Early elementary school read-alouds are fun for students and teachers alike, but in time they give way to quiet, independent reading. In classrooms brimming with technology, teachers tend to forgo read-alouds or audio books for what they consider “real” reading experiences. Unfortunately, this shift toward self-directed reading ignores the distinct advantages of audio books or teacher read-alouds for older readers.
Audio books are books
It seems silly to have to say this, but audio books are still books. Cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?,” argues that the language processing required for listening to an audio book is largely the same as that required for comprehending a written text:
- Audio books do not require decoding and can often provide prosody cues for students through intonation, rhythm and pacing.
- Older children are often already good at decoding, but may need some help understanding difficult texts like Shakespeare, and prosody can help.
Removing the task of decoding also can leave students with more energy to tackle larger issues of comprehension, allowing insecure decoders to hone their comprehension skills. Most importantly: It’s fun. Phillip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass” comes to life behind his narration alongside a full cast, and the magic of “Harry Potter” expands with the voices of Jim Dale or Stephen Fry.
Read-alouds offer an even greater opportunity, enabling teachers to engage students in important reading skills. Good lesson planning for a read-aloud includes writing questions that challenge students’ abilities in comprehension or prediction.
Listening pays off
ReadWriteThink shares that read-alouds can not only pique student interest but also model literacy techniques that help students understand the reading process. Additionally, the energy and excitement of an instructor spreads directly to the students. Read-alouds can include the whole text, selections from the text, or just a few pages as a kickoff for students as they begin to read a new piece. As an instructor guides students through reading strategies like predicting or summarizing, students begin to understand how the reading process works and become more comfortable on their own.
Audio texts also increase student comfort with and enjoyment of reading. In an American Association of School Librarians study, fourth- and fifth-graders in an audio book reading club showed increases in both test scores and self-reported confidence and enjoyment of reading. This led researchers to conclude that audio books should be an essential part of literacy programming.
Although audio texts can lack the hands-on lessons of a read-aloud, well-crafted lesson plans or homework can draw student attention to literacy methods while offering differentiation opportunities that a read-aloud would not. Students can be assigned a wider variety of audio texts more aligned with their vocabulary and reading level to ensure every student is challenged.
Work to incorporate read-alouds and audio texts
The benefits of read-alouds and audio texts make them essential to a well-balanced literacy program. Willingham’s biggest argument for read-alouds or audio texts is that while educators do need to teach decoding, one of the biggest benefits of reading is exposure to language and stories. Research shows such exposure pays off, so instead of phasing out the read-aloud, consider brushing up on your prosody and taking the plunge into “Wonder” or “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.” Your students will thank you.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.Learn More: Click to view related resources.
- Daniel Willingham, "Is Listening to an Audio Book ‘Cheating’?," DanielWillingham.com
- Jeff Whittingham, Stephanie Huffman, Rob Christensen and Tracy McAllister, "Use of Audiobooks in a School Library and Positive Effects of Struggling Readers’ Participation in a Library-Sponsored Audiobook Club," School Library Research, American Association of School Librarians
- "Teacher Read-Aloud that Models Reading for Deep Understanding," ReadWriteThink