Even in the upper grades, students are struggling to make the transition from “learning-to-read” to “reading-to-learn”. Give a struggling reader a context-reduced novel written in old, antiquated language and you will realize that students need as much life-like context as we can provide. One way to help students access texts is to provide audio versions that they can use alongside– or even instead of– reading the text.
A great tool in this endeavor is Librivox.org, a collection of free audiobooks of classic texts created by a dedicated community of volunteers. These are mostly works that have passed into the Public Domain and are now the intellectual property of the world, so they can be used freely without fear of copyright reprisal. You can think of it as Project Gutenberg for audiobooks.
As an English teacher teaching Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein, I wanted to make it easy for my 9th and 10th graders (a high percentage of whom received Special Ed. or 504 services) to access the text. I went to LibriVox and searched for the book, and found this useful menu:
Podcasting the Book: What it Looked Like in Class
I added links to the full text, the MP3 files, and the iTunes RSS feed to my own class website so students had a choice of how they would access the texts. I taught them how to add the sound files to their iPods and told them they had absolutely no excuses for not reading along with the class.
Many students used these resources, and in many different ways. Some would listen as they read, gaining contextual cues (such as emphasis and tone from the reader’s vocal inflection) as well as learning the proper pronunciation of words. Some students reported they could read the book while meeting responsibilities that would normally interfere with homework time, such as caring for younger siblings or after-school jobs. Students were listening to Frankenstein on the walk home or while mountain biking around Marin county’s enticing trails.
This allowed students to engage in the Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) exercises we were doing in class, irrespective of their level of literacy mastery. While this may sound backwards to those “back-to-basics’ers” who believe students should “walk before they can run”, in fact the opposite is true. Students can (and MUST!) develop their critical thinking skills, even as their literacy skills are catching up to their age-appropriate mental development.
Making audiotexts available to kids is so easy that a teacher with ANY level of tech savvy can do it. It was especially easy given that the text we were using was already in the Public Domain and was clearly legal to distribute to kids. Less legal (and much less easy) was our purchasing and sharing of CD and Audible.com audiobooks for the newer, copyrighted titles we were teaching in class. For these, I would usually crack the DRM, post the files into my school server space, and link to them from my class website. I ask you– what heartless jerk would sue a teacher for letting Special Ed. kids listen to an audiobook he legally bought? Oh yeah– the RIAA. Tread cautiously, friends.
Do you know of other great resources for audiobooks? Have you used tech to help students access texts? Please discuss in the comments!
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