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Intervention Specialist Shares Pilot Test of Human-Read Audiobooks

Categories: Assistive Technology, Audiobook Library, Curriculum & Access, dyslexia, Education & Teaching

By: Rebecca Phirman, Intervention Specialist 

There is a growing literacy crisis in America. I know because I am an intervention specialist for St. Mary School, a national blue ribbon school of excellence in Alexandria, KY. I see the challenge on my students’ faces who struggle to read. Many of these students have a learning disability, like dyslexia, but many more go years without a formal diagnosis. These students feel the anxiety and humiliation of faking their way through a reading assignment or struggling to complete a test about a book they could barely read. 

This article is about how I pilot tested Learning Ally and the impact it has made for my students.

Pilot Testing Audiobook Support

At my school, we have elementary and junior high school students who rarely pass Accelerated Reader exams and are unable to discuss a book with their classmates. Their reading ability is well below grade level according to the NWEA assessments they take three times a year. If students are six months or more below grade level, we target reading instruction with effective research-based strategies to address this reading gap. If students do not receive the support they need, they will fall farther behind and this is why educators are constantly looking for a resource that can help them bridge the reading gap.

The Power of Learning Excitement

When I first discovered human-read audiobooks by Learning Ally, I asked a few students to test them for their next class or independent reading assignment. We talked about the benefits of learning with an audiobook and that it wasn’t cheating. They agreed to try. After all, it gave them a chance to use their device at school, and they didn’t have to do the “work” of reading. They were excited to get through an assigned book at the same pace as their peers, and they helped us (their teachers) make decisions about whether audiobooks were a good resource to help others.

Some of those first audiobook assignments included Jeremy Fink and The Meaning of Life, The Outsiders and Walk Two Moons. The students who read these audiobooks began to participate more in class. Clearly, they understood what they read. They also passed Accelerated Reader exams.

For their independent reading, struggling readers chose audiobook titles that their higher-performing peers had read and recommended, rather than titles that were at their reading level. They liked being able to self-select titles of interest and reading the same books as their friends. After the experiment was completed, these students were excited about audiobooks and wanted to read more. They told me proudly, “Look at me, I’m reading!”

Turning Struggling Readers into Academic Achievers

Struggling readers, especially in junior high, are not motivated. Years of hiding their reading challenges have undermined their learning confidence. This first group of courageous students convinced me to move forward. I discussed the audiobook approach with fellow teachers and my principal. I discussed it with parents and began to coordinate the resource into students’ learning plans and reading practice. Interestingly, I found that the word “accommodation” had a negative connotation for some teachers and parents, so we called it a reading support tool. 

This resource helped to restore my students’ confidence in their ability to read and contribute to class discussions. It complemented our schoolwide literacy efforts in a holistic way to enable students to reach their true academic potential and develop their social-emotional skills.

Intrigued by Highlighted Words and Book Report Functions

A seventh grader saw me using Learning Ally. She was intrigued that the words lit up on the screen. She was instantly excited about the mobile app and thrilled that the app could help her read books faster and prepare book reports. She liked the ability to take notes directly in the app and re-listen to a chapter or passage. Her demeanor changed from a reluctant reader to a confident learner. Her vocabulary grew. She felt more inspired. I am proud to say that she was able read a book in print written very close to her grade level with minimal teacher support. Two years ago, she wouldn’t have even tried!

The Power of Human Narration

Our second-graders love audiobooks too. They get their iPads out, put on their headphones and are reading in no time. They maneuver the mobile app masterfully to select the color of the font and rate of speech. It’s magical to see these little learners enthralled by a book and reading with ease and confidence, especially since I know they can enjoy audiobooks for a lifetime.

Teachers and parents ask me, “Do students prefer human narration?” Absolutely! My students particularly like books read by the author. 

A few years ago, Delaney Dannenberg’s mother, Shelley Ball-Dannenberg, came to our school to talk about identifying and helping students with dyslexia. She and Delaney wrote the book, “I Have Dyslexia: What Does That Mean?” Many of our students have read the book in Learning Ally. Delaney narrates the book, so she is the voice that the students hear. What a neat experience to have an author share her story with you.

A Valuable Tool for Teachers

The Learning Ally Audiobook Solution not only works for my students; it works for me. I use the teacher dashboard all the time. It lets me monitor  data of what students are reading in real time. It gives me insight into their reading preferences and reading habits. It lets me add books directly to their bookshelves and then track their reading progress. It gives me the knowledge I need to show the resource’s effectiveness to our teachers, our administrators and our parents.

National Audiobook Challenge Supports My Efforts

We also participate in Learning Ally's national reading event (The Great Reading Games) designed to support teachers’ efforts to get more struggling readers to try audiobooks. This reading challenge is a natural fit for our school culture, and our school library has significantly expanded with access to digital reading materials to support struggling readers.  During the Games, we watch the digital leaderboard on Learning Ally and post these weekly results on our school bulletin boards and in school hallways. My students like the “read for rewards” aspect of the Games and the chance to win Chromebooks and headsets. Our school adds incentives like Ice Cream Day and Out-of-Uniform Day – both fun rewards.

Learning Ally Bridges the Reading Gap

Struggling readers are empowered by audiobooks because they can choose books that interest them, and they aren’t limited by their reading level. They like the human narrators. Used in conjunction with other research-based reading interventions, Learning Ally has enabled us to bridge the reading gap for more struggling readers, bringing them up to, or even above, grade level. When I see my students enjoying reading, I remember why I became a teacher. It makes me feel good knowing that St. Mary School is doing our best to help more students succeed and to address the need for “literacy for all.”

Looking for a Solution? 

Schedule a demo to see how the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution delivers an immediate impact for your struggling readers and how the reading data dashboard works. For more information about a school subscription, call 800-221-1098 or email

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