Category Archives: Reading by Ear

Reading by Ear is a series of articles by librarian Francisca Goldsmith discussing audiobooks as a medium through which contemporary readers are invited to explore literary culture, performance arts, and multimodal literacy capacity building. In her thought-provoking, scholarly yet accessible writing, Francisca addresses why audiobook listening expands, rather than derails, our access to literature and the written word. She also takes on the issue of prescribing audiobooks as a ‘print reading’ support versus listening to audiobooks as a way to build information and aesthetic experiences and critical thinking about auditory experiences in their own right.

Francisca has been working in libraries for many years. Her professional background includes services and collections for teens in public and school libraries, for New Americans, and providing reference services and managing collections for adults and teens in public and academic libraries. She has held positions in Collection Management and in Public Services in libraries in the US and Canada. Since 2000, she has provided training through a variety of public and private agencies for library staff. The author of six professional books and contributor to several more, she now works with the Audio Publishers Association’s Sound Learning literacy project and AudioFile Magazine, in addition to other clients.

Audiobooks for Building the Most Essential Communication Skill

Audiobooks have long been used in English-speaking countries to support new language acquisition for immigrant students. Their use in English language teaching in places outside these countries is beginning to take hold, now that digitally available audiobooks allow for more accessibility in secondary and university learning situations.

This month The Journal of Language Teaching and Research has published a new and compelling study of the benefits of “Using Audiobooks for Developing Listening Comprehension among Saudi EFL Preparatory Year Students” (Manal Mohamed Khodary Mohamed, Suez Canal University). The literature review noted in its opening paragraph speaks directly to the role of listening skills in communication success:

Listening is considered the most important language skill for achieving effective communication and good academic achievement among learners. It is a highly integrative skill because it is generally the first skill which learners develop (Oxford, 1993; Vandergrift, 1999). It has been emphasized as an essential component in the Second Language Acquisition (SLA) process (Vandergrift, 2003). It has a great role in the construction of language abilities of a Foreign Language (FL) learner (Rost, 2002). It has acknowledged a great importance in FL classrooms (Richards & Renandya, 2002; Rahimi, 2012). The role and importance of listening in SLA exceeds acquiring meaning from sounds because it does not only mean recognizing the sounds but it also involves detecting, conveying and comprehending the information and it allows comprehending the world and creating social relationships among humans (White, 2006). In spite of the importance of listening, it did not get concern in language teaching for many years (Richards & Renandya, 2002; Nation & Newton, 2009). It was the least understood and the most overlooked of the four skills (Nation & Newton, 2009; Wilson, 2008). Moreover, listening is the most difficult task for learners when they begin to learn a FL and it is the most challenging skill to be developed (Berne, 2004; Vandergrift, 2007).

In addition, then, to the experimental design, methodology of analyzing its results, and the reported results, this paper offers a concise introduction to the value of aural competency and how it can be developed through audiobook listening.

In Celebration of a Compelling Speaker

On 19 July 1962 Martin Luther King Jr became the first African American to speak at the National Press Club. His post-lunch remarks were delivered days after he’d been convicted of participating in a peaceful protest against  segregation in his home state of Georgia.

The Press Club rediscovered tapes of the speech and made them available online in very recent years. They can be downloaded in MP3 format and a transcript s, of course, included.

Build Listening Awareness with Challenges

Omnivorous readers with competitive bones in their bodies (if only to seek a personal best), and librarians and teachers seeking some self-managed professional development, look to reading challenges to stimulate self-accomplishment. Biblioblogs of all sorts publish them to ring in the new year, and the range on offer includes some better suited to relatively neophyte casual readers to those for word warriors. A benefit to many all along this spectrum is the sense of community joining a challenge can bring: who else has taken the challenge? How’s it working out for them? Is there someone among them who can offer support when the reading gets dull? Is there a well-matched super-reader to provide extra motivation for the high-achieving competitor?

A number of these challenges suggest participants take the occasional “challenge” of trying an audiobook. And there are a few audiobook-specific challenges on offer as well. The Caffeinated Reviewer has a well developed one that offers various intensity levels as well as the opportunity to find a listening buddy or buddies. This is a high quality, no-fee skill-building opportunity that can appeal to readers’ advisors, audiobook collection selectors and developers, language arts teachers, and families.

If joining a group doesn’t appeal, this audiobook listening challenge—and many others—can be undertaken independently. All you need is a good supply of audiobooks (library, OpenCulture, anything but piracy, please), listening advice and recommendations, and a will to listen more, and more deeply.

End of the Year Listening

This week we take a half-step east of audiobooks per se to listen to recordings of live performances by a poet and a comedian. Both expressive forms are intended for auditory consumption and, in these selected cases, offer a shot of wry retrospective to go with current day events.

First up, Allen Ginsberg—Beat poet, comfortable performance artist, and more truthsayer than the provocateur he was accused of being—reads America. From atom bomb talk to TIME Magazine obsessing, this over-60-year-old invocation of the United States as hazard zone currently requires no historical explanation even to those a quarter of the poem’s age.

George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine, here as recorded in “Occupation Foole,” recorded in 1973, tracks the words involved in what became a First Amendment case arising when Carlin was arrested the previous year for speaking seven particular words aloud to an audience during his comedy performance. Last week’s news about a demand made of the Centers for Disease Control by Executive Office policy analysts included a different set of words, and yet the number of them—seven—puts a nearly biblical twist on US government suppression of vocabulary choices.

Among the delights of listening to such recordings is hearing the speaker’s actual delivery. This is a far cry from being left to read what a student wrote down as he heard Plato speak. We hear the places that matter to the speaker, even under the audience’s responding laughter. The leverage of direct access to intonation and pacing proves to be more than extra; in these two cases, the speakers’ good humor can give us some hope in light-heartedness itself.

AudioFile Magazine Names Best Nonfiction & Culture Audiobooks 2017

This is the season when “best” lists bloom like gardens in spring and understanding who declares a publication as best of the year is the first step to deciding why that declaration deserves what amount of attention. Since AudioFile Magazine is the only publication that has been reviewing audiobooks only, and for 25 years, the accumulated experiences of their editors and reviewers puts them in the lead for a demonstrated capacity to judge the best from a year’s output of new audiobooks. AudioFile’s reviews concern themselves with the specifically audio format of the presentation: narration quality, suitability of the written work to audio performance, and directional and engineering attention during the publication process.

This year’s list of more than 100 best audiobooks is divided into topical areas, with Nonfiction and Culture audiobooks accounting for 11 titles on the full list. From the mathematical and molecular delights in the history of CAESAR’S LAST BREATH, written by Sam Kean and read by Ben Sullivan, through the all-the-rage Danish cosy movement discussed in THE LITTLE BOOK OF HYGGE, written and read by Meik Wiking, to the fascination with language shared in WORD BY WORD, written and read by Kory Stamper, this category of Best Audiobooks offers delight for the omnivorous autodidact as well as for listeners seeking comfort or advice. There’s comedy in Paula Poundstone reading her own THE TOTALLY UNSCIENTIFIC STUDY OF THE SEARCH FOR HUMAN HAPPINESS. Contemproary racial bias in policing is examined in journalist Matt Taibbi’s I CAN’T BREATHE, read by Dominic Hoffman. Personal and professional development take center stage in OWN IT by Sallie Krawcheck, read by Ellen Archer, and FINISH written and read by Jon Acuff. Continue reading AudioFile Magazine Names Best Nonfiction & Culture Audiobooks 2017

#GivingThanks for Digital Audiobooks

In the opening scene of the new and Sacramento-hatred-drenched movie Lady Bird, the title character and her mother are listening to the closing 30 seconds or so of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath while driving on an August hot highway. They each shed a tear as the audiobook ends and then teenaged Lady Bird pops the cassette—the final of about 20—from the car player and back into its rigid, made-to-crack plastic shell. It’s 2002 and this is how most listeners handle audiobooks. Continue reading #GivingThanks for Digital Audiobooks

Listening to Speak Well

November 19th marked the 154th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln delivering his Gettysburg Address, an event that, of course, was not recorded by any mechanical means. However, because of its brevity, powerful prosody, and stark imagery, it continues to live not just as a document but also as script for oral performance.

The flip side of listening to read is listening to learn how to speak, and listening to stellar deliveries of careful language choices to learn to speak well, compellingly, and clearly in terms of conceptual communication. Without practiced listening skills, speakers lag in oral communication skills, a situation that can lead to frustration, alienation, and exclusion from power.

While the writing of Presidential speeches has evolved over time to comport more popular styles of grammar, phrasing and word choices, how we experience them has also changed. We tend to read them in full and listen to only moments of the whole. Often that listening, truncated as it is, also comes via video and thus invites visual appraisal of postures, faces, and other details beyond the spoken words. Except for those who elect to join forensics teams or involve themselves in school drama departments, young students now rarely, and most never, have the opportunity to experience delivering speeches or master communication intended to be heard (beyond music).

After millennia of human ideas and ideals being shaped aloud, are we now in the Age of Unspeaking?

StoryCorps and the Great Thanksgiving Listen

Besides engaging with what authors and performers have created through audiobooks, the sound of storytelling extends to creating and listening to family stories, neighborhood stories, captured memories of unwritten, and otherwise unscripted, events, and conversations. The work of StoryCorps addresses this by providing both structure for and preservation of such recordings. Recordings made in StoryCorps booths, which pop up around the country on well publicized schedules, are accepted by the Library of Congress as part of the American archives of cultural and popular history. StoryCorps has won a variety of humanities distinctions, including the Peabody Award (2007).

For several years, StoryCorps has been promoting The Great Thanksgiving Listen, a guided opportunity for those gathered with multiple generations to celebrate the holiday. With the goal of creating “a culture of listening,” this effort points directly to the power of listening in communication, intergenerational honor, and understanding. Directions are specific, simple to follow, and require virtually nothing to attain satisfying results. The event is suggested for families, classes of all ages, and neighborhood gathering places. Continue reading StoryCorps and the Great Thanksgiving Listen

Literary Awards Season Disambiguates Writing from Performing

This is the high season for literary award announcements, from the international Nobel Laureate to the Mystery Writers of America’s Anthony Awards. In between come plaudits for the best writing in everything from investigative journalism to lifetime achievement in military literature. Many such award winners have had previous titles recorded as audiobooks; some have the winning title already available in audio format; a few will remain unrecorded, at least in the foreseeable future.

Does a satisfying, literary award-winning book automatically translate into a great listen? This is like asking whether a fantastic cake recipe can be made into delightful cookies. Maybe. Sometimes. It depends on factors that have nothing to do with the print work—the quality of the narrators’ performance, sound engineering care—and a few that do, in fact, connect to what the book is, how the author treats both language and prosody, and whether the content makes sense aloud. Continue reading Literary Awards Season Disambiguates Writing from Performing

Book a Free Skype Visit with a Narrator

The Audio Publishers Association coordinates a literacy initiative, Sound Learning APA, to collect and disseminate research and guidance in support of multimodal literacy. The initiative is run by volunteers with professional backgrounds in teaching, library service, and audiobook distribution and publishing. While the first years of Sound Learning efforts concentrated on collecting and organizing bibliographies and audiographies and publicizing their availability, with other supportive news, through Twitter and Facebook, a new phase is now underway.

A variety of professional narrators, featuring those with backgrounds in teaching, theater direction, and coaching, have also volunteered to become active in Sound Learning’s efforts. Librarians, teachers, and coordinators of book groups or other clubs can now contact Sound Learning to arrange for a free Skype visit with a narrator matched to their needs. (Use “Narrator Skype visit inquiry” as the subject line when emailing). Continue reading Book a Free Skype Visit with a Narrator

Opening the Mind’s Eye

Reading by ear allows for a variety of other activities likely to require sight—running, driving, frosting birthday cakes—or no physical access to sight at all—after all, American audiobook publishing was born of the needs of blind readers. However, as with most things in life, there is a middle way: the opportunity for the sighted, or those with memory of the capacity to engage the world with their eyes, to use no organ other than ears and imagination to conjure the visual elements of what is being read. Eyes can be closed so that even the more or less automatic use of physical vision to track print across a page or screen comes out of play.

To read with the ears in this state of unaccompanied eye input is to give an open field to the images and colors the words and phrasings themselves evoke in the mind. This allows the full measure of works rich in such visual recreations to take center stage within, an experience that can be, in seriousness as well as punnery, heady and exhilarating.

Photo by Irina of Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk

A fine example of this involves an anthology of short stories commissioned to celebrate individual paintings by Edward Hopper. In Sunlight or In Shadow (print Pegasus Books, 2016) was a project of author and demonstrably gifted anthology editor Lawrence Block and comprises 17 short stories by the likes of Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Levin, and other well known, critically acclaimed authors. Reading these tales of cravenness, fantastical mystery, and regret would be a rich experience in itself. Continue reading Opening the Mind’s Eye

#audiobookwish X 4

An underutilized hashtag on Twitter points up the books readers wish would migrate into listening format. Some are new titles, many are never-bestsellers that can still be found readily in current print editions, several tagged posts point up the dearth of titles representing affinity groups. Here’s a sampler of what and why readers want to push against the boundaries of audiobook publishing’s current offerings.

#audiobookwish Practice inclusivity in romance, both in print and in audio editions

While it came as no surprise to romance writers of color–nor to many readers of color as well as some who are white–last week’s publication of the Ripped Bodice bookstore’s report “The State of Racial Diversity in Romance Publishing, 2016” confirms that the disparity between both writer demographics and publishing attainment is wide. In fact, the romance genre also relies on small publishers to bring out any titles featuring romantic characters who are anywhere in the LGBTQIA family as well. Breaking down that print availability even further, we find an audiobook world in which virtually everyone is white and straight—unless it’s a teen title (both It’s Not Like It’s a Secret and If I Was Your Girl went to audio quickly, for example, and various youth award winning print titles are made into audiobooks ahead of the literary awards they earn). Continue reading #audiobookwish X 4

Publishing and bibliographic jobs below the radar

Some years ago, I was impressed by a speaker at a youth enrichment services providers roundtable who came from a vocational training background and currently worked in publishing house dealing mostly with career preparation materials. The materials she shared included, surprisingly to most of us gathered, board books for toddlers as well as interactive books for older children. These were not the “When I grow up, I want to be a firefighter” flavor: instead, they exposed kids to the actual doing of things that could eventually engage their interests in jobs beyond the Top 10 every high school student recognizes as the likely “only” options.*

A few industries are good—usually at the behest of union pressure—about exposing the fact of certain jobs existing. Think about the rolling credits after a movie. While such denominating for public view doesn’t explain what exactly the key grip or best boy does functionally, the job titles are there. And there are jobs called out in the credits as well that make intuitive sense while not, more than likely, getting much air time when the conversation turns to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Once it’s noted as a possibility, however, costume designer strikes a chord that could turn into a wholly satisfying career. Continue reading Publishing and bibliographic jobs below the radar

Hearing the Unacceptable

The not-quite-well-named Banned Books Week is upon us again, with the annual ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom’s collection of books most frequently named in community-level challenges to fittedness for someone other than the complainant and their own children to read. This year’s list has the typical earmarks of negativity aimed at books that speak to kids at those scary ages when they are demonstrating a new level of independence from parental control: the newly minted kindergartener, the middle schooler entering adolescence, the not-quite-out-of-the-house teen who can get out and about readily without parental assist. The remainder of the Top 10 Troublemakers speaks to the American shadow disposition of Puritanism: the frank recognition of sexual behaviors, the use of proscribed language, and authorship by someone later charged with crimes.

Calling out issues of intellectual freedom regarding specifically audiobook content has, at the level of national attention, been rooted in content that remains identical between print and spoken formats, with challengers who are cited objecting to the same works in audiobook as in print and for the same reasons. Five years ago, Professor Teri LeSesne predicted the likelihood of growth in the audiobook challenge industry, again noting works in trouble due to what the authors wrote, not to hearing-specific aspect of the written. As more audiobooks are produced and available, and with audiobook publishing for children and youth—the primary targets of books that meet community challenges—reflecting new and critically reviewed authors and print works, it becomes increasingly easy to find audiobook editions of titles on the list of troublemaking titles. Continue reading Hearing the Unacceptable

Page to Stage, with Every Attributive

For nearly a quarter century, the actors’ troupe Word for Word has been staging narrative stories and chapters, with every word of the author’s original maintained and spoken by the actors. With several different productions each season, they’ve shown how such written-for-the-page as Edith Wharton’s short story “Xingu” and the opening chapter , “The Ride,” of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!. Contemporary authors are well represented as well, with Colm Töibín’s “Silence” on the boards this year and past performances of Dorothy Bryant, Angela Carter, Sandra Cisneros, David Handler, and Alice Munro among many others. Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambara, Bernard Malamud, Rudyard Kipling, and Armistead Maupin also have gone from page to stage with the every-word treatment Word for Word employs in its dramatizations.

Continue reading Page to Stage, with Every Attributive

Who’s Testing Listening Comprehension?

With the new K-12 school year under way or on the verge, American elementary and middle school administrators are focused on “proving” that the kids in their districts are learning or “know” how to read. Several corporate entrepreneurs are on board to continue to make money through mass, data-driven program packages that administrators buy as a demonstration that care is being taken to “prove” kids are able to think about what they read. Lexile® leveling and Renaissance’s Accelerated Reading programs are probably the ones most commonly recognized both by families and library staff who are regularly asked to find books that respond to company profiles created of their students.

Individual student Lexile assessments are drawn from state testing results. The circularity is obvious and is discussed at length and critically in scholarly and popular publications. Renaissance’s Star Reading™ assessments are presented as “guiding” developing readers through increased skill levels by diagnosing their readiness through prepackaged tests. This approach, of course, has, like Lexiling, its proponents, as well as an increasingly voluble number of professional detractors. Continue reading Who’s Testing Listening Comprehension?

When teachers forget how to listen

With the new American school year either poised to open or already entering its fifth or sixth day (depending on local practices), many classrooms are hearing the voice of just one of the room’s occupants. Teachers need to manage both their students’ learning opportunities and their interactive behaviors and, most typically, this is achieved in the 21st century by word of mouth: orally delivered directions, admonitions, and that warning shot of calling out a particular student by name.

Or calling out some syllables that the teacher is has decided suits the need for a name as well as does the actual name of the student. In the multilingual, multiethnic classrooms—and even in the comparatively homogenous one in which not everyone bears a three- to five-letter moniker shared by generations of English speakers—the expert in what to call the students isn’t the teacher. The wise would-be classroom manager simply asks. And then listens to what the student with eleven syllables and only four consonants pronounces.

Continue reading When teachers forget how to listen

Expressions, Impressions

Just as authored, edited, and mass produced books comprise only one segment of the to-be-read universe, audiobooks are not alone in what we can read by ear. We’ve long tuned into broadcast events—live sports, journalists’ reports, opinions and performances—and we negotiate our daily public lives as much by attending to ambient aural messages as to signs and written directions.

With digital preservation and dissemination broadening its capacious notice of aural resources, there is a growing wealth of sound archives that carry “reader” content. The Quietus (http://thequietus.com) offers a fine point of entry into this world of expressive sounds. Earlier this month, the site launched an interactive archives of contemporary Protest Sound. Take a journey on your own, or include this in lower and upper division political science course curricula. Protest & Politics (http://citiesandmemory.com/protest/) gives access to international expressions of government dissent, with the ability to key sound to geography, and a tutorial on different forms of protest. Specific tracks recorded at protest events vary in length and most are long enough to give listeners contextual sounds as a bed for the intentional messaging. Continue reading Expressions, Impressions

Laughing to Learn

Humor is a powerful force that can be put to work in advancing understanding. Whether it’s the witty raconteur of a math professor who knows how to create enlightenment through lighthearted comparisons or the final bridge from one’s native language to arriving at a sense of full comfort in an acquired one, the opportunity to laugh provides heavy lifting of external information to internal grasp.

Of course, both humor and tastes in humor vary widely, expanding from visual slapstick to arch punning. The sorts that rely on transmission through language make readily available material for listening readers in search of learning as well as casual entertainment. To be successful on either or both counts, such audiobooks rely heavily on both careful writing and fine acting. Evident humor must expand subject comprehension rather than making it obscure or distasteful to those who might be put off by extreme argot or shocking imagery; while these can themselves be put to good entertainment services, they can also raise defenses among many listeners and thus make learning unlikely.
Continue reading Laughing to Learn

The Natural Listening Literacy Diet

Mark Schatzker’s popular science book, The Dorito Effect (audiobook edition read by Chris Patton for Dreamscape Media, 2015) delves into the industrial hijacking of our concepts of natural flavors. This has been the order of the modern American food chain in an effort to expedite a shorter cycle of both plant and animal life from birth to table, increase shelf life of prepared foodstuffs, and tease taste buds with dramatic sensations that encourage more snacking. In short, the modern favor cupboard relies on predictability in exposure: every bag of salt and vinegar crisps will offer uniform tang and crunch. And that disposition isn’t reserved only for the foods our bodies both need and crave. We’ve put too many minds on market-assured nutrient replacement literacy diets as well.

Instead of encouraging true experimentation with narratives written by artists and researchers for the joy and engagement of discovery, we line up the fortified tan-tinted bread of leveled readers and roll our eyes if a reading child develops a prurient taste for stories in which the juvenile characters don’t show respect for their fictional parents or prefer listening to page-gazing. In short, the acquisition of literacy too frequently devolves into measuring how many 2-ounce bags of cheese powder-flavored chips a new reader can hack with a single bottle of orange-essence-scented fizzy water. This is truly junk reading; escapism called junk reading, on the other hand, might just as often be venison or creek-caught crawdads swallowed illicitly but to the tune of collecting really-o, truly-o unfarmed protein. Continue reading The Natural Listening Literacy Diet