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Audio Textbooks Help Students With Reading Problems Access Curriculum

Learn why there's no need for a child to choose between learning to read and reading to learn.

By John Kelly

For students of all ages with documented reading disabilities, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D), a private, nonprofit organization, offers an accessible, inexpensive approach for assistance with assigned reading in science, social studies, math, and other school subjects. RFB&D currently provides recorded audio books on CD to more than 237,298 people, 70% of whom have reading disabilities.

We interviewed RFB&D's President and CEO, John Kelly, to find out about the organization's latest offerings, and its future plans for helping people with "print disabilities" succeed in school. Mr. Kelly, who has held several positions at RFB&D over the past 20 years, is especially excited about the organization's aggressive push to reach more students with reading disabilities, as well as their parents and teachers.

Could you describe what's unique about the selection of recorded books you offer students with vision impairment or dyslexia?

Our library of recorded textbooks at every grade level is unique in the world. We're not a recreational reading library; we focus on books that kids need for their classroom studies. We require the volunteers who narrate books for us to have good voices, but we recruit them primarily for their subject matter skills. If you are reading something aloud and you aren't knowledgeable about the topic, that's going to come across to the listener. If you're trying to read a book on deep-space, interstellar telecommunications, for example, you'd better be an astronomer or a physicist, or it's not going to come off as a fluent, natural presentation.

But, beyond the narration, textbooks are so highly graphical that the person reading the book aloud must be able to describe to the listener, for example, a bar chart. The narrator needs to be able to describe in precise detail what an illustration represents - for example, an illustration of a quasar - and in order to do that, of course, a narrator would have to be a subject matter specialist.

In what ways can recorded books address the needs of students with reading disabilities?

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the increasing awareness in general education - and in the American psyche - about kids with learning disabilities, came a growing awareness of the role of audio materials in the educational success of these kids.  Recorded books are an accommodation: a way for a student to access educational material in a format that promotes content acquisition and retention, without requiring the student to have the kind of decoding and reading skills that science proves he or she is not neurologically "well wired" to do. We are a tool in the toolbox, not the toolbox itself.

One of the barriers we had to break down, however, was people saying, "Wait this isn't really reading. You're not helping students build reading skills; these kids are cheating." We had decades of anecdotal evidence from parents, teachers, and students saying this is a "walk-in-the-room-and-turn-the-lights-on" experience. "My child, or my student, used to hate going to school and now he did his homework last night so he could take part in the classroom discussion tomorrow"; "My daughter used to hate reading and now she loves reading." 

We had all these people telling us anecdotally that it really made sense. Then we went back to the experts and asked, "What do you make of this?" We went to the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and together we asked ourselves, "What bridge do we need to build between the reading remediation and reading accommodation communities?" Because, clearly, books in an audio format can be a benefit for students who struggle with reading. I give credit to Nancy Hennessy, an outstanding woman who was at that time the president of IDA, who said, "You know what? I get your point, and many of our teachers get it. So let's as an organization - IDA - say we get it."

We call the bridge the "remediation-accommodation continuum." From the remediation side, educators say, "Give us a literacy curriculum based in structured language, give us specially trained teachers, give us sufficient classroom hours, and we will remediate kids; we'll teach them how to read print." But at the same time - and here's the "bridge" language - we also say, "Bring in the accommodation of recorded books to enable subject content acquisition at school." So, while we're trying to teach somebody to read, we should also provide the student an audio version of his health book, his social studies book, and his math book, so he can keep up with peers in subject content acquisition.

After grade five typically, in American public education, nobody teaches anybody to read anymore. If you haven't gotten it by grade five and you have a reading disability, you're at sea. At this point, the accommodation is essential to keep you up-to-speed in acquiring content knowledge about school subjects.

Our dialogue with the IDA community was so wonderful and rewarding to us because they looked at the whole picture of the student with learning disabilities and they said, we have to teach them how to read but we also have to look at the overall education of the child.

There's even some scientific evidence emerging that says, in fact, multisensory learning, such as following along in the text while you're hearing it read aloud, may benefit the reading process itself, not just subject content acquisition. If you expose kids to auditory learning, for example, you help them acquire expressive language. If they hear a description of what an oak tree looks like, they are exposed to that language and information, which can be retained and used in future reading tasks. 

Comments from readers

"I am 45 years old and I am trying to get my Masters in Accountancy. My question is how can I get Textbooks in Audio Format? "
"I am a special education teacher and I have several students who can not read the text books do to severe learning difficulties and TBI. Could you please tell me where I could get these books, or who to contact. Thank you"
"I am very interested in finding access to audio textbooks for my daughter who is a sophomore in high school. How do I sign up? "
"Good Afternoon, I need to learn as much as i can about how I can get assistant at the college level. I am researching for a wonderful friend of mine who at 49 is tackling, Physics, Chemistry, Calculus, Engineering , Health at the local college in Ocean County. He wants to learn about the audio tapes that help him learn without all the reading. Please contact me at this address on how we can get him the assistance that he needs at that level. Thank you, Nancy Piscitelli"
"This is incredibly exciting news! My son with learning disabilities (dyslexia) has benefitted recently from using audio books with reading books. The problem was text books were still a problem and it's so difficult for me to find the time to record all of his chapters. I'm thrilled that you offer this service and hope I can find some of my sons textbooks through this service! It does work, I saw immediate improvement in my sons reading. "
"I would like to know if there is a facilaty I can go and read and recod books for children to listen to. I can do pre school, and even some text books. I have the problem for myself and have a hard time reading my college text book. But I enjoy reading childrens text books 1,2nd,3rd 4th,5th and 6th grade social studies, and such. I would love to do that! I was once a DisJockey! Maybe this was why! I had to do it for my grand daughter, and I still enjoy reading her textbooks to her. She dyslexic."
"Can someone please tell me where I can get the RFB&D products? I have two children that can benefit greatly!"