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The Literacy Benefits of Listening

Use audio books to bring life and depth to your child’s reading experience.


I recently met a mom whose 4-year-old son loves to listen to audio books at preschool. She wondered whether these books on tape will help build his reading skills, and what he can learn from them.

Children take great pleasure in listening to stories, and there are some terrific books on tape available at bookstores and most public libraries. Tapes that come with a copy of the book are particularly valuable, because your child can follow along as the narrator reads. You'll find that these books not only provide you with an occasional break from reading (and rereading the same stories again and again); they also enrich your child's multi-sensory experiences with books.

Hearing a book read on tape helps her see how the words on the page can come alive in a fluid, expressive way. It helps her focus on the sounds of words read without interruption and provides a model of fluent reading. Audio books also give her an important introduction to listening — a skill that she must master in order to learn to read.

Many books on tape have interesting sound effects, music, and multiple narrators that are especially motivating and fun for young children. Shel Silverstein's recordings of the poems in his delightful book Where the Sidewalk Ends are perfect examples. With his baritone voice, and the accompanying playful music and sounds, he demonstrates the deep pleasure that books can provide to children of all ages, serving as a stepping stone to every other kind of reading experience.

Narrators on tape tend to embellish their storytelling with silly voices and dramatic enhancements. They emphasize reading as a source of pleasure rather than a skill, and make children eager to learn how to read. Beyond their sheer enjoyment of audio books, children also develop a sense of narrative structure and understanding of language. Stories on tape help them to grasp the rich and various ways in which language distills and conveys meaning. In addition, exposing your child to a range of narrators and their different styles of reading will deepen his grasp of the reading process.

Teachers often set up a listening center so that two to four children can listen to the same book at the same time. This can provide a wonderful opportunity for children to hear their favorite books read aloud again and again. The more they listen, the greater the likelihood that they will learn new vocabulary words. And, when listening with a special friend, the opportunities for playing creatively and acting out parts of the story are endless.

You don't have to spend a fortune for books on tape to use in your own home. Today, many libraries have a rich collection of audio books. For those you may want to keep, library sales and used bookstores offer some great bargains. Take books along on car trips, or while you're in the waiting room at the dentist's office. I think you'll find that these books are truly the gift that keeps on giving.

About the Author

Susan B. Neuman, Ph.D., is director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement at the University of Michigan School of Business.

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