Students’ Choice and Voice in Reading Modes

Audiobooks, eBooks, and print, each play a role in students' personalization of reading

By: Sarah Sansbury


If all my students earned 100% on their reading assessments, but then left my classroom hating reading, I have failed as a teacher. It is not in the Common Core Standards to foster a lifetime love for reading. The standards do not require teachers to encourage student empathy by helping their students see another's perspective through a character's experience in a book.

Despite this, many teachers recognize and believe in the power of reading. Reading is more than just another item to check off on our curriculum to-do list.

How, though, do you, the teacher, help your students experience the pleasure of reading as it expands their view of the world? What barriers prevent students from a positive reading experience? How can teachers help remove these barriers? To achieve these goals, we need to explore the different modes of reading, including audiobooks, eBooks, and traditional print books.

Reading Mode #1: Audiobooks

Whether experienced in one's own life or seen in a Hollywood movie or TV show, most are quite familiar with this idyllic scene: Enveloped in the soft glow of a nightlight, a young child, cozied up under a downy blanket, listens attentively while a loving parental figure reads a bedtime story. Here, reading is portrayed as a magical, intimate, special experience. Not just for nighttime, story time, or the act of reading a story aloud, is a common practice in classrooms, libraries, bookstores, and community centers. Although this practice is ubiquitous, the target audience typically only includes our younger readers in preschool and lower elementary grades.

The love of being read to doesn't die when we grow up. Listening to a good story is an ageless pastime. In today's world of technological advances, audiobooks, the modern version of story-telling, are rising in popularity with all age levels. Indeed, the love of being read to is still alive and well. Children love to hear a good story; adults love to hear a good story. Our teens also love to hear a good story, and research confirms this.

Gene Wolfson, author of Using Audiobooks to Meet the Needs of Adolescent Readers, found increased student motivation when audiobooks were given as a reading mode choice. In fact, students who chose to read while listening tended to read further in the book and with increased focus.

In addition, the 2017 study titled "Does Reading-While-Listening Enhance Students' Reading Fluency?" observed that listening to audiobooks while reading caused a significant word count per minute improvement. The long-term implication is that this type of hybrid reading can have a positive effect on students' fluency, comprehension, and stamina.

Increasing students' confidence as readers and fostering reading stamina in our students is vital. It paves the way for the successful reading of longer and more complex text in higher grades and post-secondary schooling. Audiobooks can help increase student motivation and have a positive influence on our students' reading skills and reading habits.

Another way audiobooks help readers enjoy reading is lifting the barrier of lower reading skills. Students who struggle with the technical aspects of sounding out and reading individual words will read the words, but they will have no idea what they all mean together. They are concentrating so hard on the act of reading that they cannot understand or even enjoy the story.

Audiobooks allow students to comprehend and appreciate what they are reading. However, this doesn't mean that audiobook listeners don't improve as readers. According to a study by the American Library Association, "introducing audiobooks to preteen students increases fluency and comprehension, helps expand vocabulary and makes students more confident in their abilities."

Audiobooks are not cheating. The stigma that audiobooks are not valid forms of reading is consistently being proved otherwise. We middle school educators need to bring back story time. Audiobooks are a valid reading mode choice that needs to be made accessible to our students.

How to Incorporate Audiobooks in the Classroom
How does one effectively incorporate audiobooks in the classroom? Here are some tips from Knutson, author of "Exploring the Influence of Audiobooks on Adolescent Readers' Motivation and Reading Comprehension."

  1. If you read audiobooks, share about your positive experience. This will show your students that audiobooks are a respected option. It's not "fake reading, and it's not just for people who can't read well.
  2. Be sure your audiobook selection is not made up of different titles than your eBook or print collection. This will prevent the audiobook readers from feeling ostracized from the larger community of readers.
  3. Teach your students how to use all the audiobook features. Our school uses Sora, offering features that include bookmarking, speed of narration, etc.
  4. Do not force students to use audiobooks. Again, it is about giving students choice and voice in how they read.

Reading Mode #2: eBooks

In the publication Family and Community Engagement Research Compendium, Dr. Lois Bridges describes how the number of books a family has in their home positively correlates with students' literacy levels. With that fact in mind, imagine the beneficial effects of a home filled with thousands of books. eBooks are another great reading mode because they allow students to have an entire library in their pocket. With a public library card or access to their school's database of eBooks, students can have access to thousands of books, that can be instantly downloaded onto a device (smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc.).

Another unique feature of eBooks is how interactive they can be, as shown through our Sora student reading app. Students can tap on a word and instantly get definitions of words, highlight important lines/passages and even create notes/annotations. Students who are researching or looking for a quote to include in a writing assignment can use Sora's search option to find specific words or phrases. The app also allows students to earn badges for reading, gamifying their reading experience, and even choose unique avatars to personalize their reading.

eBooks also are a great tool to adapt reading for unique student needs. Dyslexic students can change the font in Sora to Open Dyslexia, a print that is easier to decipher for them. Struggling students can privately read alternative titles with lower Lexiles. Some eBook platforms/apps offer text-to-text speech and read-alongs which can be the scaffolding ESOL students or struggling readers need to tackle more complex and advanced reading material.

Visually impaired students can also enlarge the font size. In fact, Project Tomorrow, a nationwide study with research compiled by Thorndike Press, found large font size helped improve students' reading skills. All students, not just the visually impaired, experienced an increase in reading comprehension and a positive attitude toward reading.

Ultimately, respecting our students' needs and privacy is essential in differentiating learning for our students, and eBook features can help make this a reality.

Reading Mode #3: Print Books

More exposure to books and more time reading have a strong, positive impact on our students. Print books are yet another reading mode that play an important role in this. Each school year, my media center circulates thousands of eBooks and online audiobooks as well as thousands of print books. Beyond traditional print novels, my middle grades students still enjoy books that incorporate pop-ups or moveable parts, like the interactive Field Guides series by Silver Dolphin or the Ologies series by Candlewick.

eBooks and audiobooks are just another way of reading; they aren't necessarily replacing print reading. These reading modes are not in opposition to each other; we do not need to decide and commit to which is better. They all have benefits and a time and place for their use.

For instance, my 11-year-old loves that she can bring on vacations the entire Harry Potter series on her Kindle. However, she also still loves reading from a print book. Just today, I observed in my media center two middle school students sitting next to each other and reading: one with a print version of Artemis Fowl and the other an eBook of Tom Sawyer. Christine de Catell, the author of Considering the eBook Journey, Look at How Far We've Come, echoes the idea that students may have a preference for one mode of reading over another. In her research, she found a study in which reluctant teenage readers preferred technology, while avid readers gravitated to print. What is most important is finding what works best for each individual student.

Personalized Reading = Personal Reading Experiences

In the end, our job as educators is to provide access to a diverse selection of books as well as different modes of reading so our students have choice and voice in what and HOW they read. There are different benefits for each mode of reading. Christine de Catell sums it up best: "Each format has its audience and value. It's a question of when we recommend them." Providing different modes of reading allows our students' reading journey to be personalized and to become a personal experience that hopefully fosters a lifetime habit of reading.


Sarah Sansbury is a media and educational technology instructor at River Trail Middle School, Duluth, Georgia.
sansburys@fultonschools.org
@salaughs
Instagram: @rtmsreads


Published November 2019.

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