"Joshua kept trying to get me to buy his required summer reading books on audiobook format," Joy, a discouraged parent of a 13 year old, shared with us. "Frank, his father, and I kept telling him it was inappropriate...that to be fair he had to actually read the book. But when the summer was over, he hadn't even gotten past page 13." She confided, "It was so frustrating."
Have you had this same conversation? Or been part of a similar scenario? It wasn't that Joshua didn't want to read the book. His parents had been encouraged when he chose it himself: Series of Unfortunate Events - The First Book: The Bad Beginning.
"He seemed really excited about this title." His father noted, "But his attention issues kept him unfocused, and frustrated all of us."
Joshua explained he had tried multiple times, but couldn't remember what he had just read. Then he would flip back to the beginning or get distracted. Eventually, he threw the book in a corner and never finished reading it. When school started, he took the F and perceived himself a failure. His mother felt like she had failed as well. Why couldn't she get him to read? Her neighbor's son had no problem picking up and finishing that same book in three days. Joy and Frank decided to seek out alternative learning methods for their son.
That is when the idea of AudioBookClick.com came into the picture. Joy's sister, Annie, had found this site and was using the audiobooks herself. Though she was successful in business, she had fought focus issues her whole life. Because of her own distracting nature, she knew first-hand that sometimes listening to an audio book offered more comprehension over the written word. Annie preferred the AudioBookClick.com site, compared to other audiobook sellers, because there were no monthly subscription fees, no special software to install and, though the site was new, there was already a huge selection of titles in every genre. She had already downloaded several business books, had her eye on a French language series, and was eager to hear more of the biographies available on the site.
"I'm using the site as an alternative form of education for myself," Annie informed her sister.
Yet, Joy was hesitant about having her son use this method for a school project: "Isn't listening to an audiobook version cheating?" She thought. "Isn't the goal to get him to read? And is Joshua just being lazy?"
Joined by Frank, the adults began to examine the practices of listening vs. reading in our society: In a house of worship, we listen to someone reading the text of a scripture and don't feel as if we have bamboozled anyone when we absorb these lessons. Nor would a theatrical reading of Shakespeare be associated with idle thinkers. So, why does the use of an audiobook imply a sense of fraud?
Annie pointed out that listening to an audiobook uses many of the same skill sets required of reading. One must be able to conjure up images to retain comprehension: the gritty texture of the character's clothing, the ominous symbolism of the coal burning stove, or the pungent odor of the food being scooped onto the plates. Each of these visuals draws an image, regardless of whether they were read or heard.
"Joshua is still exposed to new vocabulary words, by hearing their pronunciation and use in a sentence." Annie reminded her sister. "He even gets the added benefit of hearing inflection in the dialog."
Why should the use of your ears to absorb content, instead of your eyes, equate with deception? How can we say someone is lazy or uneducated because they choose to retain information audibly instead of visually?
In fact, a study by Carnegie Mellon University showed comprehension levels may actually be stronger from hearing spoken words than reading text. Of course, if Joshua's assignment was specifically given to help him with his reading skills (grammar and spelling, as well as comprehension), we need to evaluate what level of skills he possesses and what help he currenty needs.
Interestingly, though a slow reader, Joshua had repeatedly tested high in comprehension, he was known to do well on spelling tests, and he had even been an avid reader...when he was younger. In fact, English had often been his best subject.
Now, new pressures of his expanding course load, stress associated with being a social introvert, self-induced feelings of inferiority next to a younger brother (who had no known attention issues) and competition with the neighbor's son had boiled over into Joshua's already prevalent focus issues. Not being able to concentrate during reading seemed to become another reminder of his perceived inadequacies. Reading filtered out as being the worst chore his parents could inflict on him.
Joshua's parents, Joy and Frank, still felt it was important for him to physically read books, yet knew there was room for a compromise. Annie suggested an interesting test: Have Joshua use both the physical book in conjunction with an unabridged version of the audiobook. If he held the book in his hands, and read along with the narrator, he might find the second stimulus a guide to reconnecting with a form of entertainment he once enjoyed. It might reignite his interest in books, by helping with his pacing.
Many kids' titles are available as unabridged works that seamlessly follow the original storyline. New favorites, such as Joshua's choice Lemony Snicket, and classics tales - such as Mark Twain’s Huck Finn adventure story Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. These are easily found as audiobooks. The audio format can be effortlessly downloaded straight to our kid's computers or mp3 players. They can also be burnt onto a CD for use in the home or car stereo--making it accessible as a shared family experience.
Joy and Frank agreed to monitor the experiment of having Joshua read along to the audiobook. Their hope is Joshua may regain his love of books, once the pressure of reading has been taken away. The parents also acknowledged exposing their child to literature, in any form, be it written or verbal, is a rewarding experience. As Joshua continues to be introduced to new ideas through audible forms of learning, his family may also learn it helps him excel in school.
Audiobooks do aid in comprehension of materials, while still introducing the listener to an expanding vocabulary. Instead of assuming audiobooks are cheating children, one might ask "Are children like Joshua being cheated, when we don't allow them an outlet to explore literature in a format they find easy to grasp and absorb?"