Written Text or Audiotext in the Classroom? We Should Have Both

March 12, 2012 — 2 Comments

I am passing out Brave New World to the 10th graders.
“Is there an audiobook for this?” a student asks.
“Why not just read the book?” I respond.
“I can’t read this without help,” explains the student.
“I’ll see,” I sigh.

I admit that in the past I had been a little frustrated at these requests. I felt as though the students were sometimes “cheating” at reading. I felt they were not technically “reading”, the complex cognitive process of decoding symbols in order to construct or derive meaning. They were “listening”, where they  make an effort to hear  or to heed something. However, I have become slowly converted in the use of audiotexts for difficult texts because I have seen how effective they are as a resources in my classrooms.

"To audiotext or not to audiotext?"

The reason for considering the use of an audiotext  is what I call the problem of “voice”. What students may be telling me when they say they need help is that they do not hear the voice of an author (narrator) or the voice of a character while reading a text. A good reader can hear voice as he or she reads, but the struggling reader may need an audiotext to provide that voice.

The use of audiotexts in our English/language arts classrooms has been gradual as we build up our resources. There are a limited number hard copies of required texts in the school  library, so we look for resources available on the web. The use of the audiotext in whole class reads has been particularly effective with short passages, poems or plays.  For example, there is an excellent audio version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn available for free on the site Loud Lit.org. The narrator is particularly good with the voices of Jim and Huck, (hear Ch. 2)  and the site provides the page by page text as a “read-along”. The problems of Twain’s use of dialect are minimized once the students can hear the language. Equally good on this site is the audio-text for Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” which we have used in a 9th grade short story unit.

Additionally, YouTube provides a multitude of poetry readings from T.S. Eliot reading his The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock to animated versions of Billy Collin’s poems “The Dead” and “Forgetfulness”.

However,  I still wondered, was I educationally sound in incorporating these audiotexts in the classroom? (pun intended)

The question of audio text vs. written text has been studied for the past 40 years as audiotexts have grown in accessibility and popularity. In 1977, Walter Kintsch and Ely Kozminsky conducted an experiment where “48 college students either listened to or read 3 tape-recorded stories, each about 2,000 words in length. Immediately after processing each story, students wrote a summary in 60–80 words. A comparison of the summaries written after reading with those written after listening revealed only minor differences” (Journal of Educational Psychology).

More recently, a study conducted in 2003 in six high schools in the Northeast posed the question, “Does the use of audio texts with and without a comprehension strategy enhance the content acquisition for high school students with mild cognitive disabilities enrolled in US government classes in self contained settings?” They used audio textbooks and a reading comprehension strategy (SLiCK) and concluded that “that audio text books can be an effective tool to for increasing content acquisition for secondary students with mild disabilities.”  The original hypothesis that the experimental group with the added intervention of SLiCK would out perform the audio book and control group, was not proved since there was no significant difference between the two experimental groups. Instead, the findings suggest “that the use of audio books for students with mild disabilities can improve content acquisition and increase understanding of content on students’ grade level and student independence with reading assignments.” The study was featured in an article (9/12/11) in Forbes by Olga Khazan titled, Is Listening to Audio Books Really the Same as Reading? Khazan suggested that the findings demonstrating the improvement in comprehension need not be limited to students with mild disabilities.

Apparently, how students receive information is not as different as one might think. University of Virginia psychology professor Dan Willingham, was also featured in the Forbes article saying, “There isn’t much individual variance in the way people absorb information.The way this is interpreted is that once you are good at decoding letters into sound, which most of us are by the time we’re in 5th or 6th grade, the comprehension is the same whether it’s spoken or written.”

While the physical text can be helpful for a student to re-read or annotate,  the audiotext can help with the prosody or musicality of words. With a good audiotext, “Someone who knows the meaning can convey a lot through prosody,” Willingham states, “if you’re listening to a poem, the prosody might help you.”  The same is true for reading a play. When we read the play Macbeth in class, I reach for the dramatized audio version (on cassette tape) by Caedmon featuring Anthony Quayle as Macbeth. The students do read the text aloud themselves, but then have an opportunity to hear the play’s lines spoken with the dramatic nuances and intonations that make Shakespeare’s language meaningful.

I am not the only one who weighs whether the written text or audiotext are the same experience. An informal survey (1950 total votes) that was recently organized on Goodreads.com asked:

If you’ve listened to an audiobook, can you say that you have “read” the book? Are they the same?

1.Both equally valid, but different.

915 votes (47%)
2.Yes, they’re essentially interchangeable.

749 votes (38%)
3.No, it’s not the same at all.

286 votes (15%)
While this informal survey indicates that I have the majority of Goodreads readers support the use of the audiotext as a valid way to “read” a text, I am very aware that not all materials are available in audio format. My students still need the ability to read many different types of writing-textbooks, informational texts, forms, etc. as well as the fiction, drama, and poetry taught in the English/language arts classroom. Therefore, in my classrooms, the audiotext is used as a support for a written text, not as a replacement.
My students enjoy hearing a story told to them, not unlike the stories told to them when they were younger, which is not unlike the way stories first began. The audio tradition is not such a technological marvel. The audiotext goes far back, way before written language, when the ancient storyteller was the audiotext. Today, our students are listeners around digital campfires.

2 responses to Written Text or Audiotext in the Classroom? We Should Have Both


    Here at LoudLit.org, we believe that a great number of undiagnosed dyslexics are helped by the combination of text audio. If Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale is correct, 20% of the population has some amount of dyslexia, although it flies below the radar. While it may not be severe enough for the student to fail, it may be enough to keep the student from enjoying great literature because of the effort required.

    Let’s not limit the audio book resource to only those who are diagnosed as having problems.

    Todd Fadoir
    LoudLit.org and teacher at Berkley High School, Berkley, Michigan


      I have come to agree with your statement based on my experiences in the classroom, and I have to restate what a great resource your website has been for us. Thank you for making this available for teachers and students. I need to repeat how great the narration of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is….We now cannot think of teaching the text without your narrator, regardless as to level of our readers.

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