Developing Good Listening Skills for Students with Learning Disabilities through Audiobooks

By Didi Dunin, CEI Intern 

When students develop listening skills, it supports not only efficient learning and understanding of material in the classroom, but also optimal social engagement with teachers, parents, and peers. Learning strategies that incorporate audiobooks instill a love of reading in students, particularly those with learning disabilities, and may help close the achievement gap in reading for these students.

Listening vs. Hearing 

While hearing and listening both involve the ear, hearing is a passive sensory intake of sound, whereas listening is an active process of applying meaning to sound. Listening is a complex ability involving working memory, vocabulary, attention, and neural processing.

Active listening skills help the brain (Beck, 2015)

  • Organize information 
  • Establish vocabulary
  • Develop receptive and expressive language
  • Learn and establish neural connections
  • Read and comprehend 

Even more fascinating is the connection of the auditory system to the vestibular (or balance) system; which means that listening also affects balance and spatial awareness. As Beck & Flexer put it, “listening is where hearing meets brain” (2011).  

Listening Skills in Children 

The ear is the first sensory modality ready for use, preceding speech and language, even well before the child is born. However, the auditory brain structure is not fully mature until about age 15 (Chermak, Bellis, & Musiek, 2014), making childhood and adolescence a critical period for speech exposure and listening comprehension. Practicing listening skills during this time will encourage optimal development of neural connections. 

Research has shown that children typically need to have heard 46 million words to be ready for school and that 20,000 hours of listening are necessary as a basis for reading (Hart & Risely, 2007; Dehaene, 2010).

Listening Skills for Children Experiencing Difficulty Reading

Listening training is especially important for children with auditory-specific perceptual deficits, which underlie many learning disorders including specific reading and language disabilities, as well as some sensory and motor disorders. 

Learning Disabilities 

In some instances, children with dyslexia can have a defective ability to fine tune the auditory system to the sounds of language (Akpan, 2013). Accordingly, while reading, the letters that the eyes see do not correspond to the sounds that the letters represent and the meaning is lost. Listening is the foundation of decoding and has a strong influence on reading comprehension. 

The ear may also play a role in eye-tracking through its connection with the vestibular system of the inner ear. This could be why some children with dyslexia, whom often describe the letters as ‘jumping’ across the page or appearing to be reversed, also have problems with listening. Fortunately, symptoms can be improved with technology such as listening training programs, audiobook platforms, decodable texts, and reading apps (all of which are readily accessible through the platform Tales2Go).

“Ear-reading,” defined by the International Dyslexia Association as “reading using audiobooks or similar text-to-speech software,” allows students with dyslexia to access the high-level vocabulary they need. 

Specifically, ear-reading: 

  • Increases listening skills
  • Allows students with dyslexia to read the same texts as their peers 
  • Facilitates participation in book clubs and class discussions
  • Helps students match the corresponding sounds to the text
  • Leads to an improvement in reading skills. 

Attentional Deficit Disorders 

Paul Madaule, founder of the Listening Centre, defines attention span as the “ability to listen (well) for prolonged periods of time” and concentration as the ability to filter out needless information in order to be able to “listen to oneself thinking” (2018). 

Since disinterest causes boredom and passive listening, a good way to increase children’s attention, concentration and active listening is to give them something that they want to listen to, such as favorite songs and interesting audiobooks. With over 7,500 audiobook titles with professional narration on Tales2Go, children with ADHD may be captivated by a well-told story. 

Furthermore, headphones help block out external stimuli that children with attention disorders are greatly distracted by (other children talking, birds chirping, moving objects). While reading along to an interesting audiobook, the easily distracted child is kept busy and focused. 

Socialization Disorders 

Listening is at the root of communication and social behavior. The breakdown of communication typical in socialization disorders is the clearest form of non-listening.  

Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) experience difficulties with the communication and understanding of emotions, including difficulty interpreting other people’s nonverbal, facial, and bodily expressions of emotion. Research suggests that listening to music and audio narration can improve listening comprehension skills and aid in emotional expression (Kahraman, 2008). In fact, there is evidence to suggest that individuals with ASD who show a strong and early preference for music are better able to understand simple and complex musical emotions (Molnar-Szakacs, & Heaton, 2012). Tales2Go offers music for young children in addition to its extensive audio book selection. 

Overall Benefits of Listening Skills 

By improving listening skills, the significant educational, social, and psychological secondary negative effects of auditory dysfunction (e.g., language, reading, social, and academic difficulties) can be ameliorated. Auditory books and music can help children develop listening skills that have significant long-term benefits for their learning, health, and well-being. 



References

Akpan, N. (2013, February 21). Hearing through the chaosThe Scientist.

Beck, D.L. (2015). Brain hearing: Maximizing hearing and listening. The hearing review, 22(6), 20-23.

Beck, D. L., & Flexer, C. (2011). Listening is where hearing meets brain… in children and adultsHearing Review18(2), 30-35.

Dehaene, S. (2010). Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention. New York: Penguin Books.

Hall, L., & Case-Smith, J. (2007). The effect of sound-based intervention on children with sensory processing disorders and visual-motor delays.American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61(2), 209-215.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2007). The social world of children learning to talk. Baltimore, MD: P.H. Brookes Publications.

Kahraman, V. (2008). The use of songs in improving listening comprehension in English. Dil Dergisi, 043-051.

Madaule, P. (2018). Children we help. Retrieved from The Listening Centre Inc.

Molnar-Szakacs, I., & Heaton, P. (2012). Music: A unique window into the world of autism. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1252 (1), 318-324. 

Nation, K., Clarke, P., Wright, B., & Williams, C. (2006). Patterns of reading ability in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(7), 911-919. 

Thompson, B. M., & Andrews, S. R. (2000). An historical commentary on the physiological effects of music: Tomatis, Mozart and neuropsychology. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 35(3), 174-188. 

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