Why Audio Books in the Classroom?


“What should I read next?” he says, eagerly awaiting my answer.

His question takes me by surprise, after all, there is no possible way he has finished the book I downloaded for him two days ago.  He has mastered the art of fake reading a few months ago.

“You’re done already?  What did you think?” I ask, trying to feel out if he actually read it.

“It was so sad…at the end, when his dad came.  I couldn’t believe it…” He keeps going, telling me parts of the story that makes me nod in recollection, and it dawns on me; he read it, I think.  He read it, he loved it.  He is proud.  He is ready for another book.

“When did you find the time to read it?” I ask, still surprised.

“Last night…It got interesting so I listened to it all night.  3 hours, I think.” He says, “So what do I read next?”

This child who had not read a chapter book all year.  Who has abandoned book upon book, casting aside any favorites that we could think of.  Who has stuck to the same graphic novel over and over because nothing else mattered.  This child, whose disengagement has made us worry late at night, whose ability to tell you exactly what you want to hear has befuddled us all. He now stands before me, beaming, waiting for the next book.  He has become a child that reads.

And he is not alone.  Several students this year are having incredible reading experiences, kids who have never liked reading, are begging for the next book, begging for time to listen.  Yes, listen, because these students are devouring one audio-book after another.   Comprehending the words without having to struggle through the decoding.  Accessing stories that they have heard their friends talk about.  No longer looking at the easier books while they long for something with more substance.  Those children are becoming readers with the help of audio-books.

Some may say that does not count as reading, I certainly used to balk at it counting toward any reading goal, this year I am discovering otherwise.  Sure, there are cognitive differences in the processes that happens when we read with our eyes versus our ears, however, the skills that we are able to utilize through the listening of an audio-book are monumental in building further reader success.  And research has shown that the cognitive processes are surprisingly similar.   So what has adding (and investing in audio-books) done for our students?

Provided equity in reading experience.  Students who read significantly below their grade level are able to access the same texts as their peers.  This matters when we create reading communities, because they no longer feel different when they book shop.  Now, when they browse the books they can select any book they are interested in and we can get it for them either through Overdrive or Audible.

Supported critical thinking skills.  Students can develop critical thinking skills without having to spend enormous brain power on decoding.  Decoding is still taught and supported through other texts, however, they now have a text that we can practice deeper thinking with that actually has deeper meaning.  Not  just right text that doesn’t provide us with the complex relationships that make for such powerful stories.

Re-ignited a passion for reading.  Often students who are developing readers start to hate reading.  And I get it; when you are constantly in struggle mode, it can be so tiring, so having access via an audio-book lets students finally enjoy a story.  They can be in the zone with the book because their brain is not occupied with the work of having to read, creating a deep immersion into the reading experience.

Provided new strategies for teaching reading.  I can now pull out segments of text to use with a student knowing that they have the proper background knowledge, which is a key component when we build understanding.  I do not have to reference the entire text, but instead can have them focus on the skill at hand.   This therefore allows me to support their comprehension growth more efficiently.

Given us a gateway into reading with their eyes.  Often times, my developing readers harbor enormous hesitancy when it comes to veering out of their known text.  They are quick to dismiss, abandon and feign disinterest, all in the interest of saving face and saving them from yet another reading disappointment.  However, students finding success within the audio-book world are building their courage, their stamina, and their desire to pick up print texts.

I could list more reasons; being exposed to amazing fluency, students feeling like they have relevant thoughts when it comes to discussion, building overall reading self-esteem, planting high interest books in the hands of students to see them become “the books to read,” even changing the reading dynamics within a classroom.  Denise Johnson lists even more here.

In the end, I wonder whether  it really matter whether having students listen to audio books is cognitively not exactly the same as when they read with their eyes?  If our true goal of teaching reading is to make students fall in love with books, then audio-books are a must for our classrooms.  And so is the notion that they count as real reading.  No longer should we denounce or diminish the very thing that can make the biggest difference to some of our students.

That boy, who asked for another book, started listening to All American Boys yesterday.  That boy who has faced discrimination, judgement, and who has tried to fit in by being an amazing kid every single day.  He is now reading a book that may make a huge impact in his life.  That may offer him tools if he ever were to face a similar situation.  And he wouldn’t have been able to before.  That book would have been so far out of his zone of proximal development that he would have been robbed of the experience for a long while yet.  But not anymore, he is a reader now.  And he is proudly telling everyone he meets about the books he has read.

PS:  I cannot take responsibility for this idea of using audio-books, that belongs to my amazing colleague Reidun, who makes me a better teacher every day.  I am thankful she had the idea and decided to share it.

I have been looking for research and articles to discuss audio books versus paper books.  Here are a few articles.

Why “Reading” Audio Books Isn’t a Shortcut 

Audio Books vs Book Books, Which Does the Brain Prefer?

Are Audiobooks Worse Than Real Books?  Let’s Ask Science

Is Listening to Audio Books Really the Same As Reading?

More research and ideas from Sound Learning

New Research Shows Audiobooks have Powerful Impact on Literacy Development

As Far As Your Brain is Concerned, Audiobooks Are Not Cheating

PPS:  If you are wondering which book he had listened to in one night, it was, of course, Orbiting Jupiter.

If you are looking for a great book club to join to re-energize you in January, consider the Passionate Learners book club on Facebook.  We kick off January 10th.  



20 thoughts on “Why Audio Books in the Classroom?

  1. That’s great! I have a few “books on CD” in my classroom and I want my students to be able to listen to audio books but I’ve never been able to figure out the logistics of it in a way that makes sense. Do you have apps on school devices? Does the school buy audio books or do you pay for them yourself?

    • I’m curious about the same thing, mmechiasson. I want to provide access in our middle school library, but am not sure how to do it.

    • A lot of our students have ipods or some form of device that can download an app. Through our school library they all have an Overdrive account and there is a free app for that. Overdrive not only gives them access to our district library, but also the entire state of Wisconsin if they have a library card. They then check out the books they want to listen to. Our librarian is great and will take requests for books to purchase. We also have an English Audible account that the school pays for. While it costs money, it means that we have an ever growing library of audiobooks. Students use our account in the app again to listen to their chosen book. We do have playways and ipads at school that students can use as well. The playaways they can check out, the iPads they cannot.

  2. As a dyslexic, audio books are a big part in my reading life. For the critics, we would never tell children they could not use their glasses to read or a blind person their Braille….so why no to the audio books? These audio books level the playing field. I love the idea of a school audible account.

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  4. Thank you so much for writing this! I have a few students for whom audio books are a saving grace, because their decoding ability is so, so far below their grade and interest level. I fought to differentiate decoding and comprehending on his IEP, because to me, listening to a book IS still reading. Fortunately I succeeded and I do not need to assess him FOUR grades out of phase for the entire reading curriculum. That would have been a joke. He’s comprehending books (via audio) that other students would have trouble with.

  5. As a parent of a child who has difficulty comprehending print text but comprehends audio skillfully, thank you for this post! Audio books were a game changer for her. It was a huge struggle to get audio books “accepted” in middle/high school, but now in college, she gets all her books in audio version and it’s no issue at all.

  6. I use audiobooks and other assistive technology on a regular basis in my classroom. These tools enable a struggling reader to access a challenging text.

  7. I love audio books and read alouds! I doesn’t matter that I teach grade 7 and students should be “readers”. My biggest struggle is convincing the kids that listening is valuable!

  8. In about 2003, I read “There’s Room For Me Here” by Kyle Gonzales and Janet Allen, and talked my principal into buying about $500 of books on tape and small personal tape players for my ELD students. It was the first time SSR didn’t make me feel like a traffic cop. Instead, kids would come in and ask, “Do we get to read today?”

    Technology shifted, money dried up, I changed districts and forgot about how powerful this tool was. In the past month or so, I’ve started using Overdrive in my reading class. Some students read along while they listen. Others just listen. Some kids use their library cards to access Overdrive, and some even have Audible accounts. For the others, I use my own library card, since there’s no danger of lost or overdue books. I have JUST started, and some of the kids who would benefit the most are still balking at the idea, but as more kids have successful experiences, I know that others will become interested.

    Thank you for the well articulated support for this type of reading. It will help me if I am questioned about encouraging kids to read this way.


  9. Where do you find audiobooks? Trying at our AEA, but they don’t have a lot of the engaging books that I am looking for? Thank you!

  10. I LOVE this post and all the wonderful comments! Audio books have made a huge difference for my 4th grade son. He started listening when he was about 6, and his vocabulary is so sophisticated (he knows how to use words he couldn’t spell on a bet. We use to mess around with checking out CDs or downloading from Audible, but now we use a rock-star audio-book streaming service/app called Tales2Go. My son’s school uses it now, too, and he will listen to the audio of a book on Tales2Go while following along in the actual text. He does this in the classroom and at home. I think the app has over 5,000 stories on it now, so nice variety for as he ages up in what he’s interested in “reading”.

    Thanks for the post and for advocating audio books. It puzzles me how few parents and schools use them … it’s like ice cream made of broccoli. Kids learning without even knowing they’re learning!

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  14. I’m a K-5 librarian, and I have purchased around 55 Playaways for the library. These are audiobooks that are preloaded onto MP3 players. Students check them out from the library along with a physical book to read along. They are incredibly popular and never stay on the shelf more than a few hours. With 515 students, this means at any given time around 10% of our students have an audiobook to read! I try to purchase a good mixture of genres, award winner and nominees, picture books and chapter books, fiction and nonfiction.

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