Listening to Podcasts in the High School Classroom — compared to reading novels.

Last year, when I had my English students listen to Serial instead of reading a play, I did it mostly as an experiment. I wanted to know if they could stay focused while listening to a story, and if so, whether their engagement in a contemporary story would help me as a teacher.

What I noticed is that their focus on the podcast was better than when reading books. I can’t  prove this, but judging by their faces, their reactions to provocative scenes, their quiz scores, the subsequent classroom discussions, and an informal poll, my students remained consistently locked in on Sarah Koenig’s story–better than almost any other story I’ve ever taught.

And yes, this engagement made it easy and fun to teach both a love of literature and the skill set delineated in the Common Core.

But I still felt a little guilty. I’m one of those people who believe that listening to a book on tape is not really “reading a book.” This apprehension increased as I started teaching the second season of Serial.

So I did a little research and found that listening comprehension can be just as important as reading comprehension, maybe more important.

One study shows that listening comprehension “becomes the dominant influence on reading comprehension,” especially as students get older, and highlights a growing number of students who are struggling with reading because of their “deficit listening skills.” It’s really a fascinating article, especially with some great examples from real life and “Mad Men.”

Another study shows dramatic evidence that children who have been read to score higher on various comprehension tests, and started using longer, more complex, sentences to tell their own stories. They concluded: “Time invested in listening to stories is time well spent.” 

Yet another fascinating study shows that children who watch TV with “same language subtitles” (SLS) showed significant gains in decoding skills, and concluded that “the potential of SLS in India and other countries is enormous” and “especially powerful.”

Now that third study is not about listening instead of reading; it’s about reading while listening. Which brings me to Season 2 of Serial. Unlike last season, when transcripts weren’t provided by Serial, I’m able to project the words on the big screen while we listen to it. It’s awesome.

It’s awesome because I don’t “make” them read. They have activities, lessons, and quizzes centered around the podcast, but they can look wherever they want. I’m intrigued by how many of them read along voluntarily, and a few of them even yelp out a “Hey!” when I forget to scroll down in time.

What this also allows and encourages is good meta-cognitive discussions with the students — I love to hear them talk about how they learn best, and how they comprehend complicated stories.

The articles I read that hate on listening to a story (instead of reading it) are interesting, but don’t apply to my class. “Frontiers in Psychology” reports that people are more apt to be distracted while listening rather than reading; but in my class, they do both.

The Wall Street Journal points out that many people who listen to audiobooks are distracted by other activities, like driving their car, or doing the dishes. But my kids are in a darkened room, with illuminated large text, and Bowe’s voice coming through the speakers.

And even without the perfect conditions in my classroom, it’s not certain the haters have very much scientific evidence to stand on. That same WSJ article points out that “Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that for competent readers, there is virtually no difference between listening to a story and reading it.” And for incompetent readers, the studies above show that listening to the words while reading them dramatically helps with their decoding skills.

Additionally, Olga Khazan points out in Forbes.com that audiobooks (or podcasts) “pre-determines an aspect of language called prosody, or the musicality of words,” which helps with both enjoyment and comprehension.

I’ll keep dropping new links to other studies on this post. Feel free to send your own links, either for or against podcasts in an English classroom. Until then, we’re going to keep listening to one story, told week by week.

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