Why Children Must be Good Listeners Before They Can Become Great Readers

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Thanks to advancements in technology, it’s never been easier to use audio books in classrooms, libraries, at home and on the go. The value and timeless tradition of oral language remains intact and an important source of higher level vocabulary words. Listening to high interest books read fluently by great narrators both engages students and gives them access to more complex literature, well beyond their current reading level.

Whether an audio book teaches a moral lesson, provides information for a class project or book report, or merely provides an escape from reality for a few minutes, the benefits of listening to reading without paired text are many. In this blog post we’ll share just a few of the reasons why audio books for kids should be plentiful in your school library collection, and why classroom teachers should be using them. 

1. Listening comprehension is a key component of reading proficiency.

Most educators are comfortable teaching decoding, which is half of reading proficiency. The other half is word knowledge, which is a combination of vocabulary and fluency (Gough and Tunmer, 1986). In effect, students need to know words they're decoding, such as their context and proper pronunciation, otherwise they're not reading proficiently. What some educators find surprising is that vocabulary and fluency, together, are listening comprehension. Meaning children need to be good listeners before they can become great readers. 

2. It takes repeated exposure to spoken words to build a large vocabulary.

Children need to hear tens of millions of words in order to establish a large enough vocabulary to attain reading proficiency. Seminal research established that children from low-income homes entered kindergarten having heard 32 million fewer words than their higher income peers, explaining an achievement gap that lasted throughout elementary school (Hart and Risley, 1995). The difference in exposure is dramatic. Linguistically rich students from higher income homes know 20,000 words, or 4x as many words as linguisitically poor students (Moats, 2001).

3. Children need to hear words found in books.

Most adults speak informally to their children or students, and don't have/spend enough time reading aloud to their children. In fact, only half of parents read to their children on a daily basis, falling to 39% in non-white homes. Yet students are required to know complex and advanced words. Listening to audio books is a great way for students to hear fluent, expressively read words in context, so they hear words they need to know such as “inquire” vs. “question” or “accurate” vs. “true.” This short video provides an example of a mom noticing her son’s vocabulary blossoming after listening to audio books.

4. Listening to a book without paired text drives achievement in reading comprehension, vocabulary and motivation to read. 

Educators everywhere are finding that audio books are an effective literacy tool. In a recent independent study conducted by WestEd, students listening to audio books without paired text attained 58% of their annual reading gain in just ten weeks, putting them three months ahead of control students who did not have access to audio books. The treatment students outperformed the control students across all measures, including reading comprehension (by 3.0x), vocabulary acquisition (by 7.0x) and reading motivation (by 4.0x).

If all of the above reasons aren’t enough to add a listening component to your school’s reading instruction, don’t forget that state standards actually REQUIRE listening, placing listening on par with reading, writing and speaking! 

Please feel free to share this blogpost with any colleagues if you found it useful.

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