Zander Chao and Hannah Smith listen to books while they read.
Fourth graders Zander Chao and Hannah Smith listen to books while they read.

Why do Lower School students love audiobooks?

Mr. Russell was the teacher to have for sixth grade at my elementary school. He stood out among the faculty with his curly red hair, ability to integrate his musical talents into his pedagogy, and for his after-recess read-alouds. Trained as both a teacher and an entertainer, Mr. Russell captured and held our attention with his dramatic readings. He would turn the lights all the way down, and with a flashlight as his guide, mesmerize us with the stories he read. When he read How to Eat Fried Worms, I was literally gagging at all the different ways the kids prepared the worms for eating! The entire class sobbed as he read the ending of Where the Red Fern Grows. When Mr. Russell read aloud, the characters lived among us and their challenges were our challenges. Their beloved pets were our beloved pets. Their worm aversions were our worm aversions.

Now, as an avid audiobook listener, I think about Mr. Russell and his ability to bring stories to life. A great narrator can animate the language of certain texts in one’s head and heart for days on end. Last year, when I listened to The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, there were phrases from the novel that were so beautiful that the author’s reading of them danced in my ears for days.

Audiobooks are such an important part of my reading life that I’ve been thrilled to see the recent uptick in Colorado Academy Lower School Students’ fondness for them as well. We currently check out CD audiobooks to students in grades 2-5 and encourage students to check out the accompanying text along with the audio version.

Zander Chao listens to a book on CD while reading it at the same time.
Zander Chao listens to a book on CD while reading it at the same time.

Audiobooks: ‘They go right to your soul’

“Does your family have a CD player?” is a question we ask Lower School students on a daily basis. When they look confused (!), we let them know that we have portable CD players to check out. If we aren’t showing students audiobooks on CD, then we are showing them another popular listening device called a Playaway. Playaways are self-contained audiobooks that a student uses by simply plugging in a pair of headphones.

CDs? Playaways? Yes! At one point in January all six of our portable CD players were checked out, and we had students on a waiting list for the items when they were returned. We’ve since ordered four more players. Titles like Upside Down Magic, Land of Stories, and Tale of Despereaux seem best enjoyed when pairing the audiobook with the text. It’s a recipe for reading success (minus the fried worms!).

One of the wonderful things about our students listening to audiobooks is that they have no idea how much they are learning in the process. They are simply mesmerized by good stories. Is there a better way to foster lifelong readers?

What do students gain by listening to audiobooks?

• Introduction to books above their reading level
• Exposure to new genres
• Practice of critical listening skills
• A model of interpretive reading
• Exposure to rich vocabulary
• Navigating unfamiliar accents and dialects

Fourth Grade teacher Suzanne Kolsun-Jackson recommends selecting audiobooks read by talented actors. Simon Callow’s rendition of The Twits will remain in her memory for years to come. Stephen Fry brings the world of Harry Potter to life with his reading of J.K Rowling’s modern classics. LeVar Burton’s reading of the Newbery winner The Watsons Go to Birmingham-1963, will provide background in the Civil Rights movement that all children need.

In a 2002 Horn Book Magazine article, “As Good As Reading? Kids and the Audiobook Revolution,” author Pamela Varley says “If one thing has struck me about the way people describe listening to audiobooks, it is the reported intensity of their absorption and the emotional grip of the experience. ‘They go right to your soul,’ says one listener.”