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June Behrmann

June Behrmann is a longtime special education teacher (pre-K to grade 6) who retired for about two seconds, and is now prospecting for accessible instructional resources. Follow June on Twitter @aimnoncat. Thank you to AIM-VA: Accessible Instructional Materials for sharing this blog with us.

Students Who Learn Best with Audiobooks Are Not Cheating! They Are Accessing Their Curriculum

August 22, 2016

Educators who hold to beliefs that audiobooks are cheating can have their say in their personal lives. At school, that point of view stands in the way of academic success for struggling readers for whom audiobooks and alternatives to print are a necessity. 

Decode poorly, read slowly? 

Students who decode poorly and read slowly should use audiobooks to access the curriculum. They also need a specialized and proven program of reading instruction in order to learn to read. 

Students with special education program plans can have free audiobooks to address their learning needs at no cost to their families or schools. Information follows. Many students who are blind, visually impaired or who have physical disabilities are learning using alternatives to print, including audiobooks. But many with learning disabilities, including dyslexia are not in the loop of learning with best-fit educational materials. 

Their schools leave needed "accessible educational materials" or "accessible instructional materials" to chance. Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students with disabilities fall behind, stay behind, and drop out of school. Moreover, teachers, specialists, guidance counselors, school psychologists, administrators, and other school staff members recognize that faring poorly compromises learning and social emotional development in and out of school. 

Audiobooks to access curriculum

Access to the curriculum with audiobooks or other alternatives to print, in turn, keeps students on grade, helps them meet their individualized goals and objectives, and keeps their social-emotional development about learning in a best way on track. Using book conversions, that also includes other formats, means that struggling students can read what their friends read, and often this evolves into reading independently. See the AIM-VA formats page for a description of alternatives to print. 

Benefits of audiobooks

Here are some of the additional benefits of audiobooks from Denise Johnson, an assistant professor of reading education at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Her points were made over a decade ago in the article Benefits of Audiobooks for All Learners on Reading Rockets:

  • 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)

At the time of the article, she cited reasons that audiobooks would not suit all learners. For example, she noted that some listeners find the rate too fast or slow. Technology has evolved so that today students can better control the rate. In fact, some experts like Ben Foss, author, entrepreneur, and activist founder of Headstrong Nation, and Matthew Schneps, director of the Laboratory for Visual Learning at Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, advocate for speed-reading for advanced learners with dyslexia using accessibility features on mobile devices. [See my blog posts at AIM-VA, June 3, 2014 and Nov. 14, 2014.]

Rethink audiobooks as "cheating"

School year 2016-17 is a good time put your foot down. Stall any notion that using audiobooks for school age learners is "cheating." Revisit the Accessible Educational Materials (AEM) portion of each student's Individualized Education Program plan. 

  • Consider and select AEM for students who decode poorly, read slowly, and need access to the curriculum content at their grade level. 
  • Make AEM the next step when listen-only learning materials, like many audiobooks from school and public libraries, do not supply enough learning supports. 
  • Consider that AEM options give "choice," "voice" and pathways to success for some struggling students. 
  • Choose AEM if strategies using inaccessible digital text (not all digital text is accessible) like some e-books in public and school libraries are not working for students.
  • Consider AEM materials to support students emotionally so they can learn alongside their peers in general education using alternatives to print. 
  • Consider AEM for young special education students who are having trouble handling books, finding the correct page in a timely way, or showing noncompliant behavior when literacy activities involve books in print.
  • Consider AEM even though some parents may defer the service in hopes the reading problem is developmental and will be outgrown. 
  • Consider AEM with a refreshed perspective if the original trainer during professional development for teachers suggested incorrectly that not many students with learning disabilities would be eligible.  
  • DO not allow team members to defer AEM until middle school or later in anticipation that the academic demands will increase. 
  • Use data available for AEM students to monitor progress, inform instruction, give students voice and choice, offer feedback, reflect, and report to parents.

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"A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom" —

Robert Frost