print copy, navigated to Sora, and checked out the audiobook version. I encouraged her to follow along in the print version as the narrator told the story. 

The listening time of a novel-length audiobook can seem daunting. Together, we found out the length of the book and divided that amount of time by 21 days (our current checkout length). She discovered with excitement that in just 20 minutes a day, she could listen to the whole thing in three weeks. 

In the future, my hope is that each and every child will have access to science- and evidence-based reading instruction that works, allowing the vast majority of students to successfully navigate the path to becoming confident, independent readers. But my work of connecting children with books must continue in the interim. 

Over the years, I’ve found that a quality audiobook is one of the most effective tools in my librarian toolbox. 

That’s Not Really Reading, Is it? 

I have had teachers push back on using audiobooks with struggling readers. The naysayers claim that audiobooks don’t count and are not a substitute for silent reading. 

I disagree. Reading, in the traditional sense, is using our eyes to decode symbols while our brains translate those symbols into meaningful language-based information. Reading also involves visualizing, inferring, predicting, and connecting with the text in some way. 

When a child struggles to decode, the rest of the process erodes very quickly. Audiobooks bridge that gap, allowing the child’s joy of reading to evolve as they continue to strengthen their reading skills in class. 

For my new Dragon Masters fan, the audiobook is not the only thing he needs. Decoding and phonics instruction continue to take place. But to hold him back from stories appropriate for his age level prevents him from deepening his comprehension of story structure, figurative language, and overarching themes of literature. 

If the only thing he is allowed to read is what he is capable of decoding, I believe he is far more likely to give up than to persevere. After all, what’s the point? And then we have two hills to climb: learning how to decode and deciding that reading is worth the trouble. 

Creating Independent Readers

“If we give kids an audiobook, won’t that make them reliant on them forever?” 

This is another question I see often. The answer is, I seriously doubt it. When we used training wheels, they didn’t prevent us from learning how to ride a bike. They provided support as we gained confidence, and eventually we learned to let them go and ride off into the sunset at the end of the street. 

Others suggest that a reliance on audiobooks allows kids to mask their reading struggles. But no teacher I know would simply look across the room at a child who prefers audiobooks, shrug, and say, “Well, I guess I don’t need to talk to that one.” 

Effective teachers know that working with all of their students individually, listening to them read aloud, and asking them questions to ascertain comprehension are all part of the teaching of reading. Interacting with each child regularly and paying attention to the data gathered through various channels provides a more comprehensive picture of that child as a reader, including identifying any areas of concern, and should guide instruction. 

If a child is enjoying audiobooks as part of their learning, then that is only one facet of their work as a reader. If she is struggling, interventions and supports involving printed text are absolutely appropriate (and warranted). 

For the girl who wanted to read what her friends were reading, checking out that audiobook changed the game. She is engaged in talking with her friends about the books they recommend and is participating in class discussions with relevant and insightful contributions—and she has started to recommend other titles to her friends. She sees herself as a real reader as she works with her teacher to increase her proficiency with written text.

Isn’t that the ultimate goal?

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  • School Libraries
  • Technology Integration
  • English Language Arts

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