Audible.com has made them easy to find and affordable. The chance for my family to hear books during our long commute into town is priceless. I myself, love hearing new novels and old favorites read to me -- I can knit or clean the house at the same time and feel like the queen of multi-tasking. Reading aloud (whether it's me doing the reading or an audio book) has always been an essential part of my children's education. (Click here for a post on reading aloud to older kids.)
HOWEVER, listening to an audio book is NOT the same as reading a book on your own, especially for kids who are just learning or polishing their skills. It can be an important addition to a literature-rich environment, but it can't take the place of regular hands-on, or rather book-in-hand, eyes-on-page reading. Here's why -- WRITING SKILLS!
Yes, that's right. Reading is essential to learning how to write well. Some more sophisticated writing issues (organization, characterization, plot, pacing, etc.) can certainly be conveyed by an audio book, but it's the basics -- the mechanics of writing -- that kids absorb when they're reading the printed version.
I teach literary analysis and writing skills, but I long ago realized that when it comes to grammar and sentence mechanics -- my teaching efforts are a mere drop in the bucket. The vast majority of what we learn about grammar (and spelling), we absorb from reading -- from seeing them in practice on the printed page.
When I work with struggling writers, I find it's much better to separate writing skills from spelling and mechanics. I've never met a kid who didn't have LOTS to say about all kinds of different topics, but if you ask them to write their ideas -- they clam up. Why? They're just too intimidated by what they think (or know) is their lack of "mechanical" writing skills. This is why it's so important to begin their "writing" lessons with dictation -- but more on that in a later post.
The bottom line is if you use audio books as much as I do, it's easy to convince yourself that your child is doing a lot of "reading." My point is -- yes, and NO. They are hearing great literature and learning many wonderful things from the experience, but they are NOT getting that visual understanding of how words and sentences are put together to form these stories.
And let's face it, this is the easiest part of education. Sit a kid down with a book for an hour or so a day, and they'll learn these basics as if by osmosis. The trick is to find books they LOVE, so that they're as eager for that hour as you are. With boys, that often translates to non-fiction or even "hobby" related reading -- though there are some great books out there that boys find very appealing. I'll also write a future post listing some of the novels I've found to be "Boy favorites." Girls are often easier -- there's so much good literature out there -- and girls sometimes take to novels more naturally.
If you can instill this habit early on -- you child will have a much easier time mastering writing skills. Ideally, you want your child to feel as comfortable communicating through writing as they do speaking. And reading -- eyes-on-the-page reading -- will help make this a reality.
Don't toss the baby out with the bathwater though. Audio books are a fantastic supplement. My kids can "hear" a book at a higher level than they are capable of reading. My nine year old recently listened to To Kill a Mockingbird, Great Expectations and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (much harder than Tom Sawyer) and LOVED them. She wouldn't have read these books on her own, but hearing the stories was great. When she's older, I'll put these books in her hands and she'll love them again in print. She's already asked for a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for Christmas and now that she has experience with the story -- it will motivate her to read through the tougher sections of the novel. The key is to combine both!