The Case for Making Audiobooks Part of Curriculum

By William Weil
Audiobooks are more than a nice library resource or good for struggling readers–they are an important literacy tool, extending from early childhood through high school. This assertion may come as a surprise to many educators who are familiar with the latter and skeptical of the former.
Adding a listening component to reading instruction is highly effective. In fact, ‘just listening’ is now a standard in every state in the nation. Here’s the concept: repeated exposure to sophisticated spoken words drives vocabulary acquisition and retention, which is a key component of reading proficiency. So why is this important?
Nearly two-thirds of all U.S. 4th graders read below proficiency, according to the most recent NAEP scores. That number rises to 79% for low-income kids, and 53% of all students qualify as low-income. The root cause of the problem is a lack of vocabulary, famously described as a ‘word gap’ in Hart and Risley’s seminal study.
Reading proficiency is attained through decoding skills and word knowledge, the latter being a combination of vocabulary and fluency, (i.e., do you know a word, do you know the way it’s supposed to sound, do you have context for the word). Students who can decode words but lack an understanding of their meaning are not reading proficiently, and proficient reading is the key pathway to academic achievement.

Solving the Word Gap

Thus, in order to solve the achievement gap, we must first solve the word gap. It might then come as a surprise that vocabulary instruction is neither frequent nor systematic in most schools. How can this be? Let me suggest two reasons:

  1. Vocabulary is acquired through exposure to tens of millions of words; classroom teachers cannot move the needle on their own, particularly given demands on their time.
  2. Educators historically relied on parents, who in most cases were able to read aloud to their kids every day.

Not any more.
According to a study from the Pew Research Center, only 51% of parents currently read to their children every day, falling to 39% in non-white families. Worse, 32 million adult Americans cannot read, and low-income parents are often not at home (working multiple jobs) or cannot read in English.

How Audiobooks Help

Audiobooks are a valid listening component, providing rich exposure to sophisticated spoken words in school and at home. We’ve seen evidence of this in the work we do at Tales2go, but wanted to be more rigorous in our approach and have data to support our argument. We contracted with WestEd, a leading educational research nonprofit, to evaluate the use of Tales2go in a San Francisco Bay Area school district.
The resulting study was completed in January 2016 and broke new ground by examining the impact of audiobooks on student vocabulary and literacy. The results were noteworthy, indicating Tales2go is a promising literacy tool. It was designed to determine the effect of adding an audiobook listening component to reading instruction, specifically the impact on student vocabulary, reading comprehension and motivation to read.
It was done as a randomized controlled trial with 2nd and 3rd graders in an afternoon program for 10 weeks. Study parameters included just listening (i.e., no paired text) and listening three times a week at school, and twice a week at home; each session was at least 20 minutes. Overall fidelity to implementation was good, particularly given the afternoon program coordinators’ other responsibilities and competing enrichment activities.
Key takeaways include:

  • Students using Tales2go attained 58% of the annual expected gain in reading achievement in just 10 weeks, putting them three months ahead of the control students.
  • The increase in annual gain corresponds to a 33% improvement in the rate of learning for the period.
  • The treatment group outperformed the control group across all measures, by 3.0x in reading comprehension, nearly 7.0x in 2nd grade vocabulary and nearly 4.0x in reading motivation.
  • Greater impact on reading achievement is possible if Tales2go is used on a regular basis, both in a classroom literacy rotation and at home.

On the one hand, none of this is controversial. Hearing more words leads to better student achievement. On the other, audiobooks shift the responsibility for reading-aloud away from parents and educators. This is an uncomfortable thought. Yet it offers a realistic and effective solution to the problem.

Listening at School and Home

There are many well-funded programs and initiatives that exist today to eradicate the word gap, ranging from listening devices clipped to children to count the number of words they hear, to the government’s recent $250M investment in Open eBooks for Title I students. Almost all of them are focused on parent-child interactions at home, with the assumption that parents are the key to the solution and/or placing more books in the home will solve the problem.
Let me be clear: all parents should read-aloud to their kids, and getting books into homes is a good thing. However, who exactly is going to be doing the reading? And while getting parents to talk with their children is helpful, it is not sufficient. The words children need to know are in books. Most parents will tell their children to: “Look over there” versus “Observe, child.”
Tough times call for innovative measures. District administrators should add audiobooks to their curriculum. Examples include dedicated listening stations as part of classroom literacy rotations, and required listening at home. Such a decision is consistent with State listening standards and will be appreciated by parents who need the help.
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William Weil is a founder and CEO of Tales2go. Follow him on Twitter: @wsweil.

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