“He cannot get enough of read alouds–we spend every night reading a new book and he is glued to my every word. Is this ear reading? That’s a new term for me.”
“He is so curious and inquisitive about everything! I answer a million questions a day”
“She loves learning about the solar system and Outer Space. She spends hours looking at her space books.”
We can describe the interests and strengths of students in a million different ways. But, for so many students, their challenges share the same narrative: “Reading is hard.” For students who struggle to “break the code” of print, their academic profile is often defined by what they can’t do: read. But, as the world changes and research develops, it is time that we unpack what it means to “read” and why struggling to decode is not a defining limitation.
The Modalities of Reading: Ear and Eye Reading
Traditionally, we define reading as decoding print to understand content. The process of learning to read by this definition is often intensive and multifaceted— a prescribed sequence of phonics instruction and word recognition that defines early elementary classroom experiences. For students who come to read print easily, this early exposure and instruction becomes the foundation of their academic experiences and subsequent engagement. For those who struggle to build and maintain word recognition and decoding skills, their challenge in “learning to read” is a transformative experience, one which can impact their entire academic career.
However, when we talk about reading, we often only refer to eye reading. Eye reading is the visual interpretation of printed texts. That, however, is not the only way to read. In fact, by limiting our definition of reading to eye reading alone, we are limiting the potential of students who are challenged in the process of learning to eye read. Ear reading is another, less referenced, form of reading and understanding text. When we ear read, we listen to text rather than silently read a printed text with our eyes.
The Benefits of Ear Reading
Ear reading is an undervalued and often underrepresented modality for building understanding and content knowledge. And, in fact, ear reading has been proven to be equally effective to eye reading in understanding text. In a 2016 study, no substantial differences in understanding were found between eye reading, ear reading, or a combination of the two (Rogowsky, 2016).
For many students who struggle to eye read, ear reading comes naturally and, in many cases, is a real strength. However, we do not often offer the opportunity to students to build understanding through ear reading. This is an unfortunate and antiquated gap in education. When we limit students’ building of grade appropriate content knowledge to ear reading alone, we are limiting their potential to what they are able to decode rather than what they are able to understand. Ear reading allows for limitless content knowledge building and can serve as a meaningful bridge to grade level and above grade level work for students who struggle to break the code of eye reading.
Opportunities for Ear Reading
Ear reading affords students the opportunity to access and work with grade level content while they continue to build their eye reading decoding skills. For many students (and many adults), ear reading may remain their preferred modality for reading text. Ear reading should be encouraged and nurtured in the same manner as eye reading. In fact, for a striving eye reader, ear reading could and should be their primary means to access academic content not intended to strengthen decoding or reading comprehension skills.
Some examples of appropriate applications for ear reading in the classroom or when completing homework include:
- Listening to word problems in math
- Accessing audio version of Social Studies and Science texts
- Using speech to text software to plan and draft writing compositions
- Downloading the audiobook version of classroom read alouds or shared literature texts
Tools for Ear Reading
In today’s rapidly evolving tech landscape, accessing ear reading tools and materials has never been easier. While accessing audio files used to require specific hardware, most devices and websites offer tools to easily enable opportunities for ear reading.
You can find ear reading tools on:
- Audible: The Audible app is not just for adults. The platform contains a wide range of childrens’ and young adult literature and informational text, including popular series books and classic stories. While it requires a subscription, the monthly price is inexpensive and provides an ear reading library right at your student’s fingertips.
- Epic Books:Epic Books (getepic.com) is an expansive online reading platform that can be accessed from their website or app. It offers leveled texts and commercially available books at the Elementary level. In addition to browsing by genre, topic, or interest, Epic has tons of “Read to Me” and audiobook options for students. The app is intuitive and kid friendly, meaning students can independently ear read once they are acquainted with the platform.
- Common Lit: Common Lit (commonlit.org) is another reading platform, this one targeted to Upper Elementary, Middle, and High School students. All texts on their site have a “read aloud” option that allows for accessible ear reading. The app also allows for easy in text annotation while reading.
- YouTube: While not an obvious choice, YouTube has tons of read alouds and spoken texts available on the platform free of charge. While the site is not as easy to browse for titles, if you are searching for a specific text on the site, you are likely to find it.
- Google Docs & Chrome Extensions: Google Docs has a text to speech function built right into its Tools menu, allowing immediate voice typing. Several Chrome extensions, such as Read & Write for Google, read text aloud from any website or document opened in the Google Chrome browser.
Rogowsky, B.A., Calhoun, B.M., & Tallal, P. (2016). Does modality matter? The effects of reading, listening and dual modality on comprehension. SAGE open, 1-9. doi/abs/10.1177/2158244016669550
By Marisa Krohn, Learning Specialist