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Not Just for Car Rides:
When to ‘Read’ Kids’ Audiobooks at Home and in the Classroom

by Melissa Taylor

Photo credit: JGI/Tom Grill, Blend Images/Getty Images

Audiobooks are a staple in my family — and they have been since my kids were little. We don’t only listen to them in the car though. In my house, you might see us listening in the kitchen while snacking, in the bedrooms while drawing, or in the living room while putting together a puzzle. And these aren’t just fluff activities. As a teacher and a mom, I’ve found that audiobooks can be used in a variety of settings for specific learning purposes both at home and in the classroom.

Before I get to that, let me explain how audiobooks count as “real” reading. Listening to a story, just like reading one, requires children to use reading comprehension skills. Listeners make connections, visualize, determine importance, make predictions, ask questions, and synthesize. Do not exclude the experience as authentic reading just because children aren’t reading with their eyes and decoding the words.

Listening to Kids’ Audiobooks at Home

So if it counts as reading, how do you use audiobooks at home? First, you need access to books. Download audiobooks electronically on devices via Apple BooksAudible, Audiobooks.com, Google Play, and Libro.fm, or by using the Overdrive Libby app. Buy or borrow a CD audiobook or an all-in-one Playaway from the bookstore or library.

Here are four ideas for listening to kids’ audiobooks at home:

During Quiet Time

When my kids stopped napping, I realized that they could still have quiet time in their rooms with an audiobook. They could play, draw, build, and move while listening to stories. This practiced their listening skills as well as built background knowledge and vocabulary.

At Bedtime

Then there is bedtime. Since I don’t want to miss a day of reading out loud to my kids, audiobooks can pinch-hit as bedtime stories on those I’m-going-to-fall-asleep-while-reading nights. We don’t use them every night, of course, but I consider them helpful backup.

To Get Assigned Reading from School Done

As you know, elementary and middle school teachers often assign nightly reading minutes. Try an audiobook some days. My kids do — and it’s okay with their teachers. Most teachers (not all) allow audiobooks to count as minutes read. Check with your child’s teacher to be sure.

Then there are those dreaded assigned books. Kids don’t generally get excited to read books they haven’t personally chosen — my oldest daughter included. For her and kids like her, listening to assigned books on audiobooks gets the reading done (phew!) and makes the experience less awful, even if they have to go back to the physical book to do the annotations.

To Tackle Harder Books

When an assigned book or even a book a child wants to read on their own is too challenging to comprehend, listen to it instead. This works because a child’s listening comprehension is almost always more advanced than their visual reading comprehension. I’d also suggest this as an option for books written in old-fashioned language or dialect.

Using Kids’ Audiobooks in the Classroom

I’m in awe of the teachers and librarians who creatively work within limited budgets to give kids access to audiobooks. They’ll use Overdrive, Audible, Epic, or Tales 2 Go to provide the books. Then kids will listen on computers, phones, iPods, or iPads.

Here are three ideas for when to use audiobooks in the classroom:

To Increase the Number of Books Read

In the classroom, some teachers alternate between reading by sight and reading by ear. This benefits all kids. Just like any reading of books, it builds vocabulary, improves writing skills, develops concentration, increases an understanding of self and the world, grows imaginations, and improves school achievement.

For children who don’t speak English as their first language, aren’t enthusiastic readers, or have slower processing speeds, listening to books can dramatically increase their time spent in books. Take my oldest daughter, who has a slow processing speed. For her, reading books is cumbersome — it takes forever. However, reading by ear allows her to read more. (Interestingly enough, she’ll often read the physical book after she’s listened to it.)

To Model Fluency

Just like reading aloud to kids models oral reading fluency, listening to audiobooks does it, too. It’s particularly delightful when the author reads their books as Mary Pope Osborne does for her Magic Tree House series.

As kids listen, they’ll hear the narrator’s pauses, loud and soft places, and different voices for dialogue. Ask kids to evaluate the narrator’s inflection. Do they like the narrator’s style or do they find it unappealing? Why? This analysis adds another layer of thinking skills to the listening experience. Then have kids practice their own oral fluency by making their own audiobook. (If they’re reading a picture book, do a video recording so they can show the illustrations.)

As a Gateway to Different Books and Genres

When readers prefer a specific genre or format, audiobooks can introduce them to other types of stories. I had a fifth grade student who only read nonfiction (mostly the encyclopedia!) but when she and some classmates listened to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, it opened her eyes to the possibilities of chapter books. (Thank you, audiobooks!) The same goes for kids who are addicted to fantasy but haven’t tried historical fiction or sci-fi. In many instances, audiobooks can spark an interest in reading new genres.

Any audiobook is a great place to start, but you can find our favorite audiobook recommendations here.