1998 Conference Proceedings

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Learning To Be Audio-Literate


Eileen Goodwin Mulvaney, EdD
Henry Viscardi Schools
National Center for Disability Services
Albertson, NY 11507
Voice/Message: (516)465-1697
Internet: emulvaney@hvs.k12.NY.US

This presentation has three major goals:

  1. To make clear that persons who depend upon an aural presentation to access written text are as authentically literate as visual readers.


  2. To explain why training for audio-literacy is as necessary as traditional literacy training, and should begin early.


  3. To convince users of recorded books, in any of the available formats, that the technology is not effortless and requires extensive training and practice to become an effective teaching-learning tool.


In our society the literate person is, by general consensus, one who can pick up books, periodicals, instructional manuals and other written materials and obtain from them information and/or pleasure. There are, of course, different levels of literacy seen as standard in different situations and for different populations, but they all, at first glance, presume direct, independent, visual access to printed matter. A more careful examination of the term "literacy" raises questions about that presumption.

There are many persons for whom written text is not directly accessible. Most obviously, those who are visually impaired are totally or partially excluded from printed matter. Other persons, with physical disabilities, are unable to maintain focus on or follow lines of print. Physical disabilities can make holding a book or turning pages impossible. Learning disabilities can interfere to a greater or lesser degree with access to printed matter.

As a result these persons are unable to read in a typical manner. Are they, therefore, to be called illiterate?

To answer that question it is necessary to examine carefully the meaning of "literacy". Literacy begins, usually, in the young child when he recognizes that written symbols carry information and he begins to accumulate a word recognition bank of favorite commercial products and fast food establishments. The next stage comes with the knowledge that certain letters and letter combinations can be interpreted phonetically and read as familiar words. This is an exciting time for children who joyfully report that they can read. This is known as "emergent literacy."

Literacy involves reading skills of a higher order. Reading with comprehension, or literacy, is an extremely involved thinking process in which the reader uses a set of information processing skills and strategies in order to, for example, recognize inferences, appreciate mood, follow arguments, or judge conclusions. The beginning decoder is not ready for all that-but neither is the young listener. For both, achieving literacy is a developmental task. Visually and aurally literate persons use that same complex thinking processes to apply the same skills and strategies to the same end.

While listening and reading appear to be clearly different activities, listening comprehension and reading comprehension are not so easily distinguished. Research often demonstrates that strength in one mode equals strength in the other, and it can be argued that once a visual reader is skilled at decoding there is not an essential difference between visual reading and aural reading as both use the same cognitive and linguistic skills.

In attempting to explain the listening process, Halle and Stevens (1964) proposed a model which proceeded in this manner: attentive listeners receive words not passively but into active minds. That activity brings into play what the listeners already know about the topic of discourse, their relevant predispositions, and the rules of language usage which are known to them. The listeners begin to process what they are hearing by making judments and applying rules to find a thread of meaning as quickly as possible. Isolated words are combined to form ideas and these ideas are retained and combined into an understanding of the message. In Kenneth Goodman's (1976) model of visual reading, the first step is to scan and select the cues which will be most information seeking process. Readers predict the writer's message on the basis of syntactic information and their growing sense of the meaning. They search their memories for language cues and related background experience and choose an interpretation of the text which is then tested for conformity to their ideas of what is possible and sensible. Ruddell (1969) constructed a similar communications system model which examines the act of visual reading but through which, he states, the listener could proceed in similar fashion.

While listening and reading, the two principles modes of receptive language, have much in common, there are factors which influence the relative strength of the listener and the visual reader. Younger students have greater success with listening, as a rule. When readers' initial steps ofdecoding and word recognition are not at an automatic level they do not have easy access to the meaning of the text and will prefer listening. With older students, particularly when given complex material, independent visual reading is usually the preferred and more successful mode. This apparently is related to the opportunity to choose one's own effective rate and to reread as needed.

For the listener, without the opportunity to glance back at the text, working memory is crucial. Verbatim echo is lost in seconds; the listener who finds him/herself hearing a message which contradicts the hypothesized interpretation he has formulated will not be able to check back without resorting to "rewind" and "replay" buttons. The concentration and and discipline required is, therefore, greater in listening comprehension and must be practiced.

There are other important areas, in which typical students are given training and practice, that are not developed in less successful readers. As a class develops automaticity in decoding and word recognition, the students will be assigned more independent reading and their lessons will focus on the thinking skills which lead to comprehension. The text in their books will use longer and increasingly complex sentences, extended paragraphs, and increasingly sophisticated vocabulary. They will learn to make predictions, evaluate material, and draw conclusions. The poor decoder, on the other hand, is typically continued in the attempt to master "basics" and does not develop comprehension skills. It is essential that these weaker visual readers share the opportunity to develop comprehension skills, and audio books offer that opportunity.

Happily, listening and "reading" drill are not an either/or choice; both can be offered. Parents who resist audio-books, because they want their children to be visual readers, can be assured that listening while following the text visually can be effective remediation for many immature readers. Every student needs to develop as much decoding skill as possible; there are times when even poor decoders will want to use visual skills, but comprehension must not be sacrificed to that end.

Talking books are seen so frequently now in book stores and on walkers, joggers, and drivers that they seem to be the simplest technology. For the student who is dependent upon aural reading, however, there is little about talking books that is simple. The books that slip into a Walkman are often abridged, and come without assignments or homework. But,even listening to an engrossing (unabridged) novel becomes a task when a book report must follow. When using a subject area text book, the complications compound. Training, encouragement, practice, and patience are essential. Clearly, the sooner the student begins, the better.

Typically, students who require audio-books enroll with the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Library of Congress-applications are available at their local library. They will receive, without charge, a special tape player and a catalogue of fiction and non-fiction books and periodicals from which to choose. For text books, they will enroll with Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic which will tape their needed textbooks to order. There is a one time registration fee of $50. and an annual cost of $25. for this service and this company sells a variety of tape players. Their material is, however, all playable on the Library of Congress machine.

That device has four tracks, speed control, volume control; the text comes with a table of contents identifying the location on each track of the numbered pages; the recording beeps and identifies the page being read. Newer players have features which permit, for example, rereading words and sentences over and over to memorize them. Utilizing all these features is not a simple task at all, nor is coordinating them with the printed book illustrations and charts.

On the commercial market, there are computers and software which will read aloud any text material presented to it.

This text-to-speech voice synthesis equipment allows the aural reader to keep up with his/her classmates, or, indeed, fellow workers, but it also requires training and practice.

A School Psychologist in Knoxville, TN, Mike Matvy, has made available on the Internet excellent material explaining the problems and blessings of Alternative Reading Methods and I refer you to mjmatvy@sacam.ore.ort.edu (Yahoo) for further information.

Recorded books, Books-on-Tape, Audio-books, Computer-Scan books are all ways of saying that the world of printed text is no longer a lost world to those who cannot read visually. But, these aural readers need help in obtaining and learning to use the material which is not as readily accessible as typical books. Remembering the effort that goes into teaching the visually literate reader will remind us that the effort made to produce an aurally literate reader must be commensurate.

Is it worth the effort? Any accomplished aural reader will tell us, as any reader will, that books are always worth it!

American Printing House for the Blind
1839 Frankfort Ave;
PO Box 6085
Louisville KY 40206<
1(800) 223-1839

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Library of Congress
Washington, DC 20542

Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D)
20 Roszel Road
Princeton NJ 08540
1(800) 221-4792


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