Hello readers! Today, I’m beginning a series on Technology Trends in Education. If this series of four posts does not apply to you, please stick with me and feel free to delete those four posts as they arrive in your inbox. Educators and parents may find this series especially valuable.
As audiobooks and “playaways” have become more prevalent in elementary schools, it is common to hear a parent or other grown up verbally processing the question, “Are they really reading?” To best answer this, we need to properly define the difference between an audiobook and a playaway. Let’s take a look!
An audiobook is the recording of the text of a book, often times performed by a talented narrator (although they are sometimes less talented and quite dry) on a format such as CD or MP3. I often listen to audiobooks on my phone that I rent through my library in apps called Libby or Overdrive. I have occasionally listened to an audiobook in a CD format from the school, public (town), or church library. These tend to come without a physical book to follow along. They are more of an audial experience. However, I have chosen to switch back and forth between an author’s physical book and the audiobook format before for a number of reasons, specifically if an author is very talented at narrating her own book but also has published the book with a visual aesthetic similar to a coffee table book. You can do both at once, but audiobooks are generally for listening.
“Playaways” are preloaded books on digital players with headphones and buttons to move forward and backward. Remember the Walkman that played your cassette tapes in the 90s? This is similar but without the cassettes. Playaways are usually found in school or public libraries for circulation among children, but adults occasionally check them out as well. A playaway usually comes with a physical book component for the library patron to follow along. The listener doesn’t need a phone or a CD player to listen to a “playaway” and can listen anywhere, including at a school desk wearing headphones at independent reading time, making these especially popular for elementary school children.
There are obvious reasons that audiobooks or playaways are different than reading a physical book. Clearly, a child is not doing the work of decoding (also known as “sounding out”) the letter and sound relationships, a critical skill for becoming a strong reader. This difference may be just what causes us, as grownups, to ask the question, “Yeah, but are they really reading?” This is valid, but as both a reading teacher and a mother, I’d love to explain some of the benefits of audiobooks and playaways.
Audiobooks and “playaways” aren’t simply a passing trend in a child’s education. They offer significant benefits to a student’s cognitive development and even their reading abilities. Let’s look closely at 10 of those benefits.
1. Vocabulary Acquisition: Children learning to decode the sound/letter relationship can read vocabulary words within their reading level but aren’t exposed to a world of words beyond the realm of their decoding abilities. An audiobook or playaway allows a child to hear new words in context that adds to the comprehension and textual clues for those new vocabulary words. This is a rich component of literacy!
2. Pronunciation: I once read a graphic that said, “Never make fun of the way someone pronounces a word. A person who mispronounces a word learned that word by reading it.” It’s true that many words are pronounced in unusual ways and break the rules of phonics instruction. Audiobooks and playaways provide an opportunity for children to hear the proper pronunciation of new vocabulary words.
3. Fluency and Expression: Along with pronunciation, the listener of an audiobook or playaway gains patterns in fluency and expression as they hear a story told by a proficient (and oftentimes quite expressive) reader. When parents are tired at the end of a long day, reading aloud may be cut short. Nothing compares to cuddling with a parent or grandparent while listening to a book, but audiobooks make excellent substitutes for parents with tired voices. Ask me how I know. Likewise, students in their classroom during independent reading time share in the benefits of following along in the text of a playaway while hearing the expression of the narration and the proper fluency of the sentences through their headphones. We must acknowledge the blessing of this benefit for struggling readers!
4. Increased text complexity: With audiobooks and playaways, students are given the opportunity to read above their usual reading level and ability. Some students long to earn rewards for library initiatives that involve reading a certain list of award winners but cannot keep up with their peers’ reading levels. I’m so thankful to teach in a school where the librarian gives these emerging or struggling readers playaways to be included in the shared stories and library initiatives!
5. Multitasking for tactile and kinesthetic learners: Some children may resist reading and become reluctant to fall in love with literature when they are very hands-on children. Tactile and kinesthetic children may enjoy building Legos, coloring, molding playdough, drawing, paper dolls, and sensory toys while listening to an audiobook the same way he might listen to a story read aloud by an adult. The audial experience provides the opportunity to keep hands busy when some young children resist sitting still to hold a book.
6. Shared Familial Experiences: Younger siblings can enjoy the same stories as older siblings and parents or grandparents when listening to a book together on a road trip, during dinner clean up, or while doing mundane household tasks as a family. This past summer, my children and I enjoyed listening to an award winning children’s book on audio during a long car trip. The book, Song for a Whale would have been too advanced for our youngest emerging reader, but he thoroughly enjoyed listening to the book and talking about it with his big brothers. Everyone wins when a family can share a story together as an experience! By the way, the skilled narrator did an excellent job performing this audiobook. You can check it out on Audible by following this link: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly.
7. Confidence toward Reading: Audiobooks and playaways build reading confidence in lower readers through equal access to stories by closing the gap. Once again, children can consume the same book content as peers through an audiobook or playaway. To a child, this small reading privilege means the world.
8. Minimized Reading Stress: Struggling readers are able to experience literature without the stress of decoding when listening to a story in an audial format.
9. Enriched Literary Experiences: Students can enjoy literature in a new format through storytelling by talented narrators. For more delightful insights pertaining to the benefit of enriched literary experiences, you might enjoy this podcast episode by homeschooling mother and author, Sarah Mackenzie. Sarah is the author of her book, The Read Aloud Family and hosts a weekly podcast titled, The Read Aloud Revival. This specific podcast episode is titled Do Audiobooks Count as Read Alouds? Sarah is wise and well versed in children’s literature. Give it a listen!
10. Improved listening skills: We cannot fail to think on the wide-reaching effects of this final benefit on the life of a learner. I have personally experienced a change in my own listening abilities to the credit of audiobooks. Many children and adults have weak listening skills or even poor attention spans. Children and adults strengthen these much needed listening skills when emerged in the story from an audiobook or playaway. Some of us simply aren’t audial learners. I am much more visual, musical, verbal/linguistic, interpersonal, and am frankly more all-of-the-things than I am audial. Stories and even non-fiction texts hold the unique potential to draw us into meaningful listening. Sure, I may realize my concentration has broken from time to time while listening to an audiobook and multitasking. That’s true. Two things are true here, though. The more audiobooks I consume, the better listener I become. Through the years, I’ve needed to press the “skip back 10 seconds option” fewer and fewer times. As a lifelong learner, my listening skills have improved. They aren’t perfect. Listening isn’t my strong suit, yet audiobooks have had an undeniable impact on the strengthening of my ability to listen. Isn’t that all we long to see in our children as they learn? We long to see continuous growth.
Audiobooks and playaways cannot exist as the only form of book for a growing reader, but we mustn’t dismiss this growing technology trend in education. Children certainly must learn familiarity with physical books: reading left to right, holding books, handling books, reading top to bottom. Children must certainly learn to decode phoneme and grapheme relationships. In addition to physical books, the benefits of audiobooks and playaways are real components of a child’s education.
Whether a child is reading with his eyes or his ears, we can answer the question the same way. Yes, the child is truly reading.
May we offer books and stories to children in a variety of ways. May this enrich their reading lives and build a lifelong love of literature. May the foundation of reading grow stronger so that these children might be successful learners and deep thinkers.
From my reading teacher heart to yours,