Pairing Audiobooks with Text

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To pair or not to pair, that is the question.

Literacy experts routinely praise the benefits of syncing narration with on-screen text for dyslexic readers who struggle to decipher the printed page. And audio CDs and paperbacks are still readily available for purchase in combination, particularly for younger readers. Why is this the case? What are the specific benefits of pairing text with an audio recording? And is ‘just listening’ valid? This blog post seeks to clarify the advantages of both pairing and 'just listening' as two independent and effective instructional strategies.  

Many experts believe that pairing an audiobook with text improves reading skills. By listening to a fluently spoken word and visually decoding it at the same time, a student is better able to acquire and retain letter-sound associations. With practice, sight word recognition improves, and eventually vocabulary and comprehension increases. This makes sense, and makes pairing a valid pedagogy, particularly with students learning to read and dyslexic students.

So why would anyone want to ‘just listen?’

The way we think about it, pairing is primarily an exercise in fluency. “Oh, that word is meant to sound like ba-LOON vs. BALL-oon.” And that is an important skill and component of word knowledge. For purposes of clarity, reading proficiency is made up of decoding skills (i.e., sounding out letters) and word knowledge (i.e., do you know a word, do you know the way it’s supposed to sound, and do you have context as to its meaning). Another way experts express word knowledge is as vocabulary and fluency, which together happen to be listening comprehension. Meaning, children must be good listeners before they can become great readers. Listening is a skill equivalent to reading, writing and speaking, and is articulated as such in every U.S. state. You can read a blog post about listening and state standards here

Therefore, a limitation with pairing is that a student’s brain is focused on properly decoding a word (i.e., fluently) vs. taking in the broader meaning and context within a sentence or paragraph. Which is why other experts and many educators promote 'just listening' because taking away the burden of decoding gives children greater access to and understanding of more complex text, or the other half of word knowledge. It’s well known that children can listen up to two grade levels above their current reading level.

View a case study about a teacher who promotes "just listening"

In a 2015 study at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, 3-5 year-old children were given a story listening task while magnetic resonance imaging tracked activity in their brain. Researchers found that listening to pre-recorded stories activates parts of the left side of a child’s brain, a region associated mental imagery and narrative comprehension. These same brain regions have been found to be active when older children listen to stories or read.

And in a recent WestEd Study evaluating the effect of adding a listening component to literacy instruction, students ‘just listening’ to audiobooks on Tales2go attained 58% of their expected annual reading gain in just ten weeks, putting them three months ahead of the control students who did not listen to audiobooks. The results were noteworthy, with the treatment group outperforming the control group across all measures: by 3.0x in reading comprehension, nearly 7.0x in 2nd grade vocabulary, and nearly 4.0x in reading motivation.  

'Just listening’ and pairing are both valid and have their place in the instructional tool kit. Educators will need to decide which approach will benefit each student in each step of their literacy journey. 

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