Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
Parents and teachers sometimes wonder if listening to audiobooks helps children develop reading skills. If you don’t have a book in front of you, are you really reading? In order to look at this question, we have to understand the complex processes that are involved in reading.
What happens when we read a book? How does the story come alive in our minds? What helps us understand the information the author is trying to convey?
Reading definitely involves decoding skills — making sense of the string of letters and shapes on the page. These skills are very important for children, but they are not the whole picture.
Understanding the story, thinking about the author’s message, using imagination to make a movie in your mind — these comprehension skills lie at the heart of what it means to be a reader. They’re what bring kids back to books again and again.
These broader comprehension skills come from recognizing the words used, understanding the story structure, and connecting the story to your experiences and knowledge. It’s important to recognize that reading is a thinking process, and that much goes on beyond decoding the individual words. The question then becomes: If these are the elements that impact comprehension, how do we support children developing and maintaining these thinking skills?
Audiobooks allow children to focus on the key skills of understanding words and the overall story, and this helps develop their deeper comprehension skills. This happens when children listen to audiobooks on their own, not just when they listen and read.
As a third-grader told me last week, “When you read you have so much in your head. When you listen, it’s easier.” One of her classmates added on, saying, “The audiobook reads the book really fluidly, so it’s easy to understand what they’re saying. They’re really expressing the story. They don’t just talk.”
In 2015-16, WestEd conducted a research study in Berkeley that examined the impact of audiobooks on literacy skills for second- and third-graders. Students listened to a selection of stories each week, without reading the books at the same time. They were just listening and enjoying the stories. Students were asked to listen three times a week at school (each time for 20 minutes) and twice a week at home (again for 20 minutes).
The results were clear and remarkable. Students who listened to audiobooks on a regular basis developed stronger reading skills — attaining 58 percent of their annual reading gain in just 10 weeks. In the study, the students who listened were three months ahead of the control group. How did they do this? Let’s look more closely at the component parts of reading development that the study measured.
Students who listened to audiobooks increased their reading comprehension skills three times more than their counterparts. Their vocabulary gains outpaced their control group counterparts by seven times. All of this made students want to read more. We see this in their increase in reading motivation by four times, relative to their control group.
As a teacher and librarian, this study confirms exactly what I’ve seen with my own eyes. When students listen to audiobooks, they are more engaged, they understand stories better and they WANT to read more. This is because audiobooks help them develop their vocabulary, give them access to more complex text and help them create a fuller mental picture of stories.
As a parent, I’ve used audiobooks on long car trips but I’ve also used them at home. When my daughters were younger, we would listen to an audiobook while I prepared dinner and they colored at the kitchen table. Other children I know enjoy building with Legos while they listen to an audiobook. Listening can also be relaxing at bedtime.
Listening to audiobooks provides essential support to the development of reading comprehension. But even better, it helps readers young and old discover the rich world of stories.