Monday, November 14, 2005

Audio Books Can Be A Great Learning Tool

On the occassion of Children's Day, an article on how we can utilize Audio Books for learning.

Audio books can be a great learning tool

Monday, November 14, 2005By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Parents, want to get your kids to read more? Plug them into an audio book.

For years, educators have sung the praises of audio books for students with reading challenges or those whose first language isn't English.

These days, however, experts say that audio books are a great tool to expose children to books. The audio format attracts kids because it's a different -- and cool -- reading alternative, especially now that they can download a book right to their MP3 players.

And audio "reading" can be combined with another activity, such as running or cooking, which is an important consideration for today's multi-tasking kids.

"The spoken word is the world's oldest form of dialogue; it's how people have predominantly learned for centuries," said David Joseph, a spokesman for, the fast-growing company that markets digital downloads of books, magazines and newspapers.

"It's not surprising that, when delivered in a format on a device that makes sense for students, it resonates with them."

Lisa Dennis, coordinator of children's collections at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, adds, "Audio books can enhance enjoyment, making reading seem like fun rather than work and add interest through the use of accents, sound effects, etc.

"And, of course, they offer busy or less literate parents the opportunity to ensure that their children have access to books read aloud."

In fact, many families now listen to audio books together, particularly in the car. That's especially true at vacation time, but families also use audio books to while away the time while shuttling to and from after-school activities.

"This is a good solution to the problem of which radio station will be tuned in," said Sharon Grover, the youth services collection specialist for the Arlington, Va. library system and a veteran audio book reviewer.

Over the past decade, the audio industry "has experienced steady growth," even as formats have moved from cassettes to CDs and digital downloads, said Shannon Maughan, the audio book reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

The latest figures from the Audio Publishers Association show that the industry had sales of $800 million in 2003. Sales for, the major seller of digital downloads, jumped from $5.1 million in 2001 to $18.5 million in 2003.

"The rule of thumb over the years has been that the audio industry is about 10 percent of what the book industry is in size," Ms. Maughan said. "However, in recent years, audio has withstood the economic downturns or a flat retail market better than books."

Children's audio books remain a small segment of the overall audio book market. "But sales have increased over the years, following the trend of the entire industry," Ms. Maughan said. "And, also, more publishers have gotten into the children's audio segment."

About 10 percent of's catalog are kids' books, Mr. Joseph said. "And the number of children's titles and downloads have grown substantially over the past few years."

Tim Ditlow, vice president and publisher of Listening Library, noted that his company has moved from selling a mix of adult and children's audio titles to concentrating just on the children's market.

"There are so many fine books for children published each year. I just saw a tremendous need out there," said Mr. Ditlow, whose company, founded by his parents and now part of Random House, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. "All these educators kept telling us, 'Give us unabridged audio versions of these books for children.' It's really an educational tool."

A wizard leads the way

A major force behind the increased sales of audio books, especially children's audio books, in recent years has been the wild popularity of audio editions of J.K. Rowlings' "Harry Potter" books. Published by Listening Library, "Harry Potter" audio books are read by Jim Dale, who has earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for the more than 100 voices he has created for the various characters.

Ms. Maughan said "Harry Potter" releases "are the fastest-selling audio titles of all time, [for] children or adults." The titles helped propel increased consumer sales of audio books, which previously had been purchased mainly by public and school libraries, Mr. Ditlow added.

Reading vs. listening

While some people still believe that listening to books is no substitution for reading them, reading experts believe that listening to books is a great tool to help students develop their reading skills.

In fact, the Listening Library cites a Commission on Reading report, entitled "Becoming a Nation of Readers" that states, "The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children,' "

And, said Mr. Ditlow, "A million teachers can't be wrong. They wouldn't be using audio books in classrooms across the country if it were 'cheating.' The exponential growth in sales to school libraries is the best validation that audio books can be a valuable literacy tool."

Studies have shown that audio books help students expand their vocabulary and develop reading fluency because they can listen to books that would be too hard for them to read in a printed form, Ms. Grover said.

"Additionally, listening without worrying about decoding [the printed words] helps readers to develop a concept of story."

In a 2002 article in The Horn Book magazine titled "As Good As Reading?," Pamela Varley also
noted that audio books can help children see the humor in books. Interestingly, that's something they often miss when they are reading the printed version, she noted.

Learning tool

Listening to an audio version of a book can help children better comprehend themes and difficult language, such as with Shakespeare's plays.

Teachers also will have students listen to the first chapter or two of a book to whet their interest before sending them home to read the print version. And some parents have their children read along in the print version of a book while listening to it as a way of developing both auditory and visual skills.

"Ideally, children should have the opportunity to enjoy books in as many ways as they please: through independent reading, sharing books with family and friends, and audio books," said Ms. Dennis.

"Whether they are used independently to provide a listening experience for the child or used to support reading of a printed text, audio books add another dimension to the experience of reading."

(Karen MacPherson can be reached at or 202-662-7075.)


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