Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Is teaching reading with audio effective?

In classrooms all over the country, teachers are searching for ways to increase student success. Many students struggle with reading, whether it is a lack of desire to do it or missing skills that make it more difficult. Reading teachers are practically doing flips in the classroom to keep children engaged, especially as more schools have block schedules and fewer schools separate the broad scope of literacy into separate classes (the once traditional reading, writing and ELA classes) but some of these tricks may not truly be helping children become more literate.

Literacy is defined simply as the ability to read and write. As the educational systems shift and change, many shortcuts are being made in an effort to show success within that very broad definition while ignoring the smaller implications of literacy. If we look at American students at the first grade level, one could say that they are literate. They can write and read sight words and comprehend short books using many sight words and basic decoding skills. Yet, by the fourth grade, many student's literacy skills stagnate. The gap continues, in most cases, and yet many teachers do little to remedy this. We are often busy with our bells and whistles, just getting children to behave in class and prepare for more standardized tests.

Many teachers' favorite reading aid is the use of audio books. They are used in a variety of ways. Some teachers use them exclusively for children with exceptionalities, while other teachers use them with the whole class on a regular basis. This second use has not ever sat well with me and it wasn't until this past year that I realized why.

I had the conversation with my students on more than one occasion this past year. They want to either be read to or listen to audio. The other three English teachers use audio and I would not. I cited the reason that there are two separate parts of the brain that process auditory information and visual information, and I could not continue to reinforce the short-cut of relying on audio to get them to understand a text. As an English teacher in a society that is decreasingly interested in reading, I am constantly considering what the purpose is of my teaching. Am I teaching literature to familiarize students with classic books? Am I teaching literature to teach students how to analyze written text? Am I teaching literature to teach students the art of writing? Am I teaching literature to teach them how to think critically about words on a page?

Consider which of these is a good reason to teach English.

I do not believe that every child is going or should go to college. I do, however, believe that it is very hard to be successful at anything if you can not think critically. Therefore, my focus is on understanding words on a page. Not many bosses are going to give audio recordings of reports or files, nor will many professors. Even if we are using our phones, tablets or even using Netspeak, we are dependent upon understanding written language far more than verbal communication.

How can we understand words on a page if we are listening to them? Several people have told me that their students are required to follow along while reading, and some do checks to ensure that students are accurately following along. To me, that is tantamount to listening to a movie while looking at a series of still photos of the movie. There is no continuum and there is no whole.

Consider the large-scale goal for students. Small scale, educators want them to pass their standardized tests. Large scale, we want them to be successful in life. If I want my students to compete in the workforce, they need to have real skills instead of a grab-bag of short-cuts.

Children develop their auditory processing before they are born. Do we really need to give them more practice at that? Conversely, their vision is highly undeveloped even by their sixth month of age. When children finally learn to read, the first thing that they must learn is how to recognize the visual symbols that make up the alphabet. A child's ability to recite the alphabet has no relationship with their ability to identify the 26 letters that compose it. When I was a child, my sister used to always say "facetious". I knew the meaning of the word and the correct context to use it. Yet, I never saw it written until I was about 20. Could I have effectively used the word in writing if I had never seen it? Remember, literacy is the ability to read AND write.

Students have an amazing ability to expand their receptive vocabulary but struggle to reuse the words on their own. It may seem like they understand what is in a text but they are relying on their auditory processing to figure out context and meaning, which is the basis of early communication.

A functional knowledge of neuroscience, child development and educational psychology are almost as important as content knowledge when it comes to teaching. Many times, our expectations or practices don't match what is actually reasonable in a developing child's brain.

In this article, The Reading Brain, the importance of understanding the complexities of literacy in English and the parts of the brain that must work together are discussed.

This second article Reading the brain jumps right into the mechanics of reading and includes photos of PET scans showing each area that is used for different tasks. There are even more resources included in the pdf that could be very helpful for teachers.

This article looks at the adaptations that humans have made to accomodate written language.

The Science of Reading research simply addresses how scientific research can and should be used in improving reading outcomes.

Next year, my students will work more on developing decoding skills, morpheme knowledge, critical thinking tasks and syntax as well as focusing on more skills-appropriate readings in order to facilitate more academic and, hopefully, life-long success.


  1. How to teach reading and writing seem to be one of those ongoing classic debates. That being said, I was alarmed to hear that literary is an issue in the US???? When did this happen?

    Since I teach English as a Foreign Language, we have to incorporate listening skills with reading. In fact, I'm bothered when a book passage is not accompanied by a listening or reading of the text because I think it's good for them to hear it first before reading it themselves.

    And I don't want to always be the one to do the talking. Ideally, they should hear it first, practice with a partner, and then we read it together so I know they are saying everything correctly. We check for comprehension, too. Depending on the complexity of the text, vocab, etc.

    1. I think listening to reading is an important part of fluency as well as using new words. I read aloud to my middle schoolers. But by the high school level, especially with students who are college bound, I don't think remediating that particular aspect of reading is necessary. The students use it as a crutch for comprehension, not an opportunity to deepen their ability. My students read plays aloud for fluency, tone and inflection, but for everything else I think they need to move forward toward breaking through the reading obstacles that they have rather than leaning back on something that they already know how to do.
      I have thought about teaching ESL. I had a couple of ESL students when I taught middle school and found teaching them to be kind of fun :)