Is It Reading?

Posted by Skip Johnson on February 10, 2009

It gets dark outside on a rainy December evening as twelve-year old Edgar sits in his family’s living room and waits for Mom to come home from work.  Dad won’t return until well after midnight from his job as a baggage handler at the airport.

Usually, Edgar would pass such time playing video games or watching television—conveniently forgetting homework and assigned chores.  This evening, however, Jim Dale tunes Edgar into Dicken’s A Christmas Carol via an  iPod Nano. Dale, a professional actor, presents this classic tale in a dramatic and engaging manner that captures Edgar’s attention for over an hour.  His little brother, Raul, sits opposite in an easy chair listening to Frog and Toad wonderfully read by author Arnold Lobel.  Neither boy hears Mom enter the house.  Sensing her presence, they look up, wave with a smile, and continue listening and reading.

On return to school the next morning, Raul enters his classroom, accesses his personal account on Scholastic Reading Counts, and takes a comprehension quiz.  He scores 100%.  Two days later, after finishing A Christmas Carol, Edgar  misses just one question on his 20-question quiz.

Thirty-nine of the 241 students at El Crystal School are enrolled in the Audiobook Program—which we call eCAP. Scholastic Reading Inventory (SRI) scores for most are rising.  Enthusiasm and motivation for reading amongst this small group has  changed profoundly since the introduction of the iPod and the audiobooks.  Edgar is the star as his SRI has gained more than 170 points!

However, is this really reading? Are the students encoding and decoding words? Are they missing some intellectual exercise that influences their thinking and reasoning skills?  Frankly, I do not know.  What I do know is that since we introduced this program in October 2008,  each student in the eCAP Program has doubled his or her reading goal for the year, and we are only halfway to June.

To Read or Not to Read, a 2007 report from the National Endowment for the Arts, details the decline of reading amongst all demographic groups with the steepest drop among young adults in the last 10 to 20 years. The sharp decline in reading is accompanied by negative social, cultural, and economic implications.   The report notes that “Children who start reading for pleasure at an early age are exposed to exponentially higher numbers of new words—and a greater opportunity to develop literacy skills—than children denied early reading experiences.”  Frequent reading is an essential ingredient for building a sophisticated vocabulary.

Hopefully, our eCAP participants are being exposed to new vocabulary words.  To ensure that our eCAP readers focus upon vocabulary we are developing a series of podcasts for each story dealing with its specific vocabulary. We have also purchased a number of commercial study guides for many of the audiobooks.

Is there support for audiobooks in articles and research?One significant and supportive article is Plato Revisited: Learning Through Listening in the Digitial World written by David Rose and Bridget Dalton.  Basically, they explore the scientific difference between hearing and listening and build a strong case for the use of audiobooks with more than just blind and dyslexic students. Jim Trelease, the author of Read Aloud Handbook, advocates using audiobooks.  In her article “As Good as Reading,” Pamela Varley adamantly defends and advocates the use of audiobooks by children.

Recently, the foundation that sponsored our initial eCAP program has offered to supply each student with an iPod and to buy more books!  Should we accept this offer? Will we be ruining the habits of good readers?

So far, I’ve told them we need some time to consider the implications.  Your thoughts, please?