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Now Hear This

Maahhmmmeee,”—the whiny pronunciation of Mommy—“I wanna watch TV!”

Here’s the problem: I know the research. I know that TV watching isn’t great.

But sometimes we all need a break. My 5-year-old has not taken a nap since she was 2 1/2 and even then not very reliably. Yet that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t get tired. Or cranky. (Or that I don’t.)

And then I discovered audio books. Actually, I’ve been rediscovering audio books for years. I was first introduced to them when I was in school. I remember my teachers playing records of poems. I loved the distinctive “whoosh” of the needle skating across the record, the strange melodious voice echoing off our classroom walls. There was something magical about hearing a different voice, often the author’s, read something we were studying. I was awed that the voice belonged to the very person who’d strung together the words in front of me.

Then my parents began listening to them on car trips. Several times a year, we made the long eight- to 10-hour trip from upstate New York to Virginia. Audio books made the cramped car feel limitless, with abundant room for characters, mysteries and faraway places.

When I studied for my master’s degree in learning disabilities, I found that audio books were a useful support for students who struggle with reading. Students labeled with learning disabilities are often gifted in their thinking but unable to decode. Unfortunately, few books are written to nurture sophisticated comprehension skills while correcting poor decoding skills. That’s where audio books come in.

If a struggling reader listens to a book while reading it, he experiences the text in a multisensory way, strengthening his understanding, fluency and decoding. (Remember to listen to unabridged texts.) He hears the way the words are supposed to sound, with the appropriate rhythms and cadence while reading them with his eyes. Additionally, because he listens to books at his level of understanding, rather than being trapped at his level of decoding, he’ll develop a positive attitude toward reading, as opposed to growing more frustrated. And he’ll be able to participate in the books that become the texts kids talk about—like Harry Potter.

A few years ago, I had an epiphany: My daughter could benefit from audio books in the same way. Although she couldn’t decode, she could comprehend. Both of us loved our time cuddled up together with a book. But when I became pregnant with my son, I was too tired even for that after a long workday. That’s when I turned to audio books.

At first, we cuddled together, just as we had before, but this time we both listened to a book and I could close my eyes. But I also found that this could be something I suggested in place of TV that didn’t leave me feeling guilty. In fact, she soon began to ask for audio books. We still listen together, but it’s also something that she enjoys doing independently. In a way, she’s learning to read to herself.

Listening to audio books is a valid form of reading because reading is more than simply decoding. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz, who also happens to be dyslexic, writes that he loves books “except actually reading them.” There is a wealth of skills—making inferences, envisioning images, discerning story structure, enhancing vocabulary, creating questions and predicting plot events—enhanced by audio books.

Listening, in and of itself, is a valuable skill as well. In fact, a task on the New York State Regents Exam has students listen to an excerpt of a memoir or speech and respond to multiple-choice questions. They aren’t allowed to see the text; they can only listen. But while it’s hard to imagine my teenage students without ear buds, they don’t often listen to literary works, and their parents have long since stopped reading to them at bedtime. Audio books can bridge that gap.

Listening to books isn’t just for struggling students, tired toddlers, pre-reading pre-schoolers or test-prepping teens. Listening to books adds unexpected nuance and sophistication to the reading experience.

Recently, I decided to listen to a young adult book and I was surprised by the young voice drifting out of my speakers. Listening to a real young adult read the words added a new layer to my reading. There were a few points in the book where the words felt heavy, and I knew the author had overstepped herself. What a sophisticated conversation about point-of-view, word choice and sentence structure that would be with a teen reader. I don’t think I would have noticed those moments had I simply read the text the old-fashioned way; yet they jumped out at me as I listened.

It’s easier now more than ever with the advent of MP3 players to listen to audio books. Kids who may feel embarrassed listening to a CD as they read along can do so surreptitiously with their iPod. Audible.com has a vast library of periodicals as well as books. Nooks, iPads, Kindles and iPhones allow you to view and listen to picture books. You can even download stories for free at StoryNory.com, Gutenberg.org, Literalsystems.org, LibriVox.org or AudioBooksforFree.com. But my favorite place to get audio books remains our public library. The Onondaga County Public Library system has a huge array of titles for everyone from toddlers to adults.

You’ll be surprised, too, at how a good audio book really can compete with TV. And win. Real actors—some with award-winning resumes—read popular texts. In fact, many books have multiple actors voicing different characters accompanied by convincing sound effects and music. While the audio is complex and multifaceted, your child’s eyes are free to create his own pictures, nurturing his imagination and comprehension. If he follows along in his book, the rich tonal layers finally make the words on the page meaningful and accessible.

The next time you go to the library, check out an audio book. Your children will learn new words, picture new worlds and hear new voices. She’ll notice the varied ways a text can be interpreted through tone, the myriad ways words can be given new life. And by listening to voices other than yours, your child will deepen her facility with language as well as her flexibility. And that’s better than TV any day.                        

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.


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