Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Listening Comprehension and Children's Audio Books: Some Thoughts

In March's Book Blab Episode, Amy and I talked about the importance of reading aloud to kids (of all ages). We covered a lot of material, but two things we didn't talk about in that episode (but which I've been thinking a lot about since we started reading longer chapter books aloud to our boys last year) were listening comprehension, and children's audio books. These two issues are related, but let's take them one at a time.

First, comprehension. One of the biggest concerns I had with starting longer chapter books with my then four-year-old was whether he would be able to follow and understand a longer story that took days and weeks to read. Drawing on my training as an English teacher and my experience of reading aloud to my son for the past few months, here's my best advice on increasing listening comprehension while reading aloud.

1- Choose age appropriate books with stories that your kid naturally finds interesting. This is easier said than done, and it takes some trial and error to figure out the books that work and the books that don't. Reading aloud is a chance to expose your children to books that are above their own reading level, because children can usually have higher listening comprehension than reading comprehension (another reason it's great to read aloud), but if you go too far above comprehension can plummet. Likewise, if your child isn't interested in the characters or story, they are less likely to pay attention. It takes some work to find books that hit the sweet spot for comprehension, and we've had a couple of duds (but it's always fine to stop reading a book that's not working and just move on).

2- Review and summarize. This one is so crucial for my kid. At the beginning of every reading session, we always review what has happened in the story up to that point, and at the end we summarize what we just read. Honestly, I don't think my son would be able to follow these longer stories at all if we didn't review and summarize religiously.

3- Stop and ask questions to check for understanding. As a very fluent reader myself, it actually drives me crazy to stop the flow of a story to ask questions, but I'm backed up by some pretty good research here that shows this is something good readers do naturally as they're reading, and by doing it with struggling readers it can really increase comprehension. So usually about every paragraph or so, I'll stop and ask my son a question about what's going on with the story (Can you believe he just said that? How do you think his mother feels about that? Why did he do that to his friend? Is he telling the truth? etc.).

I don't have a lot of experiences to compare to, but I have the sneaking suspicion that despite being an otherwise bright kid, my son's listening comprehension skills are not all that hot, especially for longer stories. I know he's still pretty young, but I feel like we can't just sit and read through a whole chapter. We have to do a lot of reviewing and summarizing and questioning throughout, and even then it feels like he only grasps the most basic outline of most stories. It's been discouraging at times, but I also know that listening comprehension is a skill, so the more we work at it, the better he will get.

But this leads to my conundrum about audio books. I've had a lot of people recommend children's audio books as another great way to "read aloud" to kids. And if you know me at all, you know I love myself a good audio book, so I'm not opposed at all to the idea of kids listening to audio books. But I've never felt like my son's comprehension skills are good enough for audio books. After all, it's pretty annoying to stop an audio book every thirty seconds to ask questions and check for understanding. And it's almost impossible to do that when, say, you're in the car and your son sits all the way in the back of the van and you can't really turn around and talk to him while you're driving.

But I love the idea of listening to kid audio books in the car so much, especially on long road trips. In fact, just a few weeks ago we took a little road trip to Austin over Easter weekend, and so I decided to go ahead and just try it out (it was either an audio book, or three hours of They Might Be Giants, which, much as I love their music, was just too much for my sanity to handle). So I did my best to at least make it an audio book I knew would be good for my son's level and interest, and went with the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary.

And guess what happened?

It was a major success. He loved the character of Ramona. He begged to listen to the stories every time we got in the car, so over the course of the road trip we made it through two and half Ramona books. And now he begs to listen to Ramona books every time we drive anywhere, even just the grocery store.

Is his comprehension perfect?

No. I know it's not because of the discussions we've had after getting out of the car. But the surprise is that he's actually picked up way more of the story than I thought he would. He's enjoying it, he's understanding just enough to keep him interested, and guess what? I'm enjoying it too. I mean, those Ramona books are completely delightful, and while it would've been fun to read the books out loud to him myself, I really like the narrator and I'm enjoying listening in the car probably even more than he is.

And I've kind of accepted that it's okay if he doesn't understand everything perfectly. After all, there was plenty of stuff I didn't pick up on in the books I read as a kid, and that's fine. He's only five. He can enjoy the parts he does understand, and then someday later maybe reread these books appreciate them on a completely new level.

So I'm excited about this. I'm excited that his listening comprehension is good enough that audio books get to be a thing for us. My husband is also happy about this, because he's the one who will be driving the boys all the way to Kansas in a few weeks (I'm flying with the baby, yipee!), and he got pretty hooked on the books too. He's got the rest of the Ramona books lined up and then all of the Henry Huggins if he needs to, and it's bound to make the trip easier for everyone (since we don't have screens in our van, and only one ipad between two boys, movies aren't a great option).

So now I want to know, have you tried audio books with your kids? What are some of your favorites?

1 comment:

  1. I have wanted to comment on all of your recent posts, but I'm lazy. Hopefully you can stay and chat for a bit after we record our blab later this month! Anyway, I agree with all of your comprehension points. In fact, it's funny, but I think I mentioned all of them in a post I did several years ago for What Do We Do All Day. Even though my kids are old pros at reading aloud now, I still review character names and what was happening in the story when we last left off (especially during the first few chapters of a new book).