In fall 2018, 5 million public school students in the United States (10% of all students) were English language learners (ELLs). The percentage of ELL in public schools ranged from 0.8% percent in West Virginia to 19% percent in California.

As of early April 2022, after Russia’s unprovoked escalation of its war against Ukraine, nearly 4.3 million refugees have left Ukraine. On March 24, 2022, the United States announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. School districts, community organizations, and institutions of higher education must begin planning for an increase of Ukrainian-speaking students. A resource that is helpful for second language learning classrooms is audio books to support student learning.

Learning a second language is difficult! We know that when we learn a new language, we start with basic terms and vocabulary. Introductory lessons are usually basic, with a good deal of practice necessary to be able to understand and express more complex ideas. Education Northwest has complied a set of research studies that suggest that students develop full language proficiency in about four to seven years.

The challenge becomes how to help students learn new content – social studies, science, mathematics – in a language in which a child is not fluent. The figure illustrates how second language learners interact with content based on the level of their English language skills and familiarity with the content area. We can see that the most challenging quadrant is for students with emerging language skills who are encountering novel content, particularly content that they had not yet learned in their native language.

Particularly challenging for English language learners is learning new information when content is presented through oral lectures that are above their language proficiency level or books that are above their reading level. Strategies for effective second language classroom instruction include repetition of new information; using aids such as charts, graphs, photographs, and timelines; and other resources that support students in decoding unfamiliar vocabulary and concepts.

A method that teachers of ELL students might wish to consider is using audio books to support language development and content instruction for second language instruction. I use the term audio “books,” although this term includes any audio recordings of text, for example, audio available through online textbooks or teacher recordings of specific classroom activities or assignments.

Studies examining the effects of listening to audio books suggest the following:

Why to use audio books

Opportunities for student to listen to rich oral language and fluent reading. Students can hear a fluent speaker modeling pronunciation, intonation, and sentence structure. This can be an engaging way to introduce concepts that can later be reinforced through other instructional methods and discussion.

Provide a way for students access content that is above their reading level. Students who have not yet developed strong reading skills in a target language, can enjoy stories at their interest level. Students can hear new vocabulary, engage with content targeted for their age, and learn new information even if they cannot read the content. Students can listen and re-listen to nonfiction text. All students can participate in a discussion of a story, even those who cannot to read the text.

Increase students’ interest in text. Stories read aloud come to life, allowing listeners to imagine the characters and situations.

Ways to use audio books in the classroom

Shared listening. All students listen to the same audiobook and discuss what they heard as a class. This enjoyable activity supports language development and learning and is similar to a teacher read-aloud or shared reading experience.

Introduce new information or a new story. Students use audio recordings as an introduction to new information. This provides students with background knowledge to support engagement in discussion, analysis of text, and vocabulary study.

Reinforce information. Students often find text easier to read after having listened to it. Students can listen to an audio book (ear reading) while also reading text (eye reading) to reinforce learning and language acquisition. Students can re-listen to stories and to information to reinforce a class discussion or to review concepts.

Homework. Students and parents can listen to stories or lectures. Audio books can help encourage discussion with parents. Teachers can prepare home discussion questions to help parents work with their children.

Audio books for when students are absent. Students can still learn new information even if they are absent.

Incentives. Listening to audio books can be a reward for behavior or learning or as an activity that students can do during free choice time.

Where to find audio books

Public library. Your local library is likely a great resource for free audio books. The library systems in the four counties in my local area all have a large selection of audio books available to download through a phone app. Students or parents can borrow these books and play them on their own device.

Also available in our libraries are Playaway pre-loaded audiobooks – a small device into which you place a battery and plug in headphones. Some Playaways are paired with print books – exactly what you’re looking for. Check your library website or call a librarian to learn about their offerings

Audible Stories. While schools were closed, Audible offered a set of audiobooks free to stream on a desktop, laptop, phone or tablet. These are popular and engaging titles to which students should enjoy listening.

Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, and the Internet Library are volunteer-run sites that allow users to listen to public domain audio books. The sites have books no longer under copyright, so although no recently published books are available on these sites, they have a large selection of classics.

Lit2Go is a free online collection of stories and poems in Mp3 (audio book) format. Each passage includes an abstract, citation, playing time, and word count. Some passages also have a related reading strategy identified. Users can download reading passages in PDF format and print the document for use as a read-along or as supplemental reading material. The children’s literature included on the site is a part of the Educational Technology Clearinghouse and is funded by various grants awarded the Florida Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida.

Loyal Books allows users to download titles to be listened to via an MP3 file or through the Apple Podcasts app, or to stream on an RSS feed.

Open Culture offers hundreds of free audio books, mostly classics, for download.