Research Notes December 2013

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Content area reading: Can audio books help LD students access the curriculum?

“Content literacy refers to the ability to use reading, writing, talking, listening, and viewing to learn subject matter in a given discipline." (Vacca, Vacca, Mraz, 2011) Unfortunately students with learning disabilities often spend “valuable learning time decoding difficult concepts and vocabulary at the expense of effective higher level comprehension." ( Boyle, Rosenberg, Connelly, Washburn, Brinckerhoff & Banerjee, 2003) How can these students regain this valuable learning time to focus their efforts on higher-level comprehension? This is a question many teachers struggle to answer as they teach their content curriculum.

Content area teachers are often “subject matter experts … but while knowledge about the content to be taught is a prerequisite for good teaching, being an expert in the discipline is not enough. Teachers also need knowledge about how to make content available to students." (Fang & Schleppegrell, 2008) Yet content area teachers are often forced to “ ignore the problems of their struggling readers or compensate for them by giving students notes from a reading assignment or reading a text aloud instead of helping the students learn to extract information from a text themselves." ( Berman & Biancarosa, 2004) Teachers must carefully choose “alternative instructional methods … needed to convey content information effectively and efficiently." (Boyle et al., 2003)

Understanding content information is often a struggle for students because “textbooks [are] typically the primary access routes to the required content information," (Boyle et al., 2003) yet research has shown that they “often have readability levels well beyond student's abilities." (Boyle et al., 2003) Teachers who use these textbooks often deemphasize them or at times they may rewrite the content in an effort to simplify the reading. However, research has shown that “the impact of tampering with the text can be problematic, resulting in reduced text coherence and structure, a situation that may actually make content material more difficult to comprehend ." (as cited by Boyle et al., 2003) In an effort to help support the struggling readers, many content area teachers are requiring their students to listen to their textbooks. The hope is that the audio will help the students minimize the amount of mental energy spent on decoding the textbook thus potentially freeing up the mental resources needed to comprehend the content material.

Boyle, Rosenberg, Connelly, Washburn, Brinckerhoff & Banerjee (2003) researched “the effects of audio texts on the acquisition of secondary-level content by students with mild disabilities." Students' progress was monitored during the six-week intervention using weekly section quizzes and a final cumulative assessment. Prior to the implementation of the audio texts, the students in each group were given a pretest to assess their prior knowledge of the material. After the six-week intervention, a similar posttest was administered to assess the students' ability to apply the knowledge they should have gained from the content area instruction. The results of the assessments clearly showed that “ the use of audio text had significant effect on secondary-level content acquisition." (Boyle et al, 2003) “As a result of the intervention, students in the two experimental groups [as compared to those in the control group who did not use audio] were able to access high-level content material and achieve higher quiz and cumulative test scores." (Boyle et al, 2003) On the cumulative content acquisition assessments “both experimental groups using the audio textbook scored significantly higher than the control group as reflected in the knowledge acquisition scores." (Boyle et al, 2003)

Boyle and his colleagues' research (2003) encourages content area teachers to use audio to support textbook reading because it can “provide better access to the curriculum, reduce or eliminate the effect of a student's disability on classroom performance, and thereby enhance student learning." (Boyle et al, 2003) This seems like a simple solution to a complex problem. But can the use of audio help all students, including those with severe reading disabilities?

In 2008, Manset-Williamson, Dunn, Hinshaw, & Nelson (2008) published the results of their study, the purpose of which “was to determine the degree older children with reading disabilities comprehend text-reader assisted text that is at or above actual grade level and whether comprehension of text-reader assisted text could be enhanced if students with reading disabilities were taught and prompted to use self-questioning strategies." (Manset-Williamson et al, 2008) The intervention was four days a week over a six-week time frame. Passages were chosen for the students to read that were “too difficult for [the] students to complete without support, but not untypical of what they would experience in their social studies or science text…The Kurzweil3000 software was used to read the scanned passages." (Manset-Williamson et al, 2008) The students were taught the self-questioning strategies prior to the intervention. The success of the instructional support was evaluated by the accuracy of the students' answers on multiple-choice questions and written summaries of the passages.

The results of this intervention show that “while text-reader software provides some access to text, it does not necessarily guarantee that students will actually comprehend text. The findings here and in earlier research support the integration of text-reader software with other established interventions that target comprehension strategies in order to maximize outcomes for students with reading disabilities." (Manset-Williamson et al, 2008) However, the “self questioning strategies were not completely effective…while students did better, they did not in general demonstrate mastery in their comprehension of text." (Manset-Williamson et al, 2008) “It is not clear why text-reader software is not more effective for students with reading disabilities. Perhaps it is because students' underlying deficits in language processing both contributes to the decoding ability and to their comprehending text as it is read to them." (Manset-Williamson et al., 2008)

These results of Manset-Williamson, Dunn, Hinshaw, & Nelson (2008) research demonstrate that teachers need to be aware that when using audio to help support their students' access to content area material some students may still struggle to comprehend. Research suggests that the complex language structure of textbooks may be the obstacle that some students need to overcome before they can experience the benefit of audio support. Fang and Schleppegrell (2008) would agree that students' inability to process the complex language structures of the text would limit the benefits of audio supported content area reading. They highlight that students struggle to comprehend content area material because “each of the subject areas of secondary schooling confronts students with texts constructed in patterns of language they are unlikely to have encountered in the texts they read in the earlier grades." (Fang and Schleppegrell, 2008) They caution that if teachers want to help their students access their textbooks their instruction must include explicit instruction to help the students “develop discipline-specific reading skills and strategies in understanding how knowledge is presented in characteristic patterns of language in each subject." (Fang and Schleppegrell, 2008) As students with reading disabilities develop their ability to process complex language structures, they will be able to fully benefit from the audio support of content area textbook reading.



Helen Mannion, M. Ed., CALT, is Director of Language and Literacy Remediation and Director of Teacher Training at Delaware Valley Friends School. Helen received her BA from Bucknell University and her M.Ed. from Benedictine University in reading and literacy. She is a Certified Academic Language Therapist who focuses her research and curriculum development on language and literacy instruction.


  • Berman, I., & Biancarosa, G. (2005). Reading to achieve: A governor's guide to adolescent literacy. Washington, DC: National Governors Association Center for Best practices.
  • Boyle, E., Rosenberg, M., Connelly, V., Washburn, S., Brinckerhoff, L. & Banerjee, M. (2003). Effects of Audio Texts on the Acquisition of Secondary-Level Content By Students With Mild Disabilities, Learning Disability Quarterly, 26, 203-214.
  • Fang, Z., & Schleppegrell, M. (2008). Reading in Secondary Content Areas: A Language Based Pedagogy. Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
  • Manset-Williamson, G., Dunn, M., Hinshaw, R. & Nelson, J. (2008). The Impact of Self Questioning Strategy Use on the Text-Reader Assisted Comprehension of Students With Reading Disabilities, International Journal of Special Education, 23 (1), 123 – 135.
  • Vacca, R., Vacca, J., & Mraz, M. (2011). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the Curriculum. Boston: Pearson.

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