Thursday, February 22, 2018

Sadie opened my eyes to reading bias: Audiobooks don't count

By Emily Urquhart

Last week, I encouraged my daughter, Sadie, 7, to cheat at school.

At least she saw it that way.

I’d suggested that during independent reading period she might occasionally listen to an audiobook rather than sight read.

Sadie has low vision but is not a braille reader, so she uses devices like a dome magnifier, an iPad, or a closed-circuit television (CCTV) to read regular-sized print. Sometimes, if the font is oversized (and no, large-print won’t cut it) she can hold a book inches from her face and make out the letters. Digesting her schoolwork aurally can provide a much needed break from this constant visual work-out. Besides, reading is reading, right?

Not according to everyone. My daughter isn’t the first person to suggest that listening is cheating. Adults say this all the time, incorrectly understanding listening to be a passive activity and by proxy suggesting audiobook fans are doing less “work” to achieve the same goal as sight readers.

First, I’d argue that reading is pleasure, enlightenment and access, not work. Second, as a folklorist, I know that stories were oral before they were written. We’ve been literate for 6,000 years, which is a long time, but only a fraction of our evolutionary history. The act of reading partly relies on brain circuits that originally evolved about 150,000 years ago to process language. So sight-reading is actually piggybacking on the pathways used for oral comprehension. This makes sense when you consider that humans have been telling stories since time immemorial, but the novel wasn’t popularized until around the 18th century.

What I wanted to know was how the sight-reading purists had infiltrated my daughter’s belief system when audiobooks and reading-out-loud have been an integral part of our life since before she could speak. My hunch is that it was an inadvertent side-effect of learning in a sighted classroom.

My daughter's sight-reading education is based on a rewards system, meaning that when she reaches a milestone (i.e. 50 books read) she can choose a prize. She does not receive rewards for audiobooks. This has set her up to value sight-reading over audio-reading. It’s also shaping her reading self-concept as she ranks herself against her sighted peers, despite working double-time to view the words in their home reading textbooks. All children compare their reading achievements and kids with disabilities are not immune to this practice.

This means that my daughter sees herself as an average reader despite the fact that she has listened to the entire Harry Potter series five times; that her favourite book is L.M. Montgomery’s emotionally mature, The Story Girl, and that last weekend she listened to Madeleine L’Engle’s, A Wrinkle in Time, on Saturday and on Sunday began listening to Mary Pope Osborne’s kid-friendly interpretation of The Odyssey—arguably the best way to digest this 3,000-year-old oral epic.

I’m proud of these achievements. But I worried. Could Sadie be forming an early reliance on audio when print will also be part of her education experience? I posed this question to University of Virginia psychology professor Daniel T. Willingham, author of Raising Kids who Read: What parents and teachers can do.

First, Willingham explained that there are two components of reading—decoding and comprehension. As my daughter memorizes letters, words and sounds and pairs them together to form sentences, she is decoding. What she brings to the table is her existing knowledge of the world—from the narrative flow of a story to the basics of science, math, history, literature and culture. And this feeds comprehension.

“When it comes to comprehension, for most adults, reading and listening are on par,” Willingham said. But, he pointed out, at my daughter’s stage, reading and listening are serving different functions. Listening to audiobooks helps build knowledge, which is integral to reading comprehension, while the visual act of decoding is a practiced way of becoming proficient at sight reading.

Back when Sadie began the process of learning to read, I asked her vision teacher what would come first for my daughter—reading or mastering her arsenal of vision tools. She’d let the question hover in the air for a moment so that I could find my own answer.

We were sitting together at a child-sized table as I learned how to use one of my daughter’s complex classroom visual aids. It’s a laptop that doubles as a table-top magnifier, connects to the smart board, and has an adjustable arm that you can point at the blackboard to have the image appear on your screen. As I tinkered, the answer came to me.

“She’ll learn to read and use her tools at the same time,” I’d said. “Because the two are inseparable for her.” The teacher nodded. I’d got the right answer.

Learning to decode is an important part of the overall process for a low-vision child who will be a visual learner, so I’ve relaxed my stance on the reading chart. As Willingham told me, “Once you know the notes, you can play music however you like.”

I did consider making an audiobook checklist with the aim of Sadie learning to weigh listening and sight reading in the same way. Then, I remembered an early summer evening when my husband and our two kids began a long road trip and we’d coasted into the night on the melody of Jim Dale’s voice recounting Harry Potter’s first year at Hogwarts. Four hours later, tear-stained and exhilarated, we’d pulled into the driveway of our holiday rental home.

Sadie, wide-eyed and rapt with attention in the back seat, couldn’t bear to have the story interrupted, and, truthfully, neither could her parents. So we left the motor running for a little while longer just to find out what happened next.

Looking back on that night, I realized that my daughter didn’t need a prize chart. She already knew the most important thing about reading: No matter what format, the story is the reward.

Emily Urquhart is a Canadian writer and folklorist and author of Beyond the Pale, a memoir about raising a child with albinism. We interviewed her about the book when it launched in 2015. 


Yes, the story is the reward.

And they grow you too.

The Story Girl is one of my favourite books, and listening to the Odyssey - what a moment!