Audio Learning in Schools

5 Advantages of Audio Learning in Schools

August 15, 2023


Is listening to audio a useful piece of literacy education?  Does it help students become better readers?  Or is it simply a more passive way to consume content, a shortcut that eliminates the work and thus the intellectual exercise and reward of reading?  Unsurprisingly, there is a wealth of available research that looks into this very question.  Perhaps more surprisingly, it turns out that listening to stories builds literacy skills in most of the same ways reading them does.

It makes sense when you think about it a bit.  Human brains haven’t evolved much since we began reading, so the processes that allow us to do it were originally developed for other purposes.  Generally, that other purpose is listening, so there is naturally a great deal of overlap in brain function between the two activities.

Audio learning should not replace reading entirely, of course, but it does provide most of the important benefits of reading, and often offers advantages that reading text does not.

1. Audio contains prosody, for example. Prosody includes tone, stress, rhythm, and intonation—the parts of oral communication beyond the specific units of sound that make up language—and sometimes carries a great deal of information, such as the emotional state of the speaker.  Sarcasm is particularly difficult to communicate through text, for example, but is delivered orally quite clearly.  Students who listen to audio may well have a different emotional reaction or otherwise relate to content delivered via audio differently than if the same material were presented as text.

2. Audio can be useful in introducing students to vocabulary above their reading level.  Students who are still working on decoding or who are learning English may not be able to read beyond a certain level, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are not ready for more advanced vocabulary or to dive in to content that is otherwise more advanced than their current reading level.

3. Similarly, listening to books can help to decrease the “word gap” some students experience.  In their paper, The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3, researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that children whose parents held professional careers heard about 30 million more words by age 3 than their peers whose parents qualified for welfare.  Hart and Risley also found a correlation between the number of words a child hears and their rate of language acquisition.
While audio can’t go back in time and expose early readers to more words in their first few years, it can offer those young students exposure to a wider vocabulary right now, which helps to mitigate the effects of the word gap.

4. Listening to content can also provide a social component to learning that may be lacking when using text-only materials.  While students reading silently at their own pace has its own benefits, listening opens up the possibility of laughing or gasping in surprise together as a group, turning the material into a shared learning journey rather than a more solitary endeavor.

5. Using audio to create a social experience also turns it into a great jumping-off point for discussions of the material, which allows listeners to “share their ideas and negotiate meanings with each other,” wrote Frank Serafini, professor of literacy education and children’s literature at Arizona State University.  These discussions provide opportunities to generate understanding in a community of readers and help readers make sense of the stories they hear. Literature discussions at home and in school extend understanding, clarify misconceptions, and provide young readers with the support necessary for better comprehension.