How Audiobooks Can Improve Reading Comprehension For Struggling Readers


how to improve reading comprehension for struggling readers

FACT:  Struggling readers display low reading comprehension skills and a general dislike of reading.

QUESTION: Can audiobook technology impact a learner’s comprehension skills, motivation, and overall enjoyment of reading?

Yes! Before Audible, podcasts, and audio books were a thing and frankly before I could afford them even if they existed-I began making them for my students! My first year teaching was spent in special education to one first grader, 1 second grader, 4 third graders, 4 fourth graders, then co-teaching fifth grade.  Besides the fact that it was my first year and I had very little clue of what I was doing, the schedule was JACKED and I had to run what seemed like a three ring circus with so many diverse needs in my classroom at the same time. I never had enough time with each student. They hated reading. They enjoyed different topics. They were significantly behind. They loved listening to me read. Insert weekends spent recording books.

I spent a small part of my winter break aggregating, collecting, and organizing all of the “audiobooks” that I’ve recorded over my ten years in education. I counted forty-four! The time totaled a little less than a day of my recorded voice (19 hours and 56 minutes to be exact.)  Not one of these was made for financial profit, but all of them designed with my students’ gains in mind. The increase in comprehension, student achievement, and motivation astounded me.  How could one little habit/routine turn around a student’s perspective on reading? I believe it is because they saw my investment into their reading life, enjoyed hearing me read “especially to them”, and they were able to block out distractions to better comprehend and follow along with the text.

audiobooks improve reading comprehension for struggling readers

Many of the audiobooks are chapter books that I specifically targeted to maintain the stamina and interest of my readers, like Magic Tree House Fact Trackers. (That series unfortunately has zero professionally recorded audiobooks as of January 2020.) Many Sunday afternoons in my early career were spent in front of a microphone reading children’s literature in my most enthusiastic teacher voice. This one investment into my career (and my kids!) made significant changes in my classroom that year and even greater gains for my students. By the end of the year, they couldn’t wait to see which books I had recorded next. Sending audio books home on cd upon request is also a great way to get texts into the hands of the most at-risk students. So, what are some ways that audio books improve reading comprehension? Here are 5 key tips to consider! 

1. Do you believe kids really can read with their ears? I do! So many diverse learners can auditorily read much higher level texts than they could traditionally. They are simply better at listening comprehension! Using audiobooks allow students to access a text they normally wouldn’t be able to-struggle free! This encourages the reader, improves motivation, and helps them want to work harder and enjoy reading more. Tap into the heightened senses of auditory learners!

2. At-risk students who are significantly behind can move from barely being able to decode a few pages to successfully finishing an entire text during a limited amount of time. Their eyes are on more words, and we know that this fills the student up with background information and schema to apply to future texts (and life!) Usually at-risk students who struggle at reading also lack real life experiences that would deepen their background knowledge. Exposing them to a variety of diverse, multicultural texts can help expand their world!

3. Have you ever had a student that couldn’t complete a single task without “help”? In my classroom, using a combination of listening centers and portable DVD players (with Storybook Treasures/recorded books) and then training them to complete a simple comprehension trifold (the same work repeated for different texts) can give the student the confidence they need to finally complete a task independently! I know this tip isn’t rocket science and usually what a listening center is in the lower grades, but IT WORKS! Repetition is key with struggling readers.

4. As students reach the upper grades, the gap widens. You know what I mean. They are unable to access the content because of their reading, so now they struggle in reading and feel like giving up in every other subject. Helping students gain vocabulary and connections from rich audio texts about the content can help tremendously as you work on the reading difficulties! Students can still learn social studies and science without reading it from a textbook written well above their level. I’ve gathered all of the texts that are available for purchase that I used to pair with content here.

5. If students are left to read only books on their level, they are missing out on so much. They miss opportunities to connect with authors and topics they like, which causes them to miss out on even more academically. We never want to allow rules, time constraints, and regulations to cause greater frustration and stress. This not only amplifies the problem, but limits learning experiences. 

The bottom line is this: get books in front of kids however you can! If you don’t have time to read to your students in the school day, record yourself (or even “hire” your own child #teacherskid) or request volunteers to get the job done. Use your Scholastic book order points to order books on CD. Add Storybook Treasures to your Amazon wishlist and tell parents about how awesome they are. The time investment will be worth it. Get creative about how you “induct” your kids into the world of reading.  Audiobook technology has the potential to be a positive reinforcement mechanism to cultivate learners in increasing their reading comprehension skills, motivation of, and overall enjoyment of reading.

Let us know how audiobooks work for you & your students and feel free to email us if you need more help and suggestions!

tips for struggling readers in the upper elementary classroom