The discussion around audiobooks, books, and ebooks should focus on providing equitable access to all formats for all students.

Books, ebooks, and audiobooks, oh my!

The discussion should not be around whether to provide print or digital material, but rather how to provide equitable access to both types for all students

Key points:

My 2023 #BritReads book tally experienced a massive slowdown in April when my husband and I welcomed Holden Lane to the world. After about a week of silent late-night feedings, I found myself dozing off while reading a print book. It had nothing to do with the nature of the content and everything to do with the fact that I was simply tired. Because I’m a compulsive multi-tasker, I decided the overnight feedings called for earbuds and audiobooks. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t dozed off or zoned out for a section here or there, but overall, audiobooks have allowed me to get my #BritReads book fix in, even with a newborn. 

Despite my affinity for audiobooks, looking at the book industry sales figures, it is clear print is still king. I agree, there’s nothing like turning the page of a print book. But audiobook critics say the format doesn’t count as reading…I disagree.

There’s a time and a place for each format in my life…and in schools today.

While I listen to audiobooks to multitask while cooking, cleaning, or driving, they can also help reluctant readers get excited about books through their often-high-quality production. Therese Bennett Hatfield, the librarian at Valley Middle School in Carlsbad, California, encourages the use of audiobooks in instruction. “Audiobooks are being used as a tool to assist ELL students or students who may be reading a bit below grade level,” shared Hatfield. “Audiobooks allow the student to consume the same content as their peers and participate in discussion. Students can follow along in their physical copy while listening to the audiobook, allowing them to strengthen word recognition both in text and spoken word. They also allow students a different way to consume books. Students may think they don’t like reading, but an audiobook can allow a book to come to life for them, broadening what ‘being a reader’ means.”

For me, a story is a story no matter in what format it’s consumed. Many educators, like Tom Bober, Library Media Specialist (AKA Captain Library), District Library Coordinator in the School District of Clayton, agree that the preference should be student driven. “Information is information regardless of the format and how a student may access it,” Bober shared. “So, to recommend an eBook over a print book really looks at how and when the student wants to access the book. If they want a book that isn’t in our collection, sometimes it is quicker to purchase an eBook than to wait for a print book to be delivered. If the student is going to be outside of school or has another reason digital access may be easier, that may be another reason to suggest an eBook. Also, some eBooks have annotation and tracking tools that students prefer as part of their reading experience which make another beneficial reason to suggest an eBook.”

eBooks and audiobooks give students additional accessibility options as well, as educators everywhere realize. Graeme Boyd, Middle and High School Librarian for Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana, told me this: “As students move into elementary and middle school, they can take advantage of the accessibility tools in eBooks that are not available in print books. Students can look up the definitions of words they don’t understand at the exact moment they are reading them without having to leave the book to do so. Students can highlight books and annotate their reading all while saving those notes for an upcoming classroom discussion. Most eReaders allow for students to personalize their experiences through using dark contrast mode and the ability to change text size and use fonts such as those specifically for Dyslexia. At this age, students can take full advantage of accessibility tools in eBooks to help them learn to become better readers.”

“In high school, students can access a wide variety of books through a digital school library that is available to them 24/7. Gone are the days of the classroom teacher bringing the whole class to the library for checking out books, so they must rely on the ability to access the library materials in new ways. As students transition into their adolescent and teen years, they often become more exploratory about the genres and formats they like to read. Digital books allow them the flexibility to explore these new formats on their own at their own pace. They are empowered as readers to make those individual choices on their own in a platform where materials have been carefully curated for them.”

Kira Brennan, Innovation and Library Systems Specialist at Parkway Schools in Missouri uses eBooks that have read-along capabilities with her youngest students. “At a very early age, children can access eBooks that are read alongs. Every page is there and available in vibrant full color just as it looks in a print book,” said Brennan. “The advantages of digital read aloud are plenty. The text is often highlighted as the narrator reads aloud, enabling children to see the connection between spoken and written language. Often, the narrator is a well-known voice with professional training in narration. Sometimes there are even soundtracks that go along with the read aloud which allow the child to engage and interact with a book in an immersive way that just isn’t possible when reading a print book. The enjoyable experience that students begins to spark the reading joy that we want our students to possess to become lifelong readers.”

Despite the documented value of diverse book formats, the pendulum has swung from almost all digital during the pandemic to almost all print post-pandemic. “Print can provide visual clues such as illustrations and iconography which aid language comprehension,” Boyd said. “Graphic novels especially, by their very nature, can facilitate critical thinking and vocabulary proficiency through stimulating and enjoyable visual representations. The strongest student readers I have encountered have come from households of readers. Parents are role models. Teachers (and parents) are role models. Both should be seen reading, both should read aloud to their children or students, both should visit bookshops and public libraries.” 

Bober shared that the traditional library filled with print books allows students an opportunity to discover. “I think one of the benefits of a print library is the layout. With genre-fied sections and collections that thoughtfully put students accessing the story or information they want easily; a print collection can cater to a student’s interest when they don’t know a specific title they are interested in reading. The browsability of a well-organized print collection encourages a student to parlay interest into a book selection that they will love.”

In face of the digital fatigue and return to in-person instruction, Bober encourages teachers to keep an open mind about digital resources, “I did see a swing as teachers wanted to move students from digital devices as much as possible as soon as we were back to teaching and learning in person. I think that has settled back into a better place. And what those many months revealed to a lot of librarians and teachers is how simple digital access can be. Even though we were embracing digital resources, eBooks and audiobooks, the beginning of the pandemic forced us to push that thinking and embracing of that resource even further. The benefits that revealed themselves around ease of access and the fact that some students prefer that method to access information and story are things that we don’t unsee as we come to a new normal of how we provide resources to our learners.”

Many educators I know feel a blend will continue to be critical in the future. The discussion should not be around whether to provide print or digital material, but rather how to provide equitable access to both types for all students. Students’ ability to navigate both formats with proficiency will allow them the best chance for success in both their current classroom and the educational experiences that lie ahead. “We live in a digital age in which relying on one format or the other will have a profound negative impact on the ability for our students to interact with the world around them,” continues Boyd.

As we prepare for a new school year, I’d encourage everyone to sample a different book format this summer and use it as an opportunity to set an example for the students in your classroom or in your lives.  Whether you love it, hate it, or find yourself adopting all three, you can have a new conversation about reading.

P.S. Now that I’m reading children’s books out loud each day, I have an even greater admiration for audiobook readers because doing multiple voices takes a talent I don’t possess! 

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Britten Follett
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