Did you hear that? Best practices for using audio as a reading scaffold (now available in WHP too)!

Did you hear that? Best practices for using audio as a reading scaffold (now available in WHP too)!

Rachel Phillips, OER Project Team Learning Scientist
California, USA

If you’re a Big History Project (BHP) teacher, you likely already know that there are audio versions available for the majority of BHP articles. And for World History Project (WHP) teachers…the wait is over! You’ll now find audio versions of articles in the WHP Origins and 1750 courses. These audio files—which are based on each article’s highest Lexile level—can be found by clicking the download icon in the article tile, and then clicking Audio File.

Why create audio recordings of our articles in the first place? Some people—including the folks at Listenwise.com—say that “listening is the missing part of the literacy puzzle.” Most people’s first exposure to reading and literacy practices is through the experience of having stories told or read to them. Bedtime stories are one of the common ways younger children hear stories, and it’s also standard practice in elementary schools for teachers to conduct daily read-alouds for their students. There are many reasons parents and teachers do this, including getting kids interested in reading more generally, improving their listening skills, strengthening their comprehension skills, and enabling them to access material that they’re not skilled enough to read yet, but are knowledgeable enough to understand.

OER Project courses come with built-in literacy support in the form of providing articles at multiple Lexile levels. This helps students at a range of reading levels participate in the regular classroom reading routines. However, this support doesn’t work for all students, especially those learning English or who are multiple grade levels behind in reading. As a solution, we created an audio version of every article in the course so that even more students can participate honestly with the material at some level.

So, what are best practices for using these recordings in the classroom? The science isn’t rock solid here, but these are some general principles we suggest you consider before diving in with your students:

  1. Match audio to text
    • As we mentioned, students can often understand something aurally that they can’t understand via text alone. Best practices point to using the highest difficulty level, so that’s what we did—we recorded only the highest Lexile version of each text. Make sure your students have the right text in front of them if they’re reading along while listening.
  2. Follow along!
    • This can be hard for students, but if they aren’t matching the audio to the words on the paper or screen, they’re not getting the full benefit. For students who need the audio support, have them follow along using a pen or pencil as a pointer, and check in with them while they follow along, discreetly getting them back to the right spot if they’ve lost their place.
  3. Listening ≠ reading
    • Listening alone equates to more of a skim, which is the first read in the Three Close Reads process. So, you may want to allow students to “listen” for their first of the three reads.
    • Aural comprehension is generally about 20 percent of reading comprehension. There are a bunch of studies that have tried to determine how much people understand and retain when they listen to an audio recording of a text versus actually reading that text, and that’s where the 20 percent comes from.
  4. Management can be tricky
    • Before you use audio with your students, consider whether you’re using it for an entire class or for individual students.
    • If individual students, make sure you have enough headphones so students can listen along. Check in periodically with students if they’re using headphones—it can be easy for them to get lost.
    • If using whole class audio, make sure students know to follow along, and also be sure they have some way to signal to you if they get lost. Students who need extra reading supports are often self-conscious about it, so for some students, you might want to find a discreet signal.
  5. Voice actors we are not
    • These articles are read by some of our very own OER Project teachers and editors. They did a great job! However, we may not have edited all of these perfectly, so if you find anything amiss, please let us know! It can also be fun to challenge students to look for errors—this tends to encourage them to follow along closely!

Over time, you’ll most certainly get into a rhythm with your students in terms of how you approach using audio. You’ll probably also start to figure out some excellent management tips to share with your fellow teachers. As you start to use audio more, please post about your challenges and successes in the OER Project Community!


Author: Rachel Phillips is a learning scientist who develops curriculum and conducts research for OER Project. She has taught at the K–12, college, and graduate levels. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org. Prior to that, she was faculty at the University of Washington and program director for a National Science Foundation-funded research project. She approaches all her work from an interdisciplinary perspective.

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