Listening While Reading

Photo of three students reading while listening

It is common knowledge that students have individual strengths and weaknesses. Teachers use this knowledge to provide instruction and content through a variety of modalities. Despite our very best efforts to differentiate instruction and provide diverse learning opportunities, students still frequently need to acquire information from print. For students who struggle with reading, this is a daunting task that is often met with failure. Often, these students are often seen as “lazy” or “slow” because they cannot read like their peers who do not struggle with reading. In fact, these students work harder than their peers at reading. Decoding does not come automatically but rather is laborious and protracted. Because these students must decode every word, one at a time, they often lose the gist of what they are reading. It’s not that they can’t understand the content; they just have a barrier in their way — the printed word. With this barrier, learning is blocked. Remove the barrier and learning is possible.

Providing Supported Reading

All educators want their students to learn. Statewide standards and “high-stakes” tests compel teachers to find a way to make the curriculum accessible to all students. With so many standards focusing on reading comprehension, reading and responding in writing and research, finding a way to provide access to the printed word is imperative. This is where supported reading becomes invaluable.

Supported reading is reading with the support of recorded materials. Individuals read along with the novels or textbooks while they listen to the verbatim recording of the same material. When students are engaged in supported reading, they no longer have to labor over every word. Instead, they can read at a comfortable pace that allows them to acquire the information contained in the text. Because the printed material is recorded, students can not only read the assigned text, they can re-read it — something struggling readers generally do not do.

Who benefits from supported reading?

Any individual who struggles to read the printed word can benefit from supported reading. This includes individuals who:

  • Have learning disabilities related to reading
  • Are blind or have visual impairments
  • Are speech and language delayed
  • Have physical disabilities or medical conditions that prevent them from manipulating text, such as cerebral palsy
  • Are auditory learners

Some educators have expressed concerns that supported reading provides an unfair advantage over individuals who are reading printed text without support. By providing access to the written word, supported reading makes learning possible, but not easier. Students still have to go through the same processes to learn the material as their peers who don’t struggle with print. Essentially, supported reading levels the playing field for students who cannot read print.

Overall Benefits of Supported Listening

When the barrier to print is removed, individuals who use supported reading experience many benefits. Quantitative and anecdotal evidence suggests that supported reading can:

  • Photo of male student reading a textbook while using a playback device as female student looks onImprove listening skills
  • Increase vocabulary
  • Improve word recognition skills
  • Improve comprehension skills
  • Teach the proper pronunciation of words.

Furthermore, supported reading provides a model of fluent reading, something that individuals who struggle with reading lack in their own repertoire of skills. Finally, supported reading enables students to read the same grade-level material as their peers. There is no “watering down” of the curriculum or the information students are expected to know.

Benefits of supported listening to fiction

Supported listening allows individuals who cannot read print to truly enjoy a work of fiction. Supported reading allows individuals to experience reading as pleasurable rather than something that must be endured. As they no longer struggle with every word, individuals who cannot read print are able to appreciate all of the elements of a novel. With supported reading, individuals can:

  • Experience the author’s style by hearing their word choice, sentence phrasing, and character and setting descriptions as originally written
  • Develop a sense of narrative structure
  • Learn to "see" a story by visualizing the narrative rather than relying on illustrations
  • Deepen their understanding of the diverse ways in which language conveys meaning
  • Experience a variety of genres and build an understanding of their specific elements
  • Develop personal reading preferences through exposure to different genres
  • Gain independence because they can listen to a novel straight through, from beginning to end without the help of parent, teacher or other reader

Benefits of supported listening to non-fiction

Supported listening makes it possible for individuals who cannot read standard print to access content at the same time as their peers. It takes the focus off of struggling to read the words and allows student to simply focus on learning new information. Students can use supported listening for non-fiction content by:

  • Previewing a textbook: Generally, individuals who struggle with print approach reading a textbook the same way they read novels. They begin at page 1 and attempt to read the textbook all the way through. Classroom instruction rarely tackles textbooks in this manner. Teachers jump around, assigning chapters as they correspond to the curriculum. Teachers also spend time instructing students how to preview the assigned material, in order to give them a framework for reading. Students are instructed to look at chapter headings and sub-headings, examine illustrations and preview the questions at the end of the chapter. Some supported listening materials allow students to navigate the recording like a printed book, jumping to specific pages and skipping through chapter headings and sub-headings. Students who use these supported listening materials are able to have the same framework for reading as their peers who don’t struggle with reading print.
  • Acquiring content: Perhaps the biggest benefit of supported listening to nonfiction is the ability to acquire the information from the printed page. Quantitative evidence has shown that specific supported reading tools increase a students’ ability to learn print-related material by 38 percent. The ability to acquire content from written material is particularly important in upper elementary, middle and high school classrooms where the focus shifts from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” Supported listening tools enable students to demonstrate their intellectual ability to comprehend grade-level curriculum.
  • Reviewing materials: In addition to previewing their reading, students who use supported reading for non-fiction are also able to review what they have read. Individuals who struggle with reading generally do not go back and re-read material before a test or quiz—it was difficult enough to read the material the first time! Because supported listening removes the barrier posed by the printed word, students can efficiently and effectively review and re-listen to assignments.
  • Conducting research from multiple sources: Statewide research standards specify that students must be able to gather information from multiple sources. For students who cannot read standard print, gathering information from just one source is a daunting task. Supported listening tools can facilitate research from multiple sources by providing access to the information on the printed page.

Resources for supported reading

There are many resources for supported listening materials. Below are a few organizations and companies that provide supported listening materials.

Public libraries usually carry a selection of audiobooks on cassette tape and CD. These audiobooks are generally novels and best-selling works of non-fiction.

To find supported listening textbooks, reference materials and other school-related materials, including classic and popular fiction materials, visit Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic’s (RFB&D) website at www.rfbd.org. RFB&D is the nation's educational library for people with print disabilities. RFB&D's library contains over 50,000 digital titles in a broad variety of subjects, from literature and history to math and the sciences, at all academic levels, from kindergarten through post-graduate and professional. 

RFB&D's AudioPlus® digitally recorded textbooks on CD provide unprecedented navigation, which allows students to access the content as if it were a printed book. Special playback devices and software enable users to jump to specific pages, preview chapters, place bookmarks and record notes.

RFB&D's AudioPlus downloadable books provide the same navigation and features as AudioPlus books on CD, but are downloaded directly to a computer.

RFB&D's AudioAccessSM downloadable audiobooks provide page-level navigation and can be synced to portable media players; these books allow students to add specific pages of a book to their sync list when syncing a player.

Students rely on RFB&D’s proven effective learning tools to access the printed page and to achieve educational success.

Audible.com is the Internet's leading provider of spoken audio entertainment, information and educational programming. Content from Audible is downloaded and played back on personal computers, CDs or AudibleReady® computer-based mobile devices. Audible has 80,000 hours of audio programs from 270 content partners that include leading audiobook publishers, broadcasters, entertainers, magazine and newspaper publishers, and business information providers. For more information, please visit Audible’s website at www.audible.com

Recorded Books is the world's largest independent publisher and distributor of unabridged audiobooks on cassettes and CDs. Its 6,500 titles are available for rent or to purchase. For more information, please visit Recorded Books’ website at www.RecordedBooks.com

Books on Tape has 3,000 titles of bestselling and hard-to-find unabridged audiobooks. www.BooksonTape.com

The National Library Service’s (NLS) Talking Books is a free library service available to U.S. residents and citizens living abroad whose low vision, blindness, or physical disabilities makes it difficult to read a standard printed page. Local cooperating libraries throughout the United States mail NLS audiobooks, magazines and audio equipment directly to enrollees at no cost. For more information, please visit the Talking Book website at www.nlstalkingbooks.org

Search the Internet for “audiobooks” to find other supported listening materials.