Engaging Readers with Audiobooks

Image via voices.com

How do I keep my reader interested, engaged, and growing without access to new books?

It’s a question that, as a reading specialist and a librarian, Ms. Grant and Ms. FitzHenry have seen from parents countless times in the past few weeks. Since our School closed its campuses in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and public libraries, independent bookstores, and most retail chains had to shut their doors soon after – parents have been puzzled over how to provide new and engaging reading materials to their readers of all ages. And although we both miss those Saturday morning trips to the public library too, Learning Village Reading Language Arts Specialist Ms. Grant and Learning Village Librarian Ms. Fitz are here today to share our secret weapon with you – the trick that we suggest to our families, share with students, and use ourselves to discover new titles everyday, while staying safe at home. Ready to find out this top-secret resource? It’s… audiobooks!

Surprised? You shouldn’t be! Audiobooks can get a bad rap, but the truth is in the research. “According to research from the National Literacy Trust, listening to an audiobook requires the same cognitive skills as reading in print and supports language comprehension skills and the ability to understand and retain information in the same way reading a book does. Read-along books and CD sets can also help them with the link between the printed and spoken word.” For an added bonus? “With research suggesting that children’s listening skills are becoming poorer, with a knock-on effect on academic success, audiobooks could help your child become a better listener.” The National Literacy Trust also found that audiobooks have the benefit of “increasing exposure to a range of vocabulary and syntax and helping them to engage intellectually with the content.” (Source)

The list of neurological and pedagogical benefits to audiobooks doesn’t stop there. Listening to a story not only models fluency, but gives readers the opportunity to pick up on rhythms, pronunciations, and speech patterns that they don’t hear while reading silently to themselves. Dr. Frank Serafini, Professor of Literacy Education and Children’s Literature at Arizona State University, recommends audiobooks to teachers and parents “because they not only expose young readers to new vocabulary and support struggling readers, but they encourage all children to try and enjoy stories that may otherwise be too advanced or inaccessible.” (Source)

Audiobooks open up new worlds to emerging readers, delivering entire series that may be too difficult for readers to tackle on their own in a fun, approachable way. And more advanced books means access to more complex vocabulary, character development, depth of plot – the benefits are endless. ‘Children develop literacy at different rates, but audiobooks can help them access stories that would be too advanced for them to read,’ says Laurence Howell of Audible. ‘It’s a wonderful way to open up great literature to children.’ (Source)

Audiobooks aren’t just for developing or striving readers. It’s true that the experts say that audiobooks are game-changers for readers with dyslexia or other learning differences, as well as readers working through the complicated processes of decoding or developing fluency. But listening to an audiobook “gives [all readers] the opportunity to become absorbed in the story without the barrier of difficult text. They can also help kids who have trouble focusing on reading as they can listen whilst doing something else at the same time.” (Source) Developing vocabulary, strengthening listening and reading skills, observing models of fluency and rhythm, accessing more difficult text, and falling in love with reading… all while folding the laundry or emptying the dishwasher? Yes, please!

Another reason that we can recommend audiobooks with such enthusiasm? We listen to them ourselves! Ms. Fitz loves that audiobooks allow her to enjoy stories without having to sit and watch a page or a screen. That means that the magic of reading is accessible while driving, walking, working on a jigsaw puzzle, or even shelving books! Ms. Grant loves visualizing the characters, settings, and scenes as she listens. For readers with busy schedules, fitting in more reading time without having to plunk down on the couch is a big benefit. And if screen time is a concern, audiobooks are a perfect option to allow readers to listen through headphones or a speaker, without having to touch a device at all. For parents controlling the device, you’ll be happy to hear that audiobooks have come a long way from the complicated cassette tapes of the past. Apps and websites provide tons of options and advanced settings that can allow you to adjust speed, rewind with the tap of a finger, and even set a sleep timer so your reader can drift off while listening to a story without having a device nearby.

With so much interruption and change in daily routine, it’s not an easy time for readers of any age to stay focused on reading a text. Audiobooks can provide a fun escape, giving your whole family something to enjoy together as you walk, work, or play. No advanced planning, screen time, or parent guidance necessary! But if you’d like to get involved, Ms. Grant suggests pausing at chapter breaks to chat about the story with your reader. These conversations can serve as informal check-ins on vocabulary, comprehension, character development, social emotional cues, and more.

At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a list of 15 discussion questions suggested by Ms. Grant to kickstart a conversation with your reader about the audiobook you’re sharing. These questions can work for any text, at any level, and they’re open-ended to keep kids wondering. Feel free to share your answers, too, so that it feels less like a test and more like a chat: turn it into your own family book club! The more you show your excitement and engagement with the audiobook, the more you’ll see it from your reader. You can also draw your own illustrations, act out your favorite scenes, step into the shoes of your favorite character for imaginative play, make your own version of special items from the book (including baking, cooking, or crafting)… the possibilities are endless.

Additionally, you’ll find our favorite sources for audiobooks below. Many platforms are always free (like the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library), while others are offering resources free or at discounted rates while schools are closed. Each source is linked to guide you to the website where you can sign up and get started listening right away. And you’ll also find a few of our favorite books available on each platform.

Discussion/Comprehension Questions

  1. What are you thinking while listening to your book?
  2. What are you imagining while listening to your book? Would you like to draw the characters/setting/scene?
  3. What is the best part of your book so far?
  4. What are you discovering about the book/author?
  5. Are there any confusing parts?
  6. What do you think will happen next? Why do you think that will happen?
  7. What is the problem/conflict in the story?
  8. What was the most important part of the story?
  9. What do you think of this character’s actions? What would you do if you were that character?Do the characters remind you of anyone in your life?
  10. Can you summarize what has happened so far?
  11. What was your favorite part? Why was it your favorite?
  12. If you could change something about this story, what would you change?
  13. Can you make a connection from the story to your own life?
  14. What do you think the author is trying to teach or tell the reader?

Ms. Grant’s & Ms. Fitz’s Favorite Audiobook Resources

  • JMRL eLibrary (through Overdrive or Libby app)
    • Currently offering temporary library cards online!
    • Lots of audiobooks and ebooks available, but many are on hold and will include wait times
    • Includes access to RBDigital, Freading, Kanopy, and more)
    • Examples of audiobooks available through Libby
      • Heart of a Samurai
      • Flora and Ulysses
      • Moon over Manifest
      • The Graveyard Book
      • Hello Universe
      • Other Words for Home
      • The War that Saved my Life
      • The Crossover
      • Wolf Hollow
      • Scar Island
      • Crenshaw
      • The Last Kids on Earth
  • Epic
    • Has both read to me (audio with highlighted text on the screen) and audiobooks
    • Examples of audiobooks on Epic (set your reader free and let them choose!)
      • Do Onto Otters
      • Lon Po Po
      • Come On, Rain!
      • Chrysanthemum
      • Fly Guy series
      • Strega Nona
      • I Want My Hat Back
      • Houndsley and Catina
      • The Parker Inheritance
      • The Invention of Hugo Cabret
      • Sports books by Mike Lupica and Tim Green
      • I Survived Series
      • Allie Finkel’s Rules for Girls
      • The 39 Clues series
      • A Night Divided
      • A Snicker of Magic
      • Save Me a Seat
      • Refugee
  • Raz-Kids 
    • Some texts include a read with me function (audio with highlighted text on the screen)
    • Also available on the Kids A-Z app
    • Fiction books
    • Series books
    • Nonfiction books
    • Poems
    • Songs and Nursery Rhymes
    • Books in Spanish and French
  • Scribd app 
    • Offers a wide selection of titles
    • Paid subscription includes unlimited audiobooks per month
    • Examples of audiobooks available through Scribd:
      • Out of My Mind
      • Pax
      • The Hobbit
      • The One and Only Ivan
      • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
      • The Secret Garden
      • Little Women
      • From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankenwiler
  • Audible 
    • Small amount of titles free, but more titles cost extra
    • Widest selection with paid subscription
    • Subscription fee only includes one or two audiobooks a month
    • Examples of audiobooks available for free on Audible include:
      • The Terrible Two
      • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
      • The Timeless Tales of Beatrix Potter
      • Just So Stories
      • Winnie the Pooh
      • Anne of Green Gables
      • Swiss Family  Robinson
      • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children 
      • Rad Women A-Z
  • Libro.fm 
    • No subscription fee, just purchase books independently
    • Currently running a 2-for-1 special and all money goes to local independent bookstores
    • Examples of books available on Libro.fm:
      • Aru Shah and the End of Time
      • The Penderwicks
      • Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow
      • The Amber Spyglass
      • Bunnicula
      • Matilda
      • The Hunger Games
      • Artemis Fowl
      • The Mysterious Benedict Society

This post was co-written with reading specialist Megan Grant. It was originally published on the St. Anne’s-Belfield School blog, Perspectives. Read it in its original format here

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