Before Gutenberg’s printing press brought books into the reach of ordinary folks, books were a rarity and most people were illiterate. There were storytellers who would earn a meal and a place to stay for the night by reciting tales of faraway places, or perhaps just stories based on the gossip (um, news) of some neighbouring town. The history of a people was kept as an oral tradition, which the elders repeated to the youth at appropriate moments until the young folk had committed the stories to memory. Storytelling was a necessity as much as it was an art, and listening to a story told was perhaps an art too.
Today we hear claims that nobody reads books anymore. We certainly all know at least one child who has grown so used to being bombarded with multimedia input that the only books they want to even consider opening are flashy and colourful, and come with a CD stuck in a little envelope inside the back cover. And so, our kids are now at risk of losing out on all the wonderful literature out there – on Tom Sawyer and Heidi and The Secret Garden, on writers like Shakespeare and Nesbit and Carroll – simply because their “packaging” isn’t glitzy enough and because kids look at a pageful of text thinking that nothing interesting could possibly happen in those plain old rows of black print.
Seeing with Your Ears….
If getting your kids to pick up a book is a challenge, consider using audiobooks. This format can sometimes seem like less work, and kids who “hate reading” will more readily accept an audio-book. It is also a way to reconnect with the past, to the time when books were not accessible to most people. Finally, audio-books give children access to great literature before they can read the books by themselves.
Rich, descriptive language pulls kids into a narrative. In the absence of all the multimedia glitz we have come to accept as part of our era, children not only to attend but learn to stretch their imaginations. They begin to “see with their ears,” to create images in their mind’s eye as they listen to the story. Great literature that neither talks down to them nor oversimplifies, opens doors on the past, on science, on places far away or simply on things that could be.
Daily Reading: Children Benefit from Listening Too!
Reading experts tell us that a child can improve his reading skills from just ten minutes of reading a day, and that he will enjoy the benefit even if he is read to instead of putting his own reading skills into practice. While I would never suggest that we make it a habit to plop our kids down with a CD player instead of giving them good books, or that we substitute a prepared reading for the stories we share with our children, I have found that sometimes using an audio-book can pique a child’s interest in a story he previously considered boring. In a homeschool setting or at homework time, when there are several children needing help with reading and other academic activities, an audio recording can be a blessing that helps to stretch a parents’ time ad energy that little bit farther.
Listening together, to a story that was produced to be heard, can be a special moment for parents and children too. There are numerous ways to make use of audio-books: listen together while following along in a printed book; listen in the car while running errands, or at home while preparing meals or folding laundry; act out a familiar narrative while it plays; listen during snacktime or before bed. And of course, audio-books are a critical tool for individuals who are visually impaired or living with a specific learning disability that makes reading difficult. They can be a help for adult literacy students, too. Struggling with reading is no reason a person should be deprived of great literature!
We have often stretched our learning day by listening to our history reading while eating our snack. As Charlotte Mason noted in her discussion of recitation, children whose minds are otherwise engaged while hearing the reading tend to retain better. Narrations (oral summaries told after hearing a text) after snack time turned out to be some of our best!
Sources of Affordable Audio-Books
Audio-books do tend to be more expensive than those in print, and kids need a good supply of books. In today’s economy, keeping one child well supplied can be a challenge; families with several children will find it next to impossible. The first and sometimes best resource for professionally produced audio books is your local library. Most libraries today have a special section just for audio-books, and there are also multi-media sections that offer books that come in a set with audio CD’s or CD-ROM’s.
Online, there are several sites that offer free audio-books for download, or as a podcast. One of my favourites for this is LibriVox, although there are a number of other sites that also offer free audio, some specializing in literature for children.
LibriVox is a grassroots initiative, run by volunteers and distributing public domain materials. For those who would like to learn a little about the production of an audio-book, volunteers are always needed to record texts or to “proof-listen” to recorded texts before they are released. Children are fascinated with the possibility of recording their own voices, and volunteering to read a chapter of a book may prove an excellent incentive for working on reading skills! This is also an opportunity for the whole family to work on a project together, and for children to do some community service.
The children’s collection at LibriVox is a great place to start looking for suitable audio-books. There are also collections for teens and young adults, collections of fairy tales, humour, horror, poetry, instructional materials, science fiction, and much more. There is always a link to the public domain text at partner site, Project Gutenberg, and very often a link to the author’s online biography. This allows the educator to discuss not only the narrative, but also the writer and the context in which the piece was written. Whether the goal be simply an informal discussion with one or two children, or a formal lesson plan for a larger group, the necessary resources are only a click away.
Audio-books are only one of several tools to promote literacy, vocabulary development and love of reading in children and teens, but they are a very effective one. Besides engaging unwilling readers, they allow younger children to enjoy works that are written above their reading level (for example the Beatrix Potter books, whose difficulty puts them out of reach to readers below the fifth grade.) They are also a great way to squeeze an extra reading in when the family is busy running from one activity to another. While commercially produced audio-books may be out of reach except for an occasional treat free public domain books are available in digital audio format, bringing a whole world of great literature into every child’s home.
“10 Minutes a Day” New Castle City Council
Home Education, Volume I; Chapter VII- Recitation, Charlotte Mason