How podcasts can improve literacy

Boost confidence and focus with these free, accessible, and fresh texts

I’m going to confess, I did not bring podcasts into my English classroom with any intention of improving my students’ literacy skills. The idea came from a more selfish place: My wife and I were enthralled by the first few episodes of Serial, and I wanted to share our excitement for the amazing story with my students. Like almost everybody, they were hooked by the pilot episode and begged me for more.

Using Serial turned out to be a huge academic success for a variety of reasons, most of them related to critical thinking, listening comprehension, and the art of storytelling. While I felt guilty that the students weren’t doing as much reading from a traditional text, they voluntarily studied maps, evaluated clues, argued with each other, and wrote twice as much in their journals as they previously had. Perhaps most satisfying to me, they were engaging in adult conversations with teachers, parents, and administrators who were listening to the same podcast.

I began using other podcast episodes and excerpts as both primary and supplemental texts. While I was teaching the concept of racial bias, my students were visibly moved by a This American Life episode called “Is This Working?” When I taught the differences among slander, libel, and defamation, they loved listening to Bill Simmons’ rant that led to his suspension from ESPN. All of this had a tremendous and visible effect on the students’ level of engagement, critical-thinking habits, and writing skills, but the traditional reading component was still missing.

That’s why I’ll never forget when I projected the transcripts of Serial on the screen in front of the classroom and said something embarrassing like, “Here are the words, in case any of you care.” They definitely cared. They all turned their heads, and some of them immediately shifted their desks, and they all got mad whenever I was late in scrolling down. I felt pretty dumb—of course they liked the words. Ever since my five-year-old daughter learned the advanced functions on the remote control, she intentionally puts closed-captioning on her cartoons. People like reading the lyrics of their favorite songs. Even after hearing Serial 10 times, I still read along.

There were teachers far ahead of me with this discovery. Rich Hovey, who teaches English to at-risk high school students at Grizzly Youth Academy in California, let his students voluntarily read along with Serial, and they jumped on the opportunity. “It was thrilling,” Hovey said, “to watch them so focused on their reading, excitedly scrolling down on their Chromebooks.”

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