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Audiobooks are playing an increasing role in the teaching of reading

Any school-day morning, you'll find youngsters at the Samuel Mason Elementary School in Roxbury, Mass., clustered around tape recorders listening to stories and reading along.

Audiobooks, or books-on-cassette, are an important part of the school's curriculum. Some 23 percent of the pupils come from homes where English is not spoken.

Principal Mary Russo says extensive use of audiobooks helps even the youngest children develop listening skills. This is important at Mason Elementary School, which has an early childhood program that helps preschool children prepare for academic success.

Here, children as young as 3 can listen to tapes and check out cassettes and matching books. When these littlest "readers" return their tapes and books, they're asked to report to their peers what they liked best about the stories.

Older children are developing listening, reading, and writing skills. Ms. Russo says, "Hearing the cadence of language as it is read helps the pupils when it comes to writing." While this is true for all students, it is considered especially important for students who do not have English as their primary language.

Students in the upper grades at Mason Elementary listen to taped "Cliff Hangers.'' Here, only a portion of the book is taped, and the tape stops at a very exciting point in the story. Then, pupils have to read - pick up the book and turn the pages - to find out how the story ends. Russo says one of the most satisfying moments for her staff comes when a student eagerly asks, "When can I get that book?"

Audiobooks are not just for elementary school students, says Preston Wilson, an English teacher at Auburn High School in upstate New York. For American literature, Mr. Wilson asked three classes of 11th graders to listen to an unabridged version of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman," by Ernest J. Gaines. "There was the silence," he says, "of attentive listening. Listening - really listening - is hard work. Audiotapes are not the lazy way to approach literature." Wilson points out that hearing a well-read book - or "well-performed" work as he likes to call it - is an emotional experience. "We're going for the hearts and spirits," he says.

Audiobooks can be used successfully with English as a second language students, reluctant readers, remedial readers, and students with special needs, as well as regular or advanced students. The use of audiobooks is limited only by one's imagination, and imagination is one quality that may well be developed by listening to books on cassettes.

Audiobooks for family use

Everyone agrees that reading aloud to children is good. But many families are hard pressed to find enough time to do much of it. That's when books on audiocassettes can come to the rescue like a high-tech Mary Poppins.

Although audiobooks can never replace a live reader, tapes can be a powerful ally in developing and maintaining children's interest in stories and books. Taped books can provide children with a good story, a professional reader or narrator, and often sound effects and music for additional drama.

Everyone in the family - from infants to commuting parents - can enjoy audiobooks. Babies can benefit from vocabulary-rich tapes of simple stories or nursery rhymes. Nursery and grade schoolers can listen to books that are well beyond their reading ability. Middle and high schoolers can listen to the classics or young adult novels assigned in school. And parents can catch up on their own "reading," or use commuting time to listen to what their kids are reading - or at least hearing.

Many choices

Children's audiobooks are available alone or packaged with a book, and can be abridged or unabridged. Each has advantages: Stand-alones and abridged versions are less expensive; unabridged versions maintain the integrity of the original text; and book-and-tape combinations allow for reading along. All are available from audio or book stores, catalogs, or libraries.

Once a child is old enough to operate a tape recorder, he or she can start selecting stories, which increases listening, and in some cases reading, independence. A child can use tapes when waiting for dinner; when Mom and Dad aren't available to read but don't want the TV on; or at night under the covers.

By rewinding and pressing "play" again and again, children can often satisfy a yearning for story repetition far beyond a what a parent could tolerate. Older children and teenagers, during bus rides or other commutes to school, can always listen to a good book.

Listening as a group can be a valuable way to spend the joint commuting time in the family "taxi." Family trips are also an ideal time to share audiotapes. Family members may enjoy gathering in the living room and listening together to audiotaped stories. The cassette player can be turned off anytime listeners want to discuss interesting points or raise questions.

TIPS FOR SELECTING AUDIOBOOKS FOR KIDS

Consider these questions when selecting an audiobook for your child:

Do you want an abridged or an unabridged version? Abridged or edited tapes will be shorter and less costly than unabridged versions, but unabridged tapes will give you the complete text.

Do you want just a tape or a book-and-tape combination? Stand-alones are cheaper, but a book-tape combo allows for reading along.

Is the narrator's voice and reading style appropriate for the story? Children will want to listen to a voice that matches the type of story they are hearing. And parents will want to make sure the voice isn't grating (since you may be hearing it more often than you think). Many tapes are narrated by well-known people, so it's not too difficult to decide if the voice is right.

Will the audiobook hold up to use? Check to see if the tape comes in a protective case. Look for well-constructed plastic cassette and recording tape.

Are you buying the tape from a reputable company? Most companies will not accept an audiobook return once the package has been opened. Nevertheless, it's best to deal with a company that will try to resolve difficulties with your purchase if the product is defective or unsatisfactory.

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