I love listening to audiobooks myself. I share my enthusiasm with teachers, parents, students, family members and anyone else who wants to listen. Many rejoice with me at their merits.
But sometimes my enthusiasm is met with comments like "It's not really reading, is it?" or "I don't let my students listen to audiobooks because it's cheating". Listening to books is certainly different from reading books, but is it cheating? Does listening to audiobooks count as reading?
I guess the answer to that question must come from one's own definition of reading. If reading is understanding the content of the story or theme, then audiobooks are definitely successful. No one can question the importance of decoding when teaching children to read. But 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 children learn to love books.
Audiobooks have traditionally been used in schools by teachers of second language learners, pupils with learning difficulties and pupils who have difficulty reading or cannot read. In many cases, audiobooks have proven to be a successful way for these students to access literature and enjoy books. However, they have not been widely used for average, avid or gifted readers. Varley (2002) writes: "Unsure of whether audiobooks belong to the respectable world of books or the more dubious world of entertainment, elementary and secondary school teachers have often viewed them with suspicion, and many have chosen to avoid them."
It might be useful, then, to list the benefits of audiobooks for all students. Audiobooks can be used to:
Introduce students to books that are above their reading level.
- Model good interpretive reading.
- teach critical listening
- highlight the humour in the books
- introduce new genres that students might not otherwise consider.
- Introduce new vocabulary or difficult names or places.
- Avoid unfamiliar dialects or accents, old English and old-fashioned literary styles.
- Provide a model for reading aloud.
- Give parents and children an opportunity to listen together to important topics of discussion while commuting to sporting events, music lessons or on holiday.
- Recreate "the essence and joy of hearing stories beautifully told by extraordinarily gifted storytellers" (Baskin & Harris, 1995, p. 376).
- In addition, many audiobooks are read by the author or contain commentary by the author. For example, a recording of The Fighing Ground by Avi includes an author interview in which he explains how he got the idea for the book. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key
- is read by author Jack Gantos and includes a commentary on why he wrote the book. This information can provide students with a connection to the author as well as insight into the author's thoughts and writing process.
However, despite all the benefits of audiobooks, they are not for all students. For some, the pace may be too fast or too slow. For others, the narrator's voice may be annoying or the use of a cassette or CD player may be inconvenient compared to the flexibility of the book. However, the majority of students will find listening to well narrated quality literature a transformative experience. Varley (2002) notes, "If there is one thing that has struck me when people describe listening to audiobooks, it is the reported intensity of their immersion and the emotional grip of the experience. 'They get right into your soul,' says one listener."
One reason why more audiobooks are not finding their way into classrooms is accessibility. Public libraries usually have a good supply of audiobooks, but most school libraries have a limited number - audiobooks are expensive. The cost of cassette or CD players and headphones must also be taken into account, and although these costs have fallen considerably in recent years, schools do not usually budget for such purchases.
If money is available for the purchase of audiobooks, it is important that librarians and teachers do their homework before buying. Audiobooks with a single author and no abbreviations tend to be best, although some dramatisations (such as Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, read by the author with a cast of more than 40 British actors) can be excellent. There are many sources of audiobook reviews readily available online, including School Library Journal. [Note: The Association for Library Service for Children also publishes an annual list of Notable Children's Recordings.]
Audiobooks can be a welcome addition to any classroom. Many students are avid readers while others struggle to become readers and still others have given up hope. Audiobooks have something to offer them all.