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Audio Books Build Skills in Reluctant Readers

A Florida district discovers that using Recorded Books can boost student scores

IN 1999, FLORIDA’S SPRAWLING HILLSBOROUGH County school district started encouraging reluctant readers to hear audio books as they read text. Ever since, teachers have noted significant improvement in student fluency, comprehension, vocabulary and reading readiness. Most remarkably, many youngsters have become avid page-turners.

District audio books are supplied by Recorded Books LLC, of Prince Frederick, MD. With educator input, Recorded Books has developed the largest collection of audio versions of books taught in grades K-12. The company offers classics plus audio books geared to really grab adolescents.

"The recorded
voice helps them
understand the story
and motivates them
to continue reading."

“It’s working,” says Lynn Dougherty-Underwood, middle and secondary reading supervisor. “Recorded Books let teachers connect kids to text they wouldn’t necessarily be able to read on their own.”

Recorded Books focuses on middle school, where many problem readers surface. With students’ listening comprehension generally two years ahead of their reading comprehension, audio support can help them read at age level despite any weaknesses.

Students in Hillsborough’s middle-school reading classes have normative reference scores ranging from the 1st to 50th percentile. To graduate high school, they must meet a state assessment reading benchmark, which typically correlates to a score in the 68th to 73rd percentile.

“With use of Recorded Books, the NRS has grown tremendously,” Dougherty-Underwood says. “A number of students in the 30th to 50th percentile have gained 25 to 30 percentiles in a year.”

Recorded Books are unabridged, allowing students to hear every word while following along in a book. The recorded voice helps them understand the story and motivates them to continue reading. With more reading, skills improve.

Each new school year, Hillsborough’s reading teachers issue book passes to students who “rent” books to find their favorites. “Teachers tantalize them at first, then turn them loose,” the supervisor says. “Students will do a recorded book or two with a text, then read a text alone.”

This process molds independent readers. “When they reach a certain level of fluency, Recorded Books are put away—at the student’s insistence—often because the Recorded Books have become too slow for them,” Dougherty-Underwood says.

Once hooked, students will suggest other titles to read. “The kids get excited and the teachers get excited,” she says. “It turns kids around to see themselves as readers, as successes.”

Audio books are invaluable tools in Hillsborough, the eighth-largest district in the country. Hillsborough has 206 K-12 schools, with 73 additional, specialized centers.

Hillsborough’s student population is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country. Located midway along Florida’s west coast, the county’s 1,072 square miles of land and waterways encompass Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

“We have everything from strawberry and citrus farms, to suburbs, to inner-city downtown areas,” Dougherty-Underwood says. “It’s a matter of matching texts to populations at school sites.”

She admires Dr. Janet Allen, whose Plugged-in To Reading program is produced by Recorded Books. Allen’s program builds fluency and vocabulary through teacherdirected instruction, group learning and independent reading, all supported by highinterest texts, detailed lesson plans, and professionally narrated audiobooks.

The district also relies on Recorded Books in its in-school suspension program, where classes may hold 40. “At the end of their suspensions, some students have argued for ‘Bank Days,’” says Dougherty-Underwood, with a laugh. “That’s because they want to stay and finish their books, and they know they’re going to get into trouble again somewhere down the line.”

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