Should we be letting our children listen to audio books?
Like the answer to most questions, it is about providing a balance. It is important that children are given an opportunity to read independently. It is also important that parents read to their children because there is a different interaction when a parent is reading as opposed to listening to a stranger’s voice. However, audio books also have a role to play and this is highlighted in Valentini and colleagues’ (2018) research.
In this study, 8 and 9 year old children were exposed to a story that contained eight low-frequency English concrete nouns (e.g., destrier, hauberk) that were ‘new’ to the children. They either read the story, listened to a recording of a female reading the story or read and listened to the recording of the story at the same time. The children were given the definition of only half of the new words the first time they were heard. The stories were presented twice over two weeks to promote learning through repetition.
The children were told that at the end of the story they would be assessed on their comprehension of the story, but no mention was made of the ‘target new’ words.
After the second story presentation, the children were assessed on their ability to recognised the correct pronunciation (phonological knowledge) of the ‘new’ words by choosing between two alternatives. They were also required to choose between two alternatives of the written form of the word (orthographic knowledge) and to identify the words’ categories, sub-categories and definitions (semantic knowledge).
The results showed that children did equally well on recognising the correct pronunciation of the word irrespective of whether they read the story, listened to the story or read and listened to the story at the same time. Children who were in the reading only group did significantly better on correctly identifying the written form of the word.
The children who were in the combined condition of reading and listening to the story did significantly better on understanding the meaning of the words, but only in the categorisation task. Providing children with the definition of a word did help them with learning detailed information of the words, but didn’t help them extract more general categorical information about the word.
Unsurprisingly, children who had higher levels of reading accuracy performed better overall on all tasks, irrespective of whether they read the story, listened to the story or both read and heard the story. No doubt, having better decoding skills meant that these children had more ‘mental energy’ to focus on understanding the text. It is also possible that children with larger reading vocabularies used better word-learning strategies and were better at linking new words to other contextual information contained in the text.
Interestingly, children who both read and listened to the story outperformed students who read the story in the comprehension task, but achieved similar scores to the children who just listened to the story. This seems to imply that hearing the story promoted the children’s understanding of the story.
The authors concluded that children are able to learn information about words that are new to them when they are reading and/or listening to stories in which these words are embedded. In particular, allowing children to hear stories while they are reading along may be the optimal strategy for extracting information.
However, it is also important to remember that ultimately, children need to be able to read and understand text independently. Like all skills, this too requires practise, without the support of hearing the text read.
Consider using audio books:
- On road trips, instead of playing on iPads. It is great if the whole family listens to the same story, but everyone could also have their own earphones and listen to a story of their choice.
- To expose your children to stories containing vocabulary that is currently outside their reading ability.
- To support struggling readers, especially in terms of gaining access to knowledge that they are intellectually capable of understanding but don’t have the reading knowledge to access.
Valentini, A., Ricketts, J., Pye, R., & Houston-Price, C. (2018). Listening while reading promotes word learning from stories. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 167, 10-31. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jecp.2017.09.022