Last month's announcement by Publishers Weekly that sales of children's and young adults ebooks had decreased by 40% in the first quarter of 2016 was met with some delight by many in the natural parenting and home ed communities. Could it be the beginning of the end of electronic dominance in young children's lives? We can but hope! Alas, sales of 'real' books were also down slightly (2%), but one sector saw a significant rise: audiobooks. Coincidentally, we have been working with Puffin on a review of some of their best-loved audiobooks, and thinking about their many benefits.
There are many misconceptions about audiobooks and their effect on children's literacy, but along with other commentators we believe they are a great asset for developing literacy skills. Listening to stories being read entrances in a different way to reading to yourself, and if read by a talented audio performer or performed by a full cast, it can create a truly magical experience. Listening to audiobooks helps budding readers understand more complex vocabulary and linguistic structures, encourages concentration, listening and comprehension skills, and teaches punctuation, enunciation, emphasis and storytelling skills, amongst others. Reading, oratory and writing skills that are essential for future literary success.
Unfortunately, some people still believe that listening to a good book isn't as legitimate as reading it, yet we have a strong tradition of reading aloud and auditory performance in the UK. As well as most obviously poetry, many classic novels, for example Dickens, were written to be read aloud. One might argue that listening to Dickens being read is a more authentic experience than reading them quietly to yourself, pleasurable as that is. Of course, universal literacy was a pipedream well into the Victoria era, but the joy of listening to a skilled orator (and all those cliffhangers!) kept even the educated coming back with their pennies time after time.
A friend had advised trying audiobooks with Lara after dinner, even when she was still playing, as it would perhaps help her cool down in that tricky period between dinner and bedtime. Her SPD/ASD can make that time of day particularly difficult as she is often over-tired, but unwilling to contemplate sleep as she is very hyped up from the day. Rather than stopping what she's doing, we put the story CDs on whilst she's playing or drawing and it does seem to be helping her calm down. Sometimes the sensory onslaught of a physical book (sight, smell, feel of the paper, bright pictures) can be overwhelming for Lara and what should be a positive experience becomes more upsetting and stimulating than calming. Audiobooks have the opposite effect.
The stories we were sent are all classics: The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers and The Secret Garden. The only one of the three our girls were already familiar with was The Secret Garden, one of Sophia's favourite films. Samantha Bond's voice has not disappointed in her reading of the tale, and we still all held our breath as Mary Lennox entered the Secret Garden. We also received two full cast dramatisations and our three have loved discovering the tiny secret world of Mary Norton's diminutive characters, the Borrowers; whilst the adventures of Lucy, Peter, Susan and Edmund have, of course, captivated them from the outset. We still have a way to go with this one as it really is the Complete Chronicles, spread across a whopping 14 CDs!
We have a supply of old story tapes and some audiobook CDs, but did not listen to them regularly. But our rediscovery of the pleasure of audiobooks means we are listening every day and will be continuing the tradition. We will certainly not be using audiobooks instead of reading to the girls of course, but at the stage they are at where intellectual capacity is not matched by their reading skills, they make a welcome addition to our literary arsenal. We haven't yet listened to the stories in the car, but I think they will make a welcome focus of interest and distraction on our next long journey.
You can read about some of the other audiobooks in the Puffin range over on the Mumsnet website. The hilarious Just William stories read by the lovely Martin Jarvis are next on our list, I think.
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