Listen and learn: why audiobooks are great for your child

Children listening to an audiobook
Whether your child is a voracious reader or is horrified at the suggestion of picking up a book, audiobooks could have some surprising benefits. Lucy Dimbylow explains how they could boost literacy skills, and shares our pick of the best to get you started.

If you’ve got some long journeys planned over the holiday period, chances are you’ve already considered investing in some story CDs to stave off boredom. But audiobooks aren’t just useful on the move; they’re also a brilliant tool for boosting your child’s reading skills.

‘Listening to a story can be valuable for all sorts of reasons,’ says Irene Picton of the National Literacy Trust. ‘One benefit of audiobooks is that children have the opportunity to hear speech patterns and rhythms that they might miss in print. They teach them about voice and expression, which can help with their own speaking and articulation.’ Dialects, accents and humour are brought to life, providing children with a model for reading aloud.

Growing better readers

Audiobooks can improve your child’s reading by increasing his exposure to a range of vocabulary and syntax and helping him to engage intellectually with the content. Read-along book and CD sets can also help him link the printed and spoken word. And with research suggesting that children’s listening skills are becoming poorer, with a knock-on effect on academic success, audiobooks could help your child become a better listener.

Audiobooks also enable your child to discover stories that exceed his actual reading age. ‘Children develop literacy at different rates, but audiobooks can help them access stories that would be too advanced for them to read,’ says Laurence Howell of audiobook specialists Audible. ‘It’s a wonderful way to open up great literature to children.’

Using stories to overcome reading struggles

All children can benefit from listening to audiobooks, but they may be of particular advantage to reluctant readers. ‘If a child finds decoding or comprehension difficult, audiobooks can make literature more accessible,’ says Irene. ‘They get to hear the story in real time, rather than it becoming disjointed as they struggle through the text. It gives them the opportunity to become absorbed in the book.’
Audiobooks can also help children who find reading tedious. ‘They’re great for restless children because they can be doing something else at the same time,’ Irene explains. ‘It’s quicker to listen to a story than to read it yourself, so they get a faster pay-off.’ Plus University of Memphis research shows that we’re more likely to persevere with an audiobook that doesn’t immediately grab us than we would with a book, so they could help build stamina for stories if your child loses interest in books quickly.

Listen with mother (and father)

So when and how can you use audiobooks? ‘You can listen any time: in the car, the bath, at bedtime to help your child wind down, or just have one on in the background during the day,’ Irene says. ‘Children go through phases when they’re less interested in reading, so listening to audiobooks can keep up their exposure to literature.’

But while audiobooks can buy you some peace and quiet, listening with your child is beneficial, too. ‘It can be a good bonding experience, and improve your own storytelling skills,’ Irene says. Research also suggests that to help your child get the most from an audiobook, it’s important to ask questions about the story, boosting critical thinking skills.

There’s a vast range of children’s audiobooks available on CD or to download.

  • Libraries are a good (and cost-effective) source of story CDs.
  • You can also download audiobooks – some free of charge – onto phone, tablet or computer from websites such as Audible and iTunes.
  • Puffin have just launched a Roald Dahl audio app for iOS devices, which is a library of new recordings of 19 of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s titles read by celebrity readers including Kate Winslet and David Walliams, with brand-new sound effects. The first chapter of every book is free, so you can sample before you buy.
  • If you're looking for stories for younger readers, Ladybird Audio offer some great collections on iTunes, with a choice of fairy tales and classic tales and prices starting at £3.99.
  • Another new development is children’s books containing QR codes that, when scanned with a smartphone, link to the audio version and interactive features.

Okay, so audiobooks might have slightly fusty connotations, but children’s versions are far from boring, thanks to celebrity narrators such as Stephen Fry, Anne Hathaway and Matt Lucas. ‘A good narrator can transform the story, and your child’s understanding and enjoyment of it,’ says Laurence. ‘There’s something about being read aloud to that never fails to be comforting, regardless of your age.’

Six of the best children’s audiobooks

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling, narrated by Stephen Fry (£20.52, Cover to Cover)
The Boy in the Dress by David Walliams, narrated by David Walliams and Matt Lucas (£9.99, Harper Collins)
The Twits by Roald Dahl, narrated by Simon Callow (£9.99, Puffin)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis, narrated by BBC Radio 4 cast (£10.20, BBC Audiobooks)
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum, narrated by Anne Hathaway (from £3.99, Audible)
Matilda by Roald Dahl, narrated by Kate Winslet (£4.99, Roald Dahl audio app)

The National Literacy Trust’s Words for Life campaign provides lots of fun activity ideas and inspiration for parents to help you support your child’s literacy.

Behind the scenes: children's audiobook production