Smiling early elementary-age girl with her hands holding bright blue headphones over her ears.

Listening versus Reading: the Great Debate

Is "listening" truly a type of reading? Explore this hot topic!

“Listening vs. Reading” is a big debate as our classrooms become digital classrooms – especially for students with visual impairments and blindness. Is “listening” to text the same as reading? Studies have shown that students “learn to read” until third grade; then students “read to learn”; meaning that for most students, after third grade, students are using reading as a means to access material and learn content.  We also know that emerging readers need to visually see the printed letters/words or physically feel the tactile letters/words as they learn to read.  Make no mistake – blind students do need to have braille – both paper braille and digital braille (refreshable braille) under their fingers as they are learning to read and write!

We also know that with training most students who rely on screen readers, are able to listen to the text at a significantly faster rate than if they read the text in braille or large print/visually.   I have not seen one specific study on reading speeds for students with visual impairments; however, the following numbers have been gathered from different sources in 2013.

Average high school reading speeds on relatively easy literary text with good comprehension

Consider your student who is trying to keep pace with his/hers peers – wading through colossal textbooks in college or even a high school reading assignment such as War and Peace – when your student takes two or three times longer to complete the reading assignment.  Or, imagine kicking back and listening to the book and being the first one done!  Think about those low vision students who are leaning over the text and concentrating so hard on physically reading the print that they suffer from severe eye strain that leads to migraines.  Can that student benefit from learning to listen to text?

With over 25 years working with students who are visually impaired and blind, I have regularly observed braille students struggling to complete massive amounts of homework – in braille – even though these students are tech savvy and are accomplished listeners with compressed speech.  Why? Mainly because the high-stake assessments have a reading portion that requires the student to “read” using braille text.  In the future, as these high-stakes assessments transition to accessible online assessments, older students will have the option of listening to the test.  Every student is unique; one student may learn best with his/her fingers on the braille while another student might learn best with his ears.  Students will be more successful if they have the ability to chose their best “reading” method!

Students should be provided with options at an early age when students are more open to trying new strategies and their brains are the most flexible to additional methods. To set the student up for success in high school, college and the work force, the student should be introduced – and taught – to listen at a very young age.  Listening can be taught in tandem with braille and/or print.  Waiting until the student is struggling to keep up with reading assignments is not best time to introduce a new way of accessing content!  As educators, we have all come across a visually impaired high school student who was resistant to learning braille or listening to content; would that student have been more open to learning to listen if it had been introduced early on?

When considering the best “reading” method, it does not have to be an either or decision.  Often, the best option is a combination of methods.  There are many tools in the toolbox!  Successful students will use different methods depending on the task and the situation. There are numerous methods of “Listening”, including using technology and a screen reader or reading app, a podcast, or an auditory book.  Listening is not just for students with visual impairments!  Listening may be the best option for many students, including students with learning disabilities and multiple disabilities.  

Recent research on sighted children underscores the link between listening and literacy.  KQED’s article, How Audiobooks can Help Kids who Struggle with Reading  shares the latest research, student success stories and listening teaching strategies using audiobooks and podcasts. Books are started on paper and written to be read, while podcasts are people sharing their stories; podcasts tend to trigger the listener’s emotions.  The article also shares a list of educator recommended audiobooks and podcasts organized by grade levels.

Keep in mind: Once a student knows the mechanics of reading, the end goal is accessing and comprehending the content in an enjoyable manner!   


By Diane Brauner

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