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Do soundtracks improve reading comprehension?

Booktrack Classroom allows students to create synchronized soundtracks for any kind of digital text
A student reads a book through the Booktrack website, while hearing music, ambient noise and sound effects that match the action of the story.

A platform that pairs e-books with movie-style soundtracks is gaining attention in the K12 realm for boosting reading engagement and comprehension. But some researchers remain skeptical of its claim of increasing achievement without additional instruction.

Booktrack Classroom is a free online program that allows students to create synchronized soundtracks for any kind of digital text. For example, a student can read a Sherlock Holmes e-book that opens with a background, classical piano score that transitions into birds chirping, a fire crackling and other sounds as the characters move through the action of the story.

“It gets kids more excited and engaged in reading and writing,” says Jason Hovey, vice president of business development at Booktrack. “It improves comprehension by forcing kids to have a new level of understanding with the text.”

The audio is paced to each individual’s reading speed, which the program calculates by analyzing how many words are on a page and how quickly the student turns the page. The platform is now used in some 5,000 schools worldwide, Hovey says.

Programs like this may help motivate students to read, says Marcie Craig Post, executive director of the International Reading Association. “Music is a major area of interest for a large percentage of students,” Post says. “When students bring activities they enjoy outside of school into the classroom, it makes their potential ability to grasp a lesson all the greater.”

There is little research that shows music can increase comprehension, says Michael Kamil, a Stanford University professor of psychological studies in education.

“But in order for students to create an appropriate track to go with a text, they have to be able to comprehend the text in order to know what music would be appropriate,” Kamil says. “There might be some improvement in comprehension if the student rereads the passage to figure out the music.”

A March study from the University of Auckland in New Zealand commissioned by Booktrack examined how the program impacted performance of students both at and below the standard reading level. A group of 238 students—ages 10 to 14 and from three schools serving mid- to low-socioeconomic communities—was randomly assigned to read a history text with or without a soundtrack. The students then answered 15 comprehension questions.

Students with reading difficulties who used Booktrack scored 17 percent higher. Students using Booktrack also spent 30 percent more time reading, and reported 35 percent higher satisfaction with the reading experience, the study found.

Kamil concludes, “Administrators should be very careful about any product that offers the suggestion it will improve reading without instruction.”

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