For a struggling reader, should I have him listen or read? This is a question I hear often from parents and teachers alike. On one hand, research has shown that the more a child reads, the more likely he is to grow in his reading skills; on the other hand, if a struggling reader attempts to plod through reading above his level, how much will he understand? What should he do? Listen or read?

The question presented above is a false dichotomy; that is, a struggling reader should both listen AND read. If your child is struggling to read, she should receive extra help in the area of phonemic awareness and/or decoding—wherever the breakdown is occurring. However, what you might find is that the material that she is being asked to read is at her instructional level for sounding out words but is well below her interest and intelligence level. Many decodable books and stories used for phonics instruction are not very interesting because they are written to include certain sets of letter and sound combinations to reinforce the phonics skills. They do not focus on content.

While we want to encourage students to read at the level of his decoding ability, we also want to be sure that we continue to engage him in a love of books and stories, as well as provide material that matches the student’s interest and ability to understand. This is where audiobooks come in. By providing audiobooks that engage his interest, parents and teachers can continue to improve the child’s vocabulary and keep him interested in wanting to learn a skill that is hard for him. Meaningful comprehension strategies can still be taught when a student is listening to a book read aloud.

So when do we use one or the other? When the purpose of the activity is to learn to read, provide the student with materials at her instructional decoding level. The material may not be the most engaging, but the purpose is to boost phonics skills. When the purpose of the activity is to read to learn, allow the student to use a recording to listen to books that match her listening comprehension level. This is especially important when doing research or in the content areas for older students when vocabulary includes multisyllabic, complex words. Instruction to boost students’ skills can be applied in both situations.

Luckily in this age of technology, teachers and parents alike can easily access audio recordings for their students. Many public library systems have a wealth of resources that enable users to access audiobooks, and sites like Audible.com also make this easy. If your child has a documented reading or vision disability, you may also want to consider www.learningally.org, which is a fee-based service that allows unlimited download to its members with disabilities, or www.bookshare.org, which is free for U.S. students with print disabilities.

Parents and teachers do not need to choose between reading and audiobooks. Both can be used for different purposes to enable a struggling reader to learn.

Blogger Stephanie Dunne, Ed.S., is the Center Director at Springer School and Center. Prior to coming to Springer, Stephanie practiced as a school psychologist in public and private schools for ten years. If you have questions, please contact Stephanie at sdunne@springer-ld.org.

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