Audiobooks For Young Children: A Short Guide
I am not going to tell you to substitute reading-aloud to children with audiobooks. The development of a child is such a complex endeavor that one should be extremely careful in every decision pertaining to them. There is some very solid research suggesting that time spent reading-aloud to children is one of the most important predictors of future success. In simple words: the more you read to your child, the smarter they will be.
You might ask what is the difference between reading-aloud and listening to an audiobook? Perhaps for an adult, there is little difference. But for a child, the former is interactive, they can ask questions, see the expressions on your face, tears in your eyes, laughter, comments,...
But what happens when you are not home or too tired to read-aloud. Don't turn on the television; turn on an audiobook. It is incontrovertible that listening to audiobooks is preferable, with respect to mental development, than to television.
A child aged 3--10 can pick up a new language, and all the vocabulary that it contains; effortlessly, fluently, and without an accent. Imagine what listening to streams of audiobooks would do to their vocabulary. As adults, we have acquired extensive vocabularies that we mostly use to comprehend writing, and sometimes to write, ourselves. But we don't use big words when we talk unless we want to sound portentous. So the only way to actually hear these words used properly is to listen to audiobooks.
I claim that since we don't actually talk with big words, we don't really know them well. We may understand them well enough, but not the way we understand low language. When you hear the word mom, a picture should immediately pop into your mind. When you hear matriarch your mind translates it into "a woman who is the head of a family or tribe." If you hear the word often enough, your mind will jump directly to the meaning (though you probably think of a old female elephant right now). You'll know the word better.
For children, when their age is ripe for an explosion of vocabulary size, listening to audiobooks should be invaluable to their vocabulary development. And the more words they know, the smarter they are (this is one of the measurements of intelligence, and I think it is the most reliable).
A recent study fMRI Investigation of Sentence Comprehension by Eye and by Ear: Modality Fingerprints on Cognitive Processes by EB Michael, TA Keller, PA Carpenter, and MA Just (published in Human Brain Mapping Volume 13, Issue 4 ) mapped out the different areas of the brain that are triggered when one reads and listens. The study found that when one listens, the brain shows more activity in working memory storage than when one reads. In other words, our brains may be wired to more efficiently absorb audio material than written material. To me, this makes perfect sense: Human beings have been communicating orally for a long long time (at least 50,000 years). We have only writing for around 5,000 years. One can make the case that our brains are not really designed to read: " ...The total amount of activation was also signiȚcantly greater in the auditory conditions than in the visual conditions in LIFG, particularly in the anterior, inferior portions of this area....The greater amount of activation in Broca's area suggests that there is more semantic processing and working memory storage in listening comprehension than in reading...."
The quote from the research paper basically says that when one listens, as a apposed to reads, one transfers material to memory quite efficiently, perhaps more efficiently than when reading. The investigators hypothesize that when one listens, if one doesn't remember, the oral information is gone forever. So, our minds knowing this are extra careful to store and process auditory information. On the other hand, when one reads, one can leisurely backtrack to review unprocessed information.
Books are great, but if we didn't have them, we would all have phenomenal memories. When one reads a book, one has the option of backtracking, of reviewing previous sentences and pages. When one listens there are no such options. There is only one chance to absorb the information---and our mind knows this---and is more careful to store audio information.
If an adult mind can store audio information more efficiently than written information, imagine the effect on a child whose age is in the golden years of language development. Not only will a child absorb a tremendous amount of vocabulary, but also complex sentence structure usage.
Most people learn only one language during their life, even though any child can pick up, without difficulty, three languages concurrently. This fact tells us that we are not utilizing our brains nearly to the extent possible. Once a child turns 13 or 14, they start to lose the ability pick up languages. Parts of their brain start shutting down. Imagine what other capabilities our children's brains posses?
The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3
There is a famous research study Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children by Hart and Risley, that suggests that by the age of three, some children hear 30 million more words (in everyday conversation with parents) than other, less fortunate children.
Three types of families were selected for the study: professionals, working class, and welfare recipients. Children of professionals generally have higher reading scores than their counterparts in the working class, and, in turn, working class children score higher than children in poverty.
The researchers focused on the conversations taking place in each of the families (42 in all) and found that the professionals spoke considerably more to their children than their counterparts did. They calculated that by the age of three, the professional's children heard 30 million more words than those in poverty.
Some researchers feel that the 30 million word gap is a permanent impediment to these disadvantaged children, and attribute it to life long academic deficiency.
If you believe these conclusions, then it looks like the poverty cycle could never be broken. Children of poverty grow up hearing too few words, have trouble succeeding academically, fall into poverty as adults, have children, speak too few words to them. It seems hopeless. But there is a way to break the cycle, there always has been: reading.
Let's be honest. If someone is struggling to put food on their table, reading is not going to be a priority. After working long hours at an unfulfilling job, a parents is going to sink into a comfortable chair in front of the television. Studies have shown that children of poverty watch huge amounts of television, and that TV does not make up for the 30 million word gap.
Audiobooks would be great for children in adversity. They would hear stories filled with rich vocabulary, stories that would invite them to books. Parent and child could sit together on a comfortable chair and listen to a compact disk full of stories.
People have tried to solve the reading problem of child poverty by sending books to poor families. They claim that the parents are too poor to purchase books, and that the libraries in their neighborhoods lack money and essential resources.
Suppose you get books into the hands of poor families. There are two possibilities one hopes for: the parents will read the book aloud, or the children will read the books themselves. We have already discussed the former: parents who work long hours will be too tired to read. Will the children read the books themselves? If they do, that's great, but not good enough. Why? because in children, the listening level is typically at least 3 years ahead of the reading level. A four or five year old can easily listen, understand, appreciate, and enjoy a book in the second and third grade reading levels. A second grader should be listening to books in the fifth grade reading level. Audiobooks can fill this niche wonderfully.
Getting your child to listen to audiobooks
You can turn an audiobook on for a child, but you can't make them listen. Now, it is not natural for a child to quietly sit on the couch while an audiobook plays (though some children will). I don't even recommend a sedentary listening experience for adults: Our eyes are too accustomed to receiving sensory input for us to sit still and listen for long periods of time.
Children should ideally be doing something while listening. What can they do? eat, draw and paint, build blocks and Legos, play dolls and trucks. They can play with almost any toy that doesn't make sound. It is, however, important to give children quality playtime, where they can be creative, free-play. So don't try to fill up every free minute of your toddler's life with audiobooks.
In American families fifty years ago, typically, only the father worked, and he worked a forty hour per week job, being home for dinner, daily. How great it would be if today's children were raised in such a family. The mother could spend hours reading to the children, the father could read after dinner. Unfortunately, nowadays, we have a lot more toys---cars, electronic objects, vacations---and we must pay for them, and a proportionally more expensive house, with dual parent workers. It is not unusual for both parents to leave the home early in the morning, and return for a late dinner before bedtime. Kids need to hear stories, and you don't have the time to read to them, turn off the television, and put on a good audiobook.