by Allen Brokken, author of the Towers of Light book series.
Over the summer, it seemed like falling reading and math scores in the country came up daily in my social media feed.
- U.S. reading and math scores drop to lowest level in decades
- Illinois test scores highlight pandemic fallout with declines in math, reading
- Iowa’s test scores for 4th and 8th graders decline across the board
The headlines go on and on. We all know that the pandemic seriously impacted students’ academic achievement in many ways, but are other factors causing the record slump in test scores?
The widespread use of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets may also be to blame for the alarming decline in academic performance. While most of the scholarly literature on the topic has focused on college students, the ideas can easily be applied to younger audiences.
Combining these two factors feels like a more complete explanation for the dramatic drop in test scores across the country. However, what stood out the most in these articles was the absence of solutions for the problem. Reading proficiency is essential for long-term academic success in language arts, math, and science. Unfortunately, the articles didn’t provide specific advice for parents to help their struggling child catch up other than to advocate for more money for schools. If I were a young parent and my child had trouble reading, I’d be concerned. I wouldn’t want to wait for a program to be developed to deal with the problem eventually. I’d want a solution now. So, what should parents do?
As a parent whose child struggled to read, I can relate to this challenge. When my son reached about 2nd grade, we found he couldn’t put it all together. He could sound out the words as he read aloud but would quickly lose meaning and context. If we read to him, he tended to squirrel around and try to find something else to do. So, it took a lot of effort to read and keep him from wandering off. As a homeschooling family, this turned into a particularly tough challenge. We had two other children to teach as well. So, it was impractical to read every book to him this way and keep everyone on track.
I had a tough time relating to his challenges because I was an early reader. I went into kindergarten reading, and by 2nd grade, I could read novels written for grownups. So, I was at a complete loss for what to do. What was so different about his situation?
First of all, he was growing up in a digital age. There was endless entertainment on tablets and the computer that wasn’t available when I was a kid. Maybe I just had fewer distractions in general. Maybe, but was there something else I was missing?
Then, one day, the answer jumped out at me from a shelf of childhood collectibles. When I was four, I was given several books with 45 rpm records in them that read the story while I followed along. I also had an old cassette tape my mom made of her reading some of our other picture books. It occurred to me that might be why I was such an early reader. I had lots of practice listening while reading without any digital distractions.
So, we tried reading while listening with my son. He thought picture books were too babyish for him, so we had him sit at the kitchen table with a paperback and its audiobook adaptation from the library. We then had him follow the page along with his finger to keep his hands busy while hearing the content. After doing this for about a month, reading started to click for him. He could tell us what he had just read and dig deeper into the context to let us know he understood it. After about a year, he got to the point where he didn’t need the audiobooks to help him read anymore but still preferred to listen while he read.
This wasn’t ideal because not all books were in audio form, and those we couldn’t find at the library were expensive. However, we wanted to ensure he built his reading skills because we knew it would impact everything he did later in life. So we invested where we could and occasionally had to choose different books to read. Now, at 18, he’s a sophomore in college and successfully running his own business, so it seems like that did the trick.
That worked for us, but as we launched our kids off to college, we wondered who else might be having similar struggles. As an author, I wanted to be sure that children could enjoy my stories stress-free, so what could I do? The obvious first step was to put them into audio format, but then how could I make it easily accessible for children and families? We offer them in all the major outlets and library catalogs. But those options involve a tablet or smartphone, which come with other digital distractions that might get in the way of improving reading.
I thought about CDs, but in my home, we struggled with content in that format. CD players just aren’t a thing these days. I looked at other options, like flash drives, but they didn’t hit the mark for making it affordable and easy for kids and families to use.
Then, one day, I learned about MegaVoice audio Bibles. These devices are used worldwide to share God’s word in people’s heart language. They are light, portable, and easy to use, and some models are solar-powered. Not only that, but they are a very affordable way to share my audio content and the Bible with children.
It seemed like I had a real solid solution for children and families. But was reading while listening really the answer, or did my child just catch up on his own? So, I went back to the research again. Academic research shows that with four or more weeks of intentional reading while listening, vocabulary, reading speed, and comprehension gains are achieved. In another study, a full academic year of reading while listening improved students’ vocabulary four times as much over students who read without audio.
So that begged the question, would it work for everyday families outside a structured school study?
I sent books and devices to Homeschooling Finds and the Hip Homeschool Moms to find out, and this is what they had to say.
“The MP3 player we received was easy to use, practical, and perfectly small for travel. Having both formats definitely helps with spelling and pronunciation of new vocabulary.” – Connecting Hearts Homeschooling
“I also loved that the package came with a pathway personal reader. This meant that both kids could read the story on their own, as my youngest is not yet a fluent reader, and my oldest prefers taking in stories through her ears.” – Shauna Van Depol
Allen (Light of Mine) is a teacher at heart, a husband and father most of all. He’s a joyful writer by the abundant grace of God. He began writing the Towers of Light series for his own children to help him illustrate the deep truths of the Bible in an engaging and age appropriate way. He’s dedicated 15 years of his life to volunteer roles in children’s ministry and youth development. Now that his own children are off to college, he’s telling stories and sharing clean humor on social media @allenbrokkenauthor, and through his blog.