Using Audio Books to Promote Critical Listening Skills

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  1. become familiar with the variety of audio books available for K-12 learners and the advantages and disadvantages of various online resources for downloading audio books;
  2. understand how to apply principles from read-alouds in the use of audio books in the classroom;
  3. gain knowledge of how questioning techniques can promote critical literacy skills;
  4. gain knowledge about research on first-time users of audio books in the elementary classroom to discover the challenges and opportunities for the use of this technology for teachers who are less familiar with computer technology.

Evidence Base

Audio books have been used in schools since the first talking records were created in the 1960s, but now they are becoming more and more popular with general audiences, a phenomenon which has increased the scope and availability of titles. In 2005, JK Rowling’s book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, smashed all previous records set by audio books, selling 165,000 copies in its first two days (National Public Radio, 2005). At Apple’s iTunes online store, over 9,000 different audio books are available. Book publishers are offering an increasing number of audio books in bookstores and as computer downloads. The growing popularity of downloading books is perhaps best displayed by’s reports of a 300 percent increase in sales, from 5.1 million sales in 2001 to 18.4 million in 2003. Despite the growth in the marketplace, there is little evidence in the scholarly or professional literature in elementary education that shows whether (or how) audio books are being used in elementary classrooms.

Most elementary teachers rely on reading aloud as the primary way to provide a spoken word experience to students. Teacher read-alouds are a significant component of instruction because they enable teachers to model reading strategies, illustrating to students how the language of a book is different from spoken language. Researchers have found that children’s understanding of the patterns and structures of written language can be developed from experience with read-alouds(Lapp & Flood, 2003). Expert elementary reading teachers who use reading aloud as an instructional tool select books appropriate to students’ interests and developmental levels, preview and practice, and establish a clear purpose for the activity. Teachers use animated facial expressions, gestures, and dynamic vocal performance; they stop periodically to question students about the text and use discussion to enable students to share their expectations and predictions about the characters and narrative. Less-skilled teachers struggle with fluent oral reading themselves, do not use voice modulation effectively to illustrate key points and changes in emotion, and do not use literacy activities to extend the learning experience or connect it to other classroom events(Fisher et al., 2004).

Many teachers haven’t had to be technologically savvy until recently, as the internet has become a reality in the lives of young children. Scholars have wondered why there is such low use of technology at the elementary level, even by teachers in schools with what seem like adequate levels of access to technology(Hernandez-Ramos, 2005). Curriculum integration is a major challenge in the implementation of technology in elementary education. Case studies of the uses of technology in elementary schools have shown that decisions about technology are often disconnected from issues of curriculum and instruction. According to researchers, “The real leadership act regarding technology may be to resist the temptation to acquire hardware and software de-contextualized from a specific curricular goal and instead to commit to limited purchases and to doing a few things well with technology as a first step”(Staples et al., 2005).

In a research study, we found that teachers used instructional strategies based on their experience with read-alouds to make the audio learning experience more effective for students. These techniques included pausing to discuss the story every five to fifteen minutes to promote active listening. Many teachers used specific and pointed questioning to prompt intelligent predictions of the action to come by students. Because teachers did not have to focus on the oral performance dimensions of the text, many teachers felt that they could be more effective in their use of questioning. As Douglas Fisher (2004) and his colleagues have noted, the demands of oral reading pose considerable challenges to teachers. Without taking the time to preview and practice an oral reading, teachers may stumble while they speak, mispronounce words, or emphasize part of a sentence that alters meaning. In our study, teachers who used audio books were able to make more effective use of questioning and discussion because they could pay attention to the content and meaning of the text, focusing on students’ meaning-making process and not just their own spoken performance.

Recognizing the centrality of oral language in the role of literacy development of children and young adults and appreciating that audio books were likely to be unfamiliar to many teachers, we conducted research with elementary and secondary teachers to discover the patterns of instructional practices that teachers use when given their first opportunity to use audio books in their classrooms. Rather than focus our attention on those small number of teachers who are early adopters of technology, we sought to discover how less-technologically sophisticated teachers would manage the use of an unfamiliar technology that was perceived to have immediate connection to their literacy curriculum. We would like to share what we have learned at the International Reading Association meeting in Toronto.

Microworkshop Content

These issues were explored:

  1. An overview of the variety of audio books available for K-12 learners and the advantages and disadvantages of various online resources for downloading audio books;
  2. A critical review of the research on the use of read-alouds in the classroom and a demonstration of specific instructional practices that have been identified as effective;
  3. A review of how questioning techniques can be used to promote critical listening with examples from both elementary and secondary levels;
  4. An informal experiment with workshop participants to demonstrate the relationship between the pressure of oral performance and the quality of teachers’ questioning and discussion management skills;
  5. A review of research with first-time users of audio books in the elementary classroom, with a focus on outlining the challenges and opportunities for the use of this technology for teachers who are less familiar with computer technology.