Summer reading is as much a seasonal pastime as baseball and fireworks. Many parents put together a selection of books that are meaningful, educational, and engaging — books to nourish and stimulate young minds during these few freewheeling months.
Parents should consider assembling a summer listening list, too. When we think of literacy, we tend to think first of reading and writing. That’s because for centuries, printed text has been the dominant means of recording and sharing information. Yet for most children, listening is really the first entry point into language — the cornerstone of learning and of cognitive development. In an age when kids are regular users of personal multimedia technologies, the importance of learning to listen and listening to learn is as great as ever.
The importance of learning to listen
Listening is an engaging way to learn, a primary approach to developing or strengthening reading strategies, and, in some cases, a necessary means to access information and knowledge. Listening media, such as audio books and text-to-speech, can be especially helpful to children with learning disabilities, such as those with dyslexia and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), who struggle with print-based learning, and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), who may struggle to listen.
For such students well-chosen listening experiences can open up new vistas of learning, providing access to information and ideas previously ‘hidden’ in books and supporting the reading process itself. Such opportunities provide a powerful supplement or alternative to a reading program focused around printed text.
Research has shown that combining reading and listening through the use of audio books or text-to-speech programs improves the literacy skills of struggling readers, including those with learning disabilities. Reading comprehension, listening comprehension, phonological awareness and blending, and naming skills have shown to be improved with a combined reading-listening program. Listening while reading helps children learn the patterns of language, the obvious ‘code’ of letters and words on the page as well as less obvious codes, such as tone, nuance, and implied meaning. Brain imaging technologies show that when we listen, different parts of the brain are engaged than when we read — or even when we merely hear something. Listening can provide whole levels of information that are essential to determining the value and validity of a source. Teaching children to listen to tone of voice not only helps them develop reading skills but can help in the development of their social and conversational skills, too. (For more information, see Plato Revisited: Learning Through Listening in the Digital World by David Rose and Bridget Dalton)
In addition to skill-building, children with learning disabilities may also find it easier to listen to books — more understanding is conveyed through voice than through words on the page. In this first person essay from LD OnLine, Why I Love Audio Books , Ben Buchanan, a child with dyslexia says this: “When I listen to a book on tape, it is easier to understand jokes or puns, and other forms of humor in the book because I am not distracted by other words or things on the page (like a picture or other writing or a food stain). It is easier to understand more parts of the book when it is a book on tape because of the way the person says the words — they provide clues to the mood of the characters.”
For children with Central Auditory Processing Disorders (CAPD), structured listening experiences can support efforts to improve listening skills, especially when flexible media such as digital text or recorded text are used. CAPD interferes with a hearing child’s ability to make sense of information taken in through the ears. Children with CAPD may struggle to listen in noisy places, make sense of what they hear, sustain their attention on long spoken passages, and process nonverbal auditory stimuli, such as music. Children with CAPD may benefit from multi-sensory approaches, including listening while information is presented visually.
Assembling a summer listening program
In assembling a summer listening program, consider trying a variety of listening experiences. Read works that are written to be read — fiction and nonfiction prose — as well as works that are intended to be spoken — such as speeches, stage plays, musical theater, radio plays, and comedy routines. Point out the differences in each style, the rat-a-tat dialogue of a comedy routine or the long loping phrases of a novel. Listen to readings that are enhanced by music and sounds. Note the way that keys rattling and wind howling make a ghost story even creepier. Point out how the peppy tune on a soundtrack adds fun and humor to an adventure tale. (Of course, any summer listening program will want to include music all by itself — a little Beethoven, Beach Boys, or Beck to liven the program.)
Different media formats have their own advantages and disadvantages. Try them all. The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) suggests setting aside a little time every day to read to your children . For younger children, NCLD recommends that parents ‘practice letter-sound correspondence, do lots of rhyming and clapping out syllables, and explore the relationship between oral language and print.’
Audio books are also an option that may have some advantages compared to one-on-one reading. For example, the use of audio books, especially with a headset, may help certain children concentrate more on their listening. They also have the option of slowing down or replaying certain passages, stop and reflect, and skip around within the ‘text.’ This gives the child control of her listening and allows her to adjust it to her particular learning needs and preferences. The child may be too embarrassed to ask for such help or may simply not think of it when listening to a parent or teacher. Children who may struggle to follow long spoken passages, remember key details, or process verbal and nonverbal information, including music, will benefit from having the opportunity to control how they listen.
Audio books in specialized formats are widely available to those with qualified print disabilities through organizations such as Learning Ally and Bookshare ; commercial audio books are available through public libraries and book retailers.
Another option is to use a computer to read aloud digital text in a synthetic voice. The best Text to Speech (TTS) tools can read digital content ‘on the fly,’ vastly expanding a child’s options for reading.’ Options include digital books, web pages, email, and Word documents, including the child’s own writing. Like audio books, digital text with TTS gives children control of their listening. They can adjust speed, voice qualities, and other factors to find what’s right for them. More importantly, when digital text and sound are blended, additional support features can be added to enhance the learning experience. Digital texts can highlight words on the screen as they are read aloud, making it easier to follow the text and to link particular sounds with the words on the screen. Also, headphones can be used to minimize outside distraction and enhance concentration — a helpful feature for children with CAPD, ADHD, and other learning disabilities.
The drawback to using digital text with TTS is that TTS is still a poor model of oral language. No computer will read text with the same feeling and vibrancy that a human does. Words may be produced in a stream, with frequent mispronunciations and awkward phrasing. Still, TTS can be effective and liberating for many struggling readers and listeners. Give it a try.
Finally, don’t forget the chirping of crickets … and the roar of motorcycles … and the splish-splash of children playing in the water. Point out the sounds of summer to your children. Raise their awareness of just how important active listening is. Listening is not simply an alternative — a lesser companion — to reading. It’s a critical literacy all its own.
For more information about Learning Through Listening, including research, lessons, and ideas, visit www.learningthroughlistening.org .
About the author
David Gordon is director of publishing and communications at CAST, a nonprofit organization that pioneers inclusive educational solutions based on Universal Design for Learning.