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Benefits of Audiobooks for All Readers

By: Denise Johnson

I love listening to audiobooks. I share my enthusiasm with teachers, parents, students, family members, and anyone else who will listen. Many rejoice right along with me in their merits.

But, at other times, my enthusiasm is met with comments such as "That's not really reading, is it?" or "I won't let my students listen to audiobooks because that's cheating." Listening to books is certainly different from reading books, but is it cheating? Does listening to audiobooks count as reading?

I suppose the answer to that question must come from one's own definition of reading. If reading is understanding the content of the story or the theme, then audiobooks certainly succeed. No one would argue the importance of decoding in teaching children to read. But, understanding the message, thinking critically about the content, using imagination, and making connections is at the heart of what it means to be a reader and why kids learn to love books.

Audiobooks have traditionally been used in schools by teachers of second-language learners, learning-disabled or -impaired students, and struggling readers or nonreaders. In many cases, audiobooks have proven successful in providing a way for these students to access literature and enjoy books. But they have not been widely used with average, avid, or gifted readers. Varley (2002) writes, "Uncertain whether audiobooks belong to the respectable world of books or the more dubious world of entertainment, elementary and high-school teachers have often cast a fishy eye at them, and many have opted for the safe course of avoidance."

It might be appropriate, then, to list the benefits of audiobooks for all students. Audiobooks can be used to:

  • Introduce students to books above their reading level
  • Model good interpretive reading
  • Teach critical listening
  • Highlight the humor in books
  • Introduce new genres that students might not otherwise consider
  • Introduce new vocabulary or difficult proper names or locales
  • Sidestep unfamiliar dialects or accents, Old English, and old-fashioned literary styles
  • Provide a read-aloud model
  • Provide a bridge to important topics of discussion for parents and children who can listen together while commuting to sporting events, music lessons, or on vacations
  • Recapture "the essence and the delights of hearing stories beautifully told by extraordinarily talented storytellers" (Baskin & Harris, 1995, p. 376)

Additionally, many audiobooks are read by the author or include commentary by the author. A recording of The Fighing Ground by Avi, for example, includes an author interview in which he explains how he came up with the idea for the book. Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key is read by author Jack Gantos and also includes commentary about 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 the writing process.

Even with all the benefits of audiobooks, however, they are not for all students. For some, the pace may be too fast or too slow. For others, the narrator's voice can be irritating or the use of cassette or CD players can be cumbersome when compared to the flexibility of the book. But the majority of students will find listening to well-narrated, quality literature to be a transformative experience. Varley (2002) states, "If one thing has struck me about the way people describe listening to audiobooks, it is the reported intensity of their absorption and the emotional grip of the experience. 'They go right to your soul,' says one listener."

One reason more audiobooks are not finding their way into classrooms is availability. Public libraries usually have a good quantity of audiobooks, but most school libraries have a limited number – audiobooks are expensive. The cost of cassette or CD players, headphones, and batteries must also be taken into consideration, and though these costs have come down considerably in the last few years, schools typically do not budget funds for such purchases.

If money is available for purchasing audiobooks, it is important for librarians and teachers to do their homework before buying. Single-author unabridged audiobooks tend to be the best, though some dramatizations (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, such as KidsReads.com. Also available online are free audiobooks of older children's titles such as the Beatrix Potter books at Wired for Books and the Wizard of Oz stories at Audiobooks for Free.

Audiobooks can be a welcome addition to every classroom. Many students are avid readers while others are struggling to become readers and still others have given up hope. Audiobooks have something to offer all of them.

Denise Johnson is an assistant professor of reading education at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. This article is excerpted with permission from Reading Online, a publication of the International Reading Association, copyright 2003.