English teacher Michael Godsey is an early adopter of podcasts as a teaching tool in his high school. At first he used episodes of This American Life and Serial because he was impressed by the critical thinking and engagement he saw from students. He also liked that students were having deep discussions about the stories with other adults who were listening to the same podcasts. But recently, he noticed something else important: listening to podcasts makes his students want to read more.

Listening to stories does not immediately seem connected to reading, and in fact, readers of MindShift stories about podcasts in the classroom have commented that they don’t offer enough rigor. However, Godsey discovered that most of his students prefer to listen to a podcast while reading the transcript over listening or reading alone. The combination of audio and text allowed for reading breaks and helped students learning English as a second language connect the text to the sounds.

The more Godsey noticed the positive learning behaviors and increased literacy that came with using podcasts, the more interested he became in other research that might support what he was seeing. And he found it. In an article in The Atlantic, Godsey writes:

“A similar situation in India was observed on a much larger scale when—starting in 1999—certain networks started supplementing some of their television shows with ‘Same Language Subtitling’ (SLS), and the country’s literacy rates soared. The Boston Globe reported on the phenomenon in 2010, claiming that ‘in the last nine years, functional literacy in areas with SLS access has more than doubled. And the subtitles have acted as a catalyst to quadruple the rate at which completely illiterate adults become proficient readers.'”

This and other studies seem to show that listening while reading helps people have several successful reading events in a row, where they are reading “with accuracy and enjoyment.” And, listening has been shown to help with decoding, a fundamental part of reading.

Using ‘Serial’ to Get Students to Read More

Ironically, they can encourage students to read more. Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways Subscribe Now > What I know now is that high-schoolers-at least my students-like reading and simultaneously listening to podcasts even more.

Why Listening to Podcasts Helps Kids Improve Reading Skills 18 March,2016MindShift

  • Nick Vidinsky

    This is great to learn how Godsey and other teachers are continuing to develop and adapt their use of podcasts in the classroom. My company, Tales Untold Media, produces podcasts for preliterate kids. They get lots of benefits from listening to audio stories, too. Recent studies show more cognitive development among preliterate children who listen to stories, even as opposed to following along with picture books. It activates their imagination and sets them up for better literacy development. Plus, it’s a fun shared experience for the family. It’s exciting to see how educators are adapting their teaching practices to take advantage of these tools.

  • Simona Masini

    Does anyone have any recommendations for podcasts for upper-elementary/middle school students? I love the idea of using podcasts like Serial and This American Life in the classroom, but those aren’t appropriate for 10-14 year olds.

    • Karen Gage

      Listen Current curates shorter podcasts from public radio that are appropriate for middle schoolers, and also aligned to ELA, Social Studies and Science content areas. https://listencurrent.com/ There are some really great stories!

    • Hi Simona, Yes, the story pirates have a podcast! They are a group of actors who create comedy sketches from student writing! If you don’t already know them check them out. I think you would love it.

  • Sydney Morales

    Godsey’s incorporation of podcasts and reading is such a great idea! I was reading an article by Laura C. Bell and Charles A. Perfetti (1994) that was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology the other day. They were comparing high skilled and low skilled readers in a variety of areas. In the introduction, however, they discussed a theory they had previously studied called the verbal efficiency theory. This is the idea that effective reading involves automaticity in processing the phonemic and semantic meanings of each string of letters. The less automatic the processing is, the higher the cognitive burden. The cognitive load of processing words takes away the resources necessary to comprehend the text. They found that the ability to identify and process words contributes immensely to reading ability. One aspect of their experiment included decoding pseudowords. They found that skilled readers decoded the pseudowords just as quickly as unskilled readers decoded familiar, real words. One of the biggest areas of impact in this difference between skilled and unskilled readers was their ability to comprehend more difficult texts. The decoding abilities have a larger demand in more challenging texts, leading to even less comprehension.

    By combining the audio of the concepts the students are studying with the text or transcript, it is possible that Godsey is reducing the cognitive load of processing the words. His students are able to get the actual meaning behind the text, allowing for much more satisfaction out of the passages. They can have the joy of gaining knowledge with much less frustration. This also will probably help in the long run because reading and hearing each word simultaneously is likely strengthening the connections between the visual of words and the phonetic code, making reading without the auditory component easier in the future. He are doing a great thing for these students’ desire to read and allowing them to see the innate benefit of reading.

  • Gabrielle

    I think that using podcasts as a tool in learning to read is a really neat idea. That being said, I think the integration of written text that coincides with the listening is crucial. This is true because students are able to make connections between sounds in spoken words and their lettering on paper. In her work The Foundations of Literacy, Rebecca Treiman emphasizes how making connections between sounds and written text is crucial in student’s pursuit of reading. These connections allow for the acquisition of phonological awareness. This is because students are able to make associations between letter combinations and their sounds as well as word representations. As the article states, students become more accurate readers after hearing text being read and following along.
    As for engagement, I think it is great that Godsey saw an increase in students’ desire to read. I am curious to know if there are other studies to suggest a reason for this. Personally, I think a huge factor in this could be sparked interest. After hearing text that is super interesting to students, I bet they were curious to know more. This could inspire them to read. Also, I am curious to know if reading text while hearing it aloud helped their confidence in reading. If they were reading along and realizing they recognized on their own most of what the text was saying, students could have felt better about their own ability and therefore eager to put themselves to the test.
    Overall, I think that this is a really impressive idea for new readers. However, as reading level increases I think that more emphasis should be placed on reading without the aid or crutch of a podcast. At some point, students need to be independent readers and be able to create an internal dialogue. For the early stages though, I think this is a great idea!

  • Jen

    Homeschoolers have used podcasts, audio books, story telling, etc. to enhance children’s relationship with books, information, and literacy. It is one reason why being a “later reader” as a homeschooler is not at all devastating like it is in school — because homeschooled kids continue to learn subject area content via podcasts and audiobooks (also video documentaries, field trips, art work, experiments, etc) even though they may not be able to read at the same level that they can listen. Some may coordinate reading text with listening, but many do not. The parent educators who use this approach are simply patient in letting the reading develop over time while providing ways for kids to continue to learn, get interested in things, have great discussions, and understand the world. Homeschooled kids with this kind of experience often advance in a huge leap from non-readers or non-fluent readers to reading at the later elementary level with a few months once they are ready. That’s anecdotal, I know, but I have seen this happen so often that I was actually shocked to read “listening to stories does not immediately seem connected to reading” because it is so well accepted within homeschooling that of course, it IS connected to reading!

  • Peyton

    Godsey makes a very astute observation about the ability of podcasts to improve students reading. One of the first steps in being able to read is turning print into sound, and then making sense of the sounds. Listening to a podcast allows students who are learning english as their second language, or students who struggle with reading or comprehending the words they read, to follow along with the podcast and associate the printed words with the sounds they hear. One of the largest challenges of sound is that the alphabet splits sounds unnaturally. Humans can hear syllables but they cannot hear phonemes, which are the most basic unit of language that allows people to differentiate between the meanings of words. Phonemes make reading more challenging because people hear syllables, which are themselves combinations of unheard phonemes.

    Rebecca Treisman in her essay The Foundations of Literacy states that “…kindergartners who received training in segmenting spoken words into phonemes, in addition to training in letter-sound relationships, showed more improvement in reading than children who received instruction in letter-sound relationships alone.” Training students to break words down to their phonemes gives them more phonological awareness which is a student’s awareness of the phonological structure or the “sound structure” of words . This improved ability to recognize phonological structure is why including podcasts as part of reading instruction should help improve reading. The caveat, however, is that students need to have the manuscript as well as the audio portion of the podcast. If students do not follow along with a manuscript, students will not improve because they will be unable to associate the words they are hearing to the words that they are seeing on the page. If students have the script while listening to the podcast, it is as if they are like the kindergartners who are being trained in segmenting spoken words into phonemes as well as being trained in letter-sound relationships. Like Treisman says, if we boost student’s phonological skill and awareness, there will be a boost in the student’s reading as well.

    Another interesting point in the original post is that listening while reading helps students have several successful reading events in a row. This is incredibly important in the reading process because having several successful reading events in a row can boost the student’s confidence in their abilities to read, which will in turn encourage them to read more. If the students feel as if they are failing at reading, they are going to feel discouraged and will most likely read less or give up reading completely because they do not like the frustration and sense of failure they experience. Therefore, another caveat to the ability of podcasts to help students improve their reading skills is that the podcasts need to be difficult enough to allow the reading to improve and for the reader to feel challenged, but not so difficult that it makes them feel discouraged.

    If the podcast (with the script included) is capable of increasing phonological awareness and skill as well as challenging the reader, it is highly likely that the students reading skills will improve through the podcast experience. This is likely due to the associations being made between the visual words as well as the spoken words. Along with this, the mental processes used to hear words or sounds when reading will be less strained because students will not have to be forming sounds in their mind on their own because the podcasts will be able to help. This use of podcasts as pedagogical tool would be a good activity to implement in elementary schools and continue throughout high-school, as long as students are also reading without podcasts as well. I think that this would be a good thing to continue throughout a student’s education because it would continue to strengthen the student’s phonological awareness and keep it strong throughout the years. While I think that it should be continued, except for students with special difficulties I believe that it should be decreased significantly and only used very minimally in high school when most of a student’s reading should be independent. In sum, using podcasts to facilitate improvement in reading skills is a good idea in theory and would be equally successful in practice as long as all of the caveats are met.

  • Lorie Moller

    Podcasts are a great learning tool. The basis for learning language skills is also listening. Children reproduce sounds while picking up language. Eventually they learn the meaning of what they are reproducing. Hearing disabled children have to be taught language in unique ways as they cannot hear and learn. Many educational games (e.g. http://www.schoolofdragons.com/) display the hypothesis or the scientific concept being learnt as text while winding up a quest. Along with this the character also says the same thing aloud. Most younger children prefer to listen and absorb. In olden times when oral traditions were commonplace listening was key to learning. Learning it is said begins in the womb, and modern science has shown that an unborn child reacting to the mother’s voice is not a figment of her imagination. When this is the case, a podcast’s effectiveness cannot be doubted.

  • Deb

    Everything old is new again. Am I the only one here old enough to remember read-aloud books and records? “Turn the page when Tinkerbell rings her little bell….like this!” *cue wind chimes*

    Just a new name (and flashier tech tool) for something that’s existed for decades 🙂 http://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_nkw=read+along+records

    • Brandi Jones

      I agree. I used these when i was in school. Educational practices are like fashion. It comes back in style after a while and returns back as a another name.

      • Kerissa Bearce

        But it wasn’t as easy back then for students to create and publish their own audio books. Now students can put their voice into the world in seconds.

  • I definitely agree that listening while reading encourages children to read, especially children who find reading tedious because it’s so difficult for them. I’ve seen students at secondary level become enthusiastic readers because audio has allowed them to know the joy of books. Listening to podcasts has the benefit of helping struggling readers learn various content and expand their knowledge and understandings, rather than laborously troll through dense texts.

  • Patrick Murphy

    I have been using audio books to teach novels in my high-school English classes for sixteen years. The students follow along with the book while listening to the audio. After reading, we have a critical discussion. They have improved comprehension, understanding, and retention. The payoff has been remarkable: my students consistently outperform the other teacher’s students by at least ten percent on the end-of-level test. Does listening and reading work? I have over a decade of numbers that say, “absolutely.”

    • Kahli

      What podcasts do you recommend?

      • Patrick Murphy

        I mostly do novels in class. I start the year with Frankenstein as it is a complex and challenging text. Other teachers in the department have been using Serial and have good things to say about it.

  • Brandi Jones

    Using Podcast are an excellent source to help all types of learners. Many students enter into the classroom unidentified with reading deficits. Would allowing students to use podcast impair students reading ability when taking state assessments when the modification is not avaiable?

  • Very well written article. It will be helpful to everyone who employess it, including me. Keep up the good work – can’t wait to read more posts.
    Hotels in Mussoorie @ http://hillstationsneardelhi.in/HotelsinMussoorie-44

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