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Why One English Teacher Values the Audiobook

iPod steath reading

Author Amy Huntley shares her thoughts on the “reading or cheating” audiobook debate. What a wonderful boost for educators who integrate audiobooks in their reading & language arts instruction! I’m printing this out to add to my file of audiobook research and forwarding to those who need ammunition in combating resistance to listing to literature. Learn more about Amy, author of The Everafter, in this “Inside the Audiobook Studio” interview.” Thank you so much, Amy, for being today’s guest blogger here at Audiobooker!

Why One English Teacher Values the Audiobook

I’ve long enjoyed listening to audiobooks. Most often I listen to them when I’m in the car, but I also like to listen to them at night as I’m falling asleep. Perhaps that’s a carryover from the very-long-gone days of my childhood when my parents read to me at night. But whatever the reason, I’ve enjoyed listening to stories for a long time.

I have to admit, though, that for years I have—in varying degrees—accepted society’s prejudice against the audiobook, thinking it not quite of the same caliber as the experience of “reading” a written text. I haven’t been nearly as prejudiced as some people, some…Ah-hummm, English teachers. But still, it’s hard to overcome the kind of preference for written text that’s been long embedded in our educational institutions.

I taught a class this past year, though, which pushed through those final barriers of prejudice for me.  I had a group of remedial tenth graders who informed me that they hated to read. They had always hated to read. There was nothing they hated more than reading.  If they’d had the words “loath” and “detest” in their somewhat limited lexicons, I’m sure they’d have emerged among that class’ loud assertions about the evils of reading.

This group of students was also one of the most difficult groups I had ever had when it came to controlling their impulses. They had very little understanding of what a classroom was supposed to be, why it was set up the way it was, or what the purpose of schooling was period. At least for them.

And I discovered that the ONLY tool I had in my teacher toolbox that could calm these students down and get them to stop hurting themselves and others was…to read to them. I’ve often had to read to groups of remedial students over the years. It’s something I love doing. But this group was different. For the survival of everyone in that classroom, I had to do far more reading aloud than usual.

Amazing things happened when I read to this group. They didn’t just listen, although they did do that. They asked questions. They clarified text.  They made predictions. They commented on the choices characters were making. They connected what characters were doing with the choices they made in their own lives.

In short, they were doing everything that “readers” do. Everything that English teachers hope “readers” will do. Even when it got hard.

Toward the end of the year, I finally said to this group, “You know, you guys are readers. You truly are.”

So loud were their angry protestations at being so “misread” by me after ten months of our being together that I thought they would shout me right out the door. I calmed them down enough to explain what readers do when reading. And to point out that they did everyone of those things whenever I read to them.

“Yeah, but that’s not reading,” one of them protested. “We can only do that if you read to us.”

“So what?” I said.  “That’s still reading. You guys love stories. You love hearing them. So listen to them. Read audiobooks. I bet you’ll turn in to lifelong readers.”

“That’s not reading,” they continued to assert.

So strenuously did I have to argue with them about this that the last vestiges of my own prejudice began to disintegrate. I knew I’d obliterated it completely when, in the course of the argument, I said, “Hey, you guys, my sister-in-law is blind. The only access she has to books is audiobooks. She listens to them regularly. All the time. Loves them. We talk about books with each other because she listens to them and I run my eyeballs over the pages. Are you going to tell me that she’s not a ‘reader’?”

They were stumped.

So was I. I’d just argued myself into a whole new way of thinking.

I’m going to work harder at getting all my students to realize that audiobooking is ‘reading’. Maybe I need a new word for the other process—that one where the eyeball scans the page. Maybe that will help break down the walls of prejudice that remain against audiobooking. As a society, we need to allow the word “reading” to apply as much to listening to text as to using our eyes to take it in.  We need to abolish that prejudice that says, “Yeah, but when someone else reads the text to you, they’re interpreting it, so you’re not really having the true reading experience.” Seriously? How did written text get so much status? We don’t hold that prejudice when it comes to attending a play. What’s that if not an interpretation of written text? Did Homer’s listeners think, “Yeah, but he’s interpreting our mythology for us, so this is less valid than if he’d just write it out and let us read it”?

Audiobooking is reading. I want students to read. I want students to have the words “detest” and “loath” in their vocabularies so they can apply it as much to narrow definitions of reading as to anything else they want to. And if they get that from reading audiobooks…


© Amy Huntley, 2009



Posted in: Audiobooks

About the Author:

Mary Burkey is an independent library consultant in Columbus (OH). An enthusiastic audiophile, she has served on all four of ALA's audiobook award committees as well as the Audies. In addition to writing the "Voices in My Head" column for Booklist, she is the author of Audiobooks for Youth: A Practical Guide to Sound Literature (ALA, 2013). Follow her on Twitter at @mburkey.

4 Comments on "Why One English Teacher Values the Audiobook"

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  1.' Eileen Sauer says:

    I am very pleased that you were able to bring story and reading to the kids that need it most. Audio books can be a link to ideas that could help them cope with their life. I know that I am coping with the flu and unable to read right now but I can listen to an audio book to get me by the hard time.

  2.' Kev says:

    Great piece. My life is such that I don’t have the time to read books like I used to. I took a chance on an audiobook about 18 months ago (“Atlas Shrugged” – a heavy start!) and was hooked. Since then I’ve averaged probably 6 audio books a month, when I would have been lucky to get through 1 every six months reading from the page. I listen in the car (I drive a lot), I listen while mowing the lawn (I have a lot of lawn to mow) I listen while running (I run a lot) as well as other mundane tasks that I regard otherwise as wasted time. It takes a bit of practice (a learned skill), but it’s entirely possible to lose oneself in an audiobook. I was formerly a “hard-copy snob”, but I’ll argue vehemently with anyone who says that the literary experience I get from an audio book is not every bit as visceral as turning pages by hand.

  3.' Jeanine Gillikin says:

    Not only was it a pleasure to meet you at today’s audiobook signing at MLA today, but I appreciate that I have a kindred spirit in the ongoing “audiobooks aren’t reading” debate (it’s a friendly one) I have with my 17-yr.-old daughter. Rest assured, she’s getting this blog link emailed to her today! I’m a mother of three children who learn in very different ways. I appreciate the opportunities my now-21-yr.-old son with ADHD had to listen to books when reading the printed page was neither appealing to, nor effective for, him as a middle and high school student. We enjoyed some nice mother-son bonding time by taking turns reading story chapters to each other when he was in middle school. He is now a senior at GVSU, getting increasingly better grades with each passing semester. He wants to go to grad school! Our “discovery” that he learned more through listening was, I believe, a key factor in his academic success as well as his maturing into a passionate and goal-oriented young man!

    Thank you to one English teacher from another English major (and fellow lefty)!

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