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My friend and coworker, Laura Pitney is with me today for another episode of Your Questions Answered. Today’s question is What is the place of audiobooks in a Charlotte Mason home school?
Laura: That is a great question for sure.
Sonya: Let’s talk about benefits first, how they can be very helpful to a homeschool mom.
Laura: I would definitely say it’s helpful for me and my voice when I am running thin on everything else I’ve been doing vocally.
Sonya: Yes, or if you’re just not available at the moment. That way your child doesn’t have to wait for you to come back.
Laura: Or a substitute teacher, like when Grandma comes. The pressure’s not her, and they can just listen to it.
Sonya: That’s a good point. Another benefit is, if the narrator is a good one,—not just grabbing whatever we can find for free, because those are hit and miss, but if it’s a good narrator,—they’re presenting to the children a great model of reading aloud well.
Laura: Yes, that’s a great resource.
Sonya: Another thing could be helping reluctant readers. I’ve talked to many moms, whom I tell, “Let the child listen to the book, but then give them a printed copy so they can follow along as they’re hearing it.” Of course, they can do that with you in person, but that audiobook could also be helpful for that.
Laura: I definitely think there’s benefit to the reluctant reader. I’ve done that with a couple of my children, and it just gives them a sense of independence. They see the older children taking their book and finding a cozy place and doing some independent reading; and so, for that reader that’s struggling a little bit or maybe a reluctant reader, it really gives them some independence and confidence. I have seen it in my own life with my children getting over that hump of feeling like they can’t read or it’s too hard. It’s just a mental switch that, “Oh, I can do this!” Plus, they’re hearing it and they’re seeing it. So, I definitely have seen benefits of using it for that purpose in our home.
Sonya: And as you said, maybe not just a reluctant reader, but if the child is really struggling with a certain book or a certain text. I believe you used one for your science book for one of your older daughters. Is that right?
Laura: Yes. You know, when you hit those middle school years, it’s just really challenging sometimes. I felt like my older daughter was struggling with going from all these wonderful, living books that she read well to reading this conversationally-based textbook—that was a great transition over to high school level work, but the words were different. The pronunciation she didn’t know. It was a struggle for her, and she felt defeated right at the beginning. So we transitioned to “Why don’t we read it together?” And then I discovered that I was having a hard time reading some of the words. So it was even difficult for me, plus the time that it took. So, for her to still keep her independence and be able to do her workload, she would listen to the audio version and follow along the assignment for the day. And eventually, as months went on, we were able to wean off the audio version, because she had gained the confidence; she had learned the flow of the way that it was written. It was almost a necessity, because I have other children that needed my full attention; where she was already so independent, it was hard to backtrack. So I was sold 100% to use that for that purpose for her.
Sonya: Just as a transition and then weaned it off. That’s a great idea.
Laura: Yes, it was super helpful.
Sonya: Audiobooks can also be helpful if there’s a vision issue. If a child just struggles to even see the words, then let’s give them the audiobook, absolutely. And another one that hits close to home for me is car trips, because I get motion sick if I try to read in the car. I have all these wonderful visions of Mom sitting in the front seat reading the book to the kids, but I can read like one sentence and then, “I can’t do this anymore!”
Laura: Yes, I think that the car trips and listening to the books on trips is beneficial, but it also alleviates some of the antsy-ness that you get in the car, you know? There’s that common bond that happens, and everybody wants, “Read the next chapter!” “Let’s keep going!” And you’re like, “We’ve got hours. Why not?”
Sonya: You also do that with handicrafts, right?
Laura: Yes, yes, we do.
Sonya: Just in the background. Well, I shouldn’t say in the background, necessarily. Go ahead and talk about that.
Laura: Sure. I felt the need to do the handicrafts for myself. And somehow over the years, we had transitioned to where I would read aloud, and my children would listen to me reading aloud, but they would also either crochet quietly or work on whatever the handicraft was—embroidery, whatever we were doing at the time.
Sonya: Now, I assume this is after they already know how to do it, right?
Laura: Correct, because there could be some frustration trying to, “Okay, let me show you how to do that,” and then read, and then show you how to do it, and read. So after everybody was confident in their handicraft, then they would pull that out and I would read out loud. But I got to thinking, “I miss doing my handicrafts.” So it has just evolved into us listening to the audio version of our family read-aloud, and then all five of us pull out our handicraft that we’re working on. We don’t do that all the time, but it gives me the freedom to work on my handicraft when I wouldn’t otherwise have the time.
Sonya: It’s a great option.
Laura: I love me some audio versions!
Sonya: Now let’s talk about some cautions, some things we need to think about in using them. One thing that really strikes home with me, that I’ve heard many moms talk about, is what I call “binge listening,” that we just put it on and it goes for hours, and we never stop to narrate. I think that’s a real danger that can happen with audiobooks.
Laura: The times we’ve used it, it’s always been for an assignment. It’s whatever the reading was for that day or maybe for a few days. There’s a beginning and an end. It wasn’t necessarily free reign to listen for hours at end. Now, I will say if it’s one of their free-reads that they love doing, that’s not a part of the schoolwork where I want them to be narrating, I don’t mind that as much if they listen to it however long.
Sonya: In their leisure time.
Laura: Correct. But if it’s a school subject and if it’s something that, like you’re saying, you need to stop and contemplate and do a narration on or whatever the assignment is, I definitely feel like there’s got to be a balance. It can easily get out of control, because it’s easy.
Sonya: Yes, it is. And balance also reminds me of, . . . as you were saying, working on your handicrafts while you’re listening, that seems like a good go-together, but there’s also the temptation to do other things. You know, like, “Oh, I’ll just check Facebook really quick while we’re listening,”—things that require much more mental concentration, and that way the children don’t practice the habit of paying full attention.
Laura: Right, that definitely can be a downside, a path to its becoming used in a wrong way. In my example of using it while we are doing something else—and handicraft being that example—generally, that’s the only time we do listen to it even though the children want to maybe listen to or read aloud at other times. I know that that’s structured. I know that they understand the parameters of “Okay, I’m going to sit here, and if I don’t feel like doing my handicraft, I can just sit and listen.” So again, there’s a beginning and an end. It’s purposeful, even though a downside is that because you’re doing something, you’re distracted from the story or the full attention.
Sonya: But like you said, you wait until that handicraft is well established so they don’t have to give it so much concentration, that “How do I do this again?” They’re just in the rhythm.
Sonya: Another potential caution, I think, is in all the things that the child is missing looking at. Charlotte talked about how the children need to transition to independent reading so they can see how words are spelled as they’re reading. If you’re just listening, you’re not going to see the spellings. And you’re going to miss out on a lot of illustrations. Take Howard Pyle, for instance. His books are not easy to read, but he has some great illustrations in there, and you’re going to miss those—kind of as icing on the cake.
Laura: I will say the times that we have used the audio version of books, we’ve always had a hard copy. It’s never been only the audio version. Now, some situations don’t always lend itself to that. For instance, traveling or maybe the copy’s not available where you live, so the audio version’s the only option. But that’s just the way we’ve always done it: if we’re going to do the audio version, we’re also going to have the hard copy. Now, if it’s a family read-aloud and we’re doing handicrafts, nobody’s following along. But if it’s their supplemental history reading, for example, I have the hard copy, and they’re listening to it and they are following along. So, I definitely feel like there is benefit to listen and see the words, because otherwise you are missing out on the spelling aspect of reading these good literature books or these good living books.
Sonya: And seeing that spelling is such an important part of dictation and the whole method of teaching spelling in a Charlotte Mason way.
Sonya: I was just reading a very interesting book called The Enchanted Hour in which the author talks about all of the benefits that come from reading together, and there’s all this wonderful research and scientific evidence. It’s just a fascinating book. In there, she talks about how when a person is reading aloud in the setting, that that person can respond and notice what each child is doing, what each listener is doing. So if a child is confused, you can see it on their face, and you can respond to that. Or if you’re reading about Jack dying in the Laura Ingalls books or Charlotte dying in Charlotte’s Web or Beth dying in Little Women . . . everybody dies! It’s hard for me to read those. I start bawling, and then the kids are bawling, as well; and you have to kind of pause for a moment. But an audiobook doesn’t realize that; it doesn’t pause unless the child pushes the button and makes it pause. So I think that response in the moment is going to be missed in many aspects.
Laura: I think it’s important to view it as a tool and not the rule. My guideline for how I use audiobooks is, as I said, we usually do our family read-aloud, but for the individual children, they can only have one going at a time. So it’s not every subject or every reading that they have to do. For my older one, this year, it was her science book, because that’s what we needed it for. For one of my other daughters, it was her classic literature book that was part of her school reading; she would listen and follow along. For my son, it was his leisure book, just to help get him over that hump of being a reluctant reader or to gain confidence. It would be easy to let them use audio versions as much as they wanted, because there is good in it; but my guideline to keep a boundary and a limit is helpful. So there’s no arguing with the children. Just one at a time. That’s the way we have found a balance.
Sonya: I think that makes sense that it should be a tool, but not a staple that we do all the time. One other caution that just came to mind—and this is interesting—is that the more you use an audiobook, you’re almost robbing yourself and your older students of an opportunity to practice reading aloud, to improve in the art of reading aloud. I know it’s easy for people—perhaps mamas who have not done a lot of reading aloud and don’t feel confident in their skills—to think, “Well, here’s a good narrator. Let’s listen to him instead.” And it can be good to give your children that model, but you also want to give your children the opportunity to grow in their skills of reading aloud as they get older, too, so they don’t end up in the same boat as you are if you don’t feel confident in it as an adult. Does that make sense?
Laura: Yes, totally. The other benefit to making sure there is reading together, and not using the audio version, is the relationship that you have between everybody. Using our family read-aloud as an example, we’re all listening to it, so we do have a common bond over the reading, and we can talk about it. But when you’re reading together, yourselves, not using the audio version, it’s just a little different. And so even the struggle over a few words or the content and, like we were saying, the response of, “Oh, I don’t know if I would have done that in that situation.”
Sonya: You have discussion that happens.
Laura: That leads to the discussion component of it that you wouldn’t necessarily have with the audio version. I feel like we could definitely debate pros and cons a lot with this subject, and I think that there’s a lot of good and there’s a lot of cautions. But it’s important to view it as a tool and determine how that best fits your family and the situation you’re in and whether hard copies are available to you. You may not even have the option.
Sonya: I think that’s a good word and a good way to wrap it up.
How about you? Do you have any other benefits or cautions about audiobooks or examples of how they’ve worked in your family or lessons that you’ve learned from using them? We’d love to hear about it. Leave those in the comments for us. And if you have other questions that you would like us to discuss, leave those in the comments, as well. We want to make sure we get your questions answered.