What We Miss When We Don’t Read

A pair of white headphones stretched over a stack of books

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I was chatting with a friend the other day about garden flowers. We each grew up around gardeners (her father, my grandmother) so we’ve heard lots of flower names over time. With the help of Google, we were able to find the names of some flowers we like and decide what to plant. 

And then she brought up a flower I know my grandmother had in her garden, “gladiolas.” “I think I overwatered my gladiolas.” “Did you see the gladiolas out front?” And that’s how I typed it into Google: gladiolas. I was switftly corrected by the search engine: Did you mean gladiolus? 

Hmm, I had heard about these flowers, but I guess I never saw the word in print. Does that matter?

Is it better to read or listen to a book?

Learning by listening

My friend and I have knowledge of flower names that is broad, but shallow. Names sound familiar to us. When we try to recall a name, we know it’s something with a G or it sounds like a person’s name. We might pull out the right name from memory but that’s about it. 

This is the kind of knowledge a novice, like a student in elementary school, might have about the planets in the solar system. They know a few names, and a few facts, but they aren’t clear on the relationships. So they might say the moon is a planet because it goes around the sun. Seeing models and diagrams, with labels, makes a huge difference in a child’s understanding of the subject, and helps them remember the facts better than listening alone.

So audiobooks are bad, right?

“But I thought you were all for audiobooks!”

Yes, I will talk all day about how much audiobooks can support comprehension for struggling readers, exposing them to challenging content that they are not yet ready to decode on their own.

But that’s not enough.

I often hear stories of school districts saying “We give a 504 for dyslexia, not an IEP” or offering accommodations like a scribe for written work, an adult to read aloud, or audiobooks, as the end point for supporting students who struggle to read. 

But if students only hear Shakespeare say [double entendre], they may miss the fact that [homophone] Their understanding will be less rich and less complete than that of a person who read the play with their eyes. Shakespeare wrote his works to be performed, though, so even that isn’t as bad as listening-only access to something like a history book or a scientific article. Academic writing is complex, with subtle punctuation choices (semi-colons, colons, and m-dashes, oh my!) and long sentences. Glancing up to the previous paragraph or flipping ahead to a diagram are an important part of understanding the text.

If your child is not getting enough support for reading and writing at school, contact us for a consultation to see how we can help through online Orton-Gillingham tutoring.

Making in the invisible visible

Seeing words and understanding morphology adds a whole layer of richness to our understanding of words. Kids may be able to memorize definitions of math and science words (centimeter, milliliter, quadrilateral) but if they don’t have the skills to take the word apart into its morphemes and notice the meaning connections to other words (centimeter, century, cent) they are missing a layer of undertstanding.

So what do we do? For kids who struggle to read, we often have to prioritize. They have fallen behind, so we choose between devoting time to shoring up basic skills or helping them to push through their current workload, relying on accommodations to save time and substitute for weaker skills. 

Teaching morphology – the meaningful building blocks that make up words in our language – is working smarter, not harder. Once students have the basics, they can continue to learn (and even teach themselves!) the meaning of new vocabulary by taking words apart into their morphemes and using that information to understand the new word. 

Managing time and energy

In life, and especially for our students who struggle, we have to manage our time and energy. We can’t expect slow reading students to both sound out all the words in an act of Hamlet and understand Shakespearian language and learn the definitions of a half-dozen vocabulary words in the play. 

So is it better to read or listen to a book? It depends on your purpose. For an overview of a complex chapter or essay, or to understand the plot and character development in a novel, audiobooks are great! You can adjust the speed, pause, rewind if you need to hear something again. You get the benefit of hearing a professional reader imbue the story with energy and meaning through expressive reading. But if the goal is the nitty-gritty details of vocabulary, word choice, and spelling, it’s best to turn to the printed version to get all the available information.

I’ll be getting my garden-planning books in visual form and saving the audiobooks for taking in stories while I commute or clean the kitchen.

If your child is struggling to read and write at school, contact us today for a consultation to see how online Orton-Gillingham literacy instruction can help.

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