Audiobooks Bring New Voices To the Classroom

More and more, students and teachers kick back and listen to a good 'read.'

Traditionally, teachers have stood in front of classrooms reading aloud to students. Now, some educators are retreating to the back row and pushing the "play" button instead.

"It's hard to teach [George Orwell's] '1984' because it's kind of stolid, in the beginning especially," says Preston Wilson, an English teacher at Auburn High School in upstate New York.

So Mr. Wilson had his students listen to the first third of the book on tape during class. "Then they read it on their own, and we discussed it in a fairly traditional way," he says. "It emotionally attached them to the book."

A few years ago, his class listened to all of "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman." Even though the book was broken into 40-minute segments, it sustained the students' interest, he says.

Modest numbers of English and drama teachers in middle schools and high schools are regularly using audiobooks as another voice in the classroom. It helps emphasize the storytelling nature of literature, dramatize a scene, or bring a dialect to life, say educators.

"Audiobooks are a powerful reinforcer," says Deborah Murray, a high school English teacher in Portland, Maine. "I am constantly looking for anything new and different that will capture the most students I possibly can." Ms. Murray often plays short stories or sections of audiobooks after students have read the print version. "It's a break from lectures and discussion to say: 'Just put your pencils down, relax, and listen for a bit,' " she says.

The recordings by professional readers engage students better than even the best English teachers could, Murray says. "I wouldn't be able to command the same respect and quiet atmosphere." Using audiobooks in class does have a downside, she says: It eats up a lot of time. So far she has stuck with short stories and chapters from books. But that might change when her school joins the national movement toward "block scheduling" next year. With classes lasting an hour or more, she could imagine devoting about 20 minutes each day to an audiobook.

"Most of us who listen to books on tape in our car have another book on our bedside table," she says. "I think students are capable of juggling two pieces at once."

At Westbrook High School in Maine, students check out personal tape players to hear audiobooks during study hall or lunch. The library has about two dozen unabridged young-adult titles on tape - and five tape players with headphones.

"Our attempt is to catch some kids and motivate them to pick up other print books by the same authors," says librarian Deborah Locke. It's also a great way to build vocabulary, she says.

Since some audiobooks in the library's collection are assigned in class, not all teachers are enamored with the program. "You have to fight that resistance to thinking that somehow the student is getting off easy or cheating by listening to an audiobook instead of reading the words," Ms. Locke says.

With so much competition from TV and the Internet, "we have to use whatever means we can of enhancing the reading experience," she argues.

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