Until recently stories were mostly confined to print so not being able to read meant that some children were excluded from story. The twofold process of reading which involves decoding print and then making sense of the unravelling of a story can be difficult even for fairly skilled readers. After all, even if you have learnt how to do the first part of the process, there is no instant guarantee that you’ll be able to manage the second. Can audio books help? Julia Eccleshare explores.
Once upon a time … that so familiar beginning of a story was eagerly listened to by an assembled audience. The story and its teller held sway, entertaining people of all ages with carefully constructed narratives. Acts of nobility or treachery, loyalty or high treason were available to everyone who could join the audience to hear them.
One of the greatest skills of a good storyteller lies in the ability to shape the over-arching architecture of a story. And it is this sense of a big narrative picture that makes many children’s books work so well in adaptation to film, television or stage. Philip Pullman’s assertion that ‘children’s books are the home of the story’, though said in part as a jibe against the arid nature of much adult ‘literary’ fiction, holds true and nowhere more so than in his own stories. The recent BBC audio dramatisation of the three volumes of His Dark Materials, though not for purists as it has been both cut and adapted and in this version depends on the addition of a narrator, gives the listener an easy way into a great story. Pullman’s control of many storylines, characters and places is exemplary but, when drawn out through three long volumes of print, is beyond many young readers. The beauty of the BBC’s dramatisation is that the shape of the story and its power can still hold listeners spellbound.
Just ‘hearing’ a story
The same effect may be achieved by dramatising unabridged stories. Even for good readers, it is sometimes easier to gain an understanding of the whole drama by listening to a story than by reading it. Somehow when you hear it, a story unfolds like a relief map while when you read it, it is only possible to see the struts that hold it in place. For good readers books on tape are a luxury, for struggling readers, they can be a lifeline. The often repeated wisdom is that children are helped to become readers by seeing others read – which doesn’t help dyslexics and those with other definable reading difficulties. However, the importance of just ‘hearing’ a story as a step on the way has only relatively recently been appreciated.
Books on tape were initially used as a reading aid, not a reading replacement. Many publishers such as Ladybird produced books on tape that ‘read’ the story while the child followed the text in the book. There was even a helpful ‘bleep’ when it was time to turn the page. It seemed like the perfect answer for those with reading difficulties and for some years dyslexics were set to work with such book and tape packs. But there were drawbacks. Patience Thomson is the former head of Fairlie House School, a specialist school for children with dyslexia and the founder of the publishing company Barrington Stoke which produces books for such children and she thus has a lifetime’s experience in the field. She explains: ‘Following the words of a book on tape and listening to it is confusing. For those who find reading difficult and for dyslexics in particular you should foster one skill at a time. If you are listening to a tape, you are developing that skill. The point about listening to a book on tape is that you can broaden the literary vocabulary so that the listener can predict and confirm words like “sombre” which rarely occur in speech but do in print.’
‘Not being able to read’
‘Not being able to read’ is now recognised and counted and every available strategy is used to turn non-readers into readers. (However it is labelled, there now seem to be over 50 different categories into which non-readers fall which means that no one approach can help them all.) After the straightjacket of the National Literacy Strategy and the return to the boredom of ‘barking at text’ there remains the fact that a great many children do not learn to read by conventional school teaching, home encouragement or any other method. As an unsourced expert writes: ‘Literacy is not a single skill; like driving a car, it is a series of little skills, built up into one big skill. For the dyslexic pupil, the acquisition of the big skill has not happened, and he needs to acquire each of the sub-skills in order to build up literacy.’
There is a plethora of scientific approaches, diagnoses, teaching methods and many varying outcomes in cracking the problem. And this is not surprising when you look at explanations like the following web site information about the technicalities of acquiring language, the essential underpinning for the subsequent acquisition of reading. ‘The words in our language are constructed from various sequences of its 44 distinct sounds (phonemes). The information in a word is coded into the sequence of its phonemes and not into the phonemes themselves. Dog and god contain the same sounds but since the sequences differ, so do the meanings. It’s a marvellously efficient system that allows us to construct an infinite number of words out of a small number of phonemes within a relatively small brain space.’
It is a marvellous system: the problem is that it doesn’t always work by reading print. What does seem to be true is that:
‘When it remains within speech, most children can acquire a vocabulary that is enough to help them to use words in such a way that they can put sentences together so that they can have interesting conversations or tell stories. And all of that is done by hearing. The problem is that for many children who can master the 44 phonemes which make up speech, mastering the 26 letters of the alphabet and associating them correctly with the right phonemes becomes a nightmare. And this is where learning to read becomes so hard.’
But learning to read remains critically important as the links between illiteracy and subsequent social problems shows. The Centre for Reading and Language at the University of York claims ‘Children with a history of pre-school language impairment have reading difficulties in adolescence and as school leavers, a relatively high proportion have psycho-social difficulties including conduct disorder.’
Listening and making tapes
It was with a group of such illiterate young offenders that Patience Thomson first started to use audio tapes in the 1980s. At the time, books on tape were most commonly seen even by the dyslexic experts as a way of ‘helping your child to grow up literate, in the sense that he will know about and enjoy literature, even if for a time his literacy skills are not well-developed.’ (Bevé Hornsby: Overcoming Dyslexia, Martin Dunitz, 1984) rather than as an alternative background to learning to read. Thomson quickly discovered that the young offenders with whom she was working not only enjoyed listening to tapes but also loved making their own. ‘They loved recording themselves, especially reading poetry, and then listening to what it sounded like. It’s an excellent way of spotting mistakes which makes it easier to correct something when you read it again.’
Alas, Thomson’s work with young offenders was not used much in standard classrooms. Samantha Fletcher, now in her twenties, was a non-diagnosed dyslexic at school although she always suffered from not being able to read. She now works for the audio book charity, Listening Books, and is passionate about getting as many books as possible to the children who join the library since, as she says, ‘Books on tape weren’t around for me as a child. I only got into audio books as textbooks at university and then I got into leisure reading including some of the children’s books which I had started at school but never finished. I’d always wondered what happened at the end.’
But suddenly all that’s changed and books on tape are not only good publishing business, they are also seen as an important adjunct to dyslexic learning. Listening Books has been in the forefront of giving children who find reading difficult access to a wealth of stories through its extensive library. Their service is based on the now well-founded research which shows that ‘people who visualise what they are reading are able to comprehend and remember more effectively than those who do not visualise. Children who listen to rather than read books are released from the labour of decoding language, and this frees them to visualise more effectively.’ (Listening Books, Using audio books to help children with special educational needs).
Experiencing literature independently
The many members of Listening Books endorse the impact that books on tape can have. Independence is one of them. ‘Tapes allows Alex to experience literature independently, he doesn’t have to rely on someone else to read for him,’ says his mother Chris Ingram. For Helen Forrest, the mother of dyslexic twins Gregory and Sebastian, it is the language that the books on tape provide that is so important: ‘Vocabulary and use of language are gleaned partly but very importantly from literature and poetry. If they can’t read the books themselves they have to get their input some other way.’
In special education needs departments in schools there is certainly an increasing awareness of the need to provide ‘multi-sensory learning’ as a Westminster SENCO terms it. ‘We now know that we need to provide as many ways as possible for children to become confident readers. Listening to stories on tapes is definitely one of them.’ This multi-sensory approach has been common practice in the teaching of modern foreign languages for some time and listening to stories in English without following the print is beginning to become so.
At Barrington Stoke, too, Thomson has moved into publishing books on tape, recording stories by some favourite authors including Terry Deary and Jeremy Strong. ‘Listening is the most important life skill but it is the least taught. Tapes are the perfect way of encouraging listening which aids concentration. We’ve moved through the idea of books and tapes together and are now publishing the tapes for use alone.’ So far, Barrington Stoke have produced four books on tape; ‘Each story lasts about half an hour, an ideal length for children with a poor concentration span. The exciting plot and colourful characters invite wide-ranging discussions. The descriptive elements in the story enable the child to visualise events as they occur, fostering memory skills as children develop a pictorial record in their minds.’
While Thomson would never give up on the importance of learning to read print and the need for as many strategies as possible to do so, she endorses the benefits the Listening Books members feel. ‘Key points that come from listening to stories include: broadening literary vocabulary which can help with comprehension and prediction, learning to distinguish between different expressions for the different moods of the characters and the ability of professional readers to emphasize important words which is a great help in comprehension.’
The good news for all is that while books on tape can have a special place in the process of learning to read, they can also allow for the sheer pleasure of hearing a good story any time and any place – and especially on long, boring car journeys – and, as such, are a growing business. We may have moved a long way from the oral storytelling and the smoky halls where Beowulf and the rest were first heard but readers and non-readers alike even in the high tech twenty-first century remain enthralled by the sound of good story.
Julia Eccleshare is the Children’s Books Editor of TheGuardian.
Tapes published by Barrington Stoke, £8.50 each + VAT:
Stories by Terry Deary (The Hat Trick and Ghost for Sale), 1 84299 090 X
Stories by Jeremy Strong (Problems with a Python and Living with Vampires), 1 84299 093 4
Stories by Anthony Masters (Tod in Biker City and Bicycle Blues), 1 84299 092 6
Stories by Mary Hoffman (Virtual Friend and Virtual Friends Again), 1 84299 091 8
The BBC dramatisation of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman is available on six audio cassettes (0 563 52927 X, £32.99) or on six CDs (0 563 52928 8, £36).