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A word in your ear

Audio books are encouraging a love of reading. Susannah Kirkman reports

Improving listening and oral skills, boosting conceptual understanding and analytical skills and, above all, promoting a love of books - the achievements of Listening Books with pupils are impressive.

Listening Books is a national charity which provides a postal audio library service to anyone with an illness or disability that makes it difficult to hold a book, turn its pages or read in the usual way; many of the children who use the service have dyslexia or dyspraxia.

The charity offers more than 4,000 titles, including classic and contemporary fiction, sport, history, travel and comedy. More than 50 schools around the UK, including hospital schools, pupil referral units and comprehensives, are members of the scheme. They will soon be able to download digitised versions of audio books, although teachers think hard copy formats will still be necessary for pupils to take home.

A recent external evaluation of a three-year pilot project including 30 London schools showed that teachers are enthusiastic about the benefits of audio books, which have the capacity to engage even the most reluctant readers.

According to a learning support teacher at Orleans Park school in Richmond, south London: "One child is frequently absent from school. He suffers from dyslexia, and has been known to sit for half an hour with a tape, entranced."

"The love of books has come back," commented the head of Year 7 at Highbury Grove school, north London. "Some girls now borrow the book to get to the end of the story. Others look forward to listening to the tape. They are enjoying long books again."

Teachers also find that the audio stimulus takes less able readers beyond the difficulties of decoding the text so that they can enjoy the story, pick out the main events and improve their comprehension. Another important benefit is that bright children who find reading difficult are able to appreciate literature at their intellectual level rather than at their reading ability level.

"There was one young man with a reading age of seven," explained a team leader at Greenwich Hospital Outreach Service. "He suffered from dyslexia and dyspraxia... In mainstream school, he continuously had access only to reading material for seven-year-olds. This limited what he could enjoy. We broke the tape down into small units. He would listen a bit and I'd ask him to tell me what he had heard. It put him in control."

The audio tapes are helping with punctuation, too. Pupils can understand paragraphs because they can see from the text and hear from the tape that a new idea has been introduced. Speech marks are easier to understand when they can hear the different voices.

In some schools, the audio books are used to calm stressed students, and at least one teacher has discovered that they improve pupils' behaviour in class, because they allow more eye-contact with the students. "It is a skilled person who can read a text and engage with a class," said a special needs teacher.

Given the huge success of Listening Books, it seems incredible that the charity's work is hampered by a postage bill of pound;85,000 a year, as 85 per cent of its members do not qualify for free postage under the Articles for the Blind scheme, which gives free transit to audio books for people with visual impairment. Most members of Listening Books suffer from other barriers to reading, such as MS, stroke, Parkinson's or learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

The charity has recently launched a campaign, More than Meets the Eye, to persuade the Government to broaden the terms of the Articles for the Blind Scheme to include all print impairments. It is urging all interested individuals to lobby their MPs.

"Our membership is continuing to grow and we are incurring what is an unfair cost; we'd rather be buying more books for our readers than paying for postage," insisted Bill Dee, director of Listening Books.

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