The power of free choice in literacy acquisition–kids’ edition

With the explosion of digital audiobook publishing, dedicated listeners now exercise a wide range of free choices for their literate ears: diverse genres, classics, backlist sleepers, hot-off-the-press new titles. There are other choices they can make now, too: performances by single narrators, full cast performances, audiobooks enhanced with musical beds or realistic sound effects, short-form works and those that require more than 40 hours of submersion. The choices literate listeners make are shaped by both wide-ranging experiences with various options and awareness of which of these holds the most satisfaction in their personal consumption. These two shaping mechanisms function iteratively to further develop listening taste. And every choice made regarding listening taste deepens the listener’s skills and comes courtesy of the freedom to choose.

Varieties of tea
Range Beverage Choice Tea Exotic

In contrast to all these benefits of free choice, children new to literate listening come up against forces of external power over their potential to gain independent skills. For school children in marginally progressive classrooms, this typically takes the form of adult insistence that a child listening to an audiobook must have a print paper or ebook copy in hand. Many American schools, still subscribing to the benighted Accelerated Reading cult, keep any kind of literacy freedom bound to prescribed levelling codes and a schedule of completion over immersion time.

Read-along picture books, which package the print work with an often highly produced oral performance of its text, do make great good sense for visual exploration along with aural experience—although the listener is rightfully expected to attend visually to the illustrations rather than the print text in time to their oral delivery. Read-alongs of picture books also fit nicely into the dedication of attention to book completion as they tend to be short (often 32 pages, with a performance under 25 minutes). They are wonderfully creative and satisfying works—and they are a tiny sliver of what literacy experiences are available for kids to use their nascent literacy skills to engage.

As far back as 1984, research about children’s literary comprehension has shown an advancement of about two years for listening capacity over print literacy[i]. Our cultural bias toward print literacy as more important than our capacity to understand through listening keeps classroom teachers and school library staff committed to the requirement that a child who is listening to an audiobook (in school time or for school “credit”) must attend simultaneously to its print iteration, eyes on page no matter how the flow of literary experience aurally might most readily immerse this listener. (There are many teachers who do read aloud to their classes—even those teaching eleven- and twelve-year-olds. A host of benefits—both related to literacy pleasure and to pleasure in the experience of listening as a group—have been observed by teachers who do this.)

To support students who seem more adept at listening than visual reading, teachers and school library staff do try to accrue audiobook access to some of the print titles in their collections maintained for periods of independent reading time. Acquiring such paired transmedia selections is costly: while such a potential collection can reflect only a considerably smaller universe than the children’s print world, there is the added issue that a generous portion of the current children’s audiobook universe doesn’t have an echo in print retained in the classroom library (where paperbacks rule over hard cover editions) or in the curriculum support collection composing the school library. So, while visual bookworm Jane may freely choose from among 1,000 options for a sustained reading time, listening-skill-building Barbie can choose among five titles and make sure that both the audiobook and the print book are available simultaneously for her during this “free” reading period. The freedom of real choice and opportunity for discovery through ranging across diverse presentations of literature is severely curtailed for Barbie.

The opportunity, then, to sustain interest in reading by ear is foreshortened. While those who have rich visual literacy skills can continue to develop through the exercise of almost endless choice, those whose skills are nascent are strait-jacketed into such paltry options that the experience of true free choice may not even take on a sense of reality for them. Without that freedom, sustaining interest in reading for its delivery of personal satisfaction is unlikely.

What to do? There’s the obvious solution of relaxing the steel grip of print pairing insistence during sustained reading time in the classroom. Time spent listening to books without staring at the print is not “wasted” literacy opportunity; in fact, it may be the very key to opening interest in print. On the flip side, bookworm Janie may need some time in the listening sun to discover literacy beyond print and allow her the opportunity to sink into the sounds of character emotions, correctly pronounced words, and passages she might have skipped rather than try to parse on her way to the apparent goal of Another Book Completed. She may choose to listen to books wholly different from those she’s been reading visually.

Empowering readers with real choice requires real experiences with choosing. Let’s trust kids to choose.

[i] The work of Thomas G. Sticht and his research and evaluation of childhood development of oracy and literacy can be found in abundant journals and literacy texts. For an overview of this research’s application to aural literacy, see