George Lucas Educational Foundation

Listening to Literature: Struggling Readers Respond to Recorded Books

Teachers find that audio books are sound reading tools.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
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Credit: Veer

Abbie Root, a fifth-grade teacher at Brookside Elementary School, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, started the year with only six of her twenty-seven students reading at grade level. She and itinerant reading specialist Janise Cole tried a new approach: Using recorded books from Pacific Learning's New Heights program, they asked children to listen to the text on tape while following along on paper, and repeat the exercise until they could read each story on their own. Between November and April, the number of grade-level readers in Root's class doubled, and, as she said then, "We still have six weeks of school left."

Root attributes much of the progress to the audio books and believes the tool would benefit her strong readers, too -- and teachers across the country are drawing the same conclusion. At J. T. Henley Middle School, in Albemarle County, Virginia, teacher Pat Harder (a member of The George Lucas Educational Foundation's National Advisory Board), uses audio books to expose students to text that's beyond their reading ability but that challenges their vocabulary and comprehension. That way, struggling readers aren't stuck with boring content, and they have the chance to learn to love literature.

Education professor Timothy Rasinski, of Kent State University, in Ohio, has also seen projects in which older students record audio books themselves for kids in the younger grades. "It definitely works," says Rasinski, who puts audio books in the same category as other forms of assisted reading. "There have been studies that looked at captioned television or just reading with a parent. Across the board, it seems to have wonderful potential for helping kids."

A perk of audio books is their accessibility -- an attribute that has everything to do with the Internet and its accompanying boom in audio technology. With a click, educators can download a book for multiple students to hear, either digitally or by burning the narrative onto a CD. For instance,, a massive clearinghouse for digital audio, hosts an education section where visitors can download audible children's books, textbook supplements, newspaper articles, speeches, and SparkNotes, Barnes & Noble's online version of CliffsNotes.

Denise Johnson, assistant professor of reading education at the College of William and Mary, cautions in the Web-based journal Reading Online that audio books are not for every student. They're too fast or slow for some, and too cumbersome for those who prefer to read only on paper. She adds, though, that the technology can introduce children to new genres, cultivate critical listening, and highlight the humor in text, among other benefits. Johnson writes, "Understanding the message, thinking critically about the content, using imagination, and making connections are at the heart of what it means to be a reader and why kids learn to love books."

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Jeff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love listening centers, and not just for my struggling readers. I also use it with my high readers as well. The challenge I have found is that the audio books are read too fast for children to keep up. This is particularly challenging for second language learners. The solution, however, is through the use of technology. I have been using an iPod all year to support my listening center for my second graders. The iPod allows me to slow down the rate without sacrificing tone quality, something you can't do with outdated cassettes and CD's. My students can now follow along in their books without getting left behind. They absolutely love it!

Joy Widmann's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've heard that if you download an audiobook to an MP3 player or iPod, you can slow down or speed up the recording with no loss of voice quality (no "Mickey Mouse" or "Darth Vadar" voices)

Amber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Pacific Learning has 4 other great resources that offer audio components!

Splash (Prek-2)
Speak Out! Readers' Theater (Gr. 2-4)
Toocool (Gr. 2-4)
CSI (Grades 3-8)

If you like the audio aspect of New Heights you should check these out!
Great resources for listening centers!

Jamie Shell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Can you tell me how to slow down the reading pace of an audio book on an ipod?

JoAnn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really believe in the benefit of having children listen to books on tape/cd's as a way of helping them become a better reader. During our literacy time, one of the stations is listening to a book on tape. The students pick a packet that contains the book, a tape or cd and headphones. Integrated into this time is also a reading program called Read Naturally. Students listen to key words, the story and practice reading the story until they can meet or pass their reading goal. I have found that the more students listen to book and practice reading them, the more successful they feel as a reader.

Melinda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Can you tell me if there is a way of having a group of children listening to the same story on the one ipod like the traditional listening post - not sure if the technology available?

Jim's picture

There's an online tool for reading-while-listening, in various languages:

There is a growing library of content in various languages.

Nicholas Cappelletti's picture

Hey Everyone,

Just wanted to point out that is a digital audio books company. They are the only company in the industry who provides streaming and downloading of audio books!

Tons of great listens, check it out!

John Adams's picture

FYI...I actually stumbled onto creating a listen and readalong system...Initially I wanted to put up all the Harvard Classics (can see my start here(about 100 hours of books - Plato - Bacon - Emerson - Alice in Wonderland- all in sync with the text and each word highlighted...
Then moved on to working with an ESL teacher and created 700 more (all highlighted)...
The response is very favorable...

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