Audiobooks | Feature

At One School, iPods Help Improve Reading Scores

After noticing an uptick in ELL and other students with below average reading scores at his school, Skip Johnson, principal at El Crystal Elementary in San Bruno, CA, created a forward-thinking reading program pairing iPods and print books that has helped to successfully boost reading comprehension scores among non proficient readers.

The idea for letting struggling readers follow print and iPod audiobooks simultaneously was first sparked when Johnson was browsing the iTunes store trying to spend a $50 iTunes giftcard--a generous gift from a teacher. "I happened to notice audiobooks for sale and I went, 'Hmm, there are a lot of books here that kids want to read," he said.

Johnson then piloted the initiative with a single iPod and just a handful of audiobooks that he introduced to just three students. Now in its fourth year, the program maintains a library brimming with more than 400 audiobooks on 50 devices, and has caught on school wide.

"It was motivating to the kids, and they would be back in a day or two wanting another book," Johnson said. "It was becoming a lot of work for the media aid to load each new book. One of the teachers and I both said 'It's an iPod; you don't buy one song at a time, you make a play list."

With help from his colleagues, Johnson curated hundreds of audiobooks on a sliding scale arranged by lexile level. Students check out books from the library and take them home to read, following along with the audio loaded on school-owned iPods. When students finish, they take a Scholastic Reading Counts quiz to test their comprehension. After passing, they can progress to another book on the playlist, often at a higher level of difficulty.

"We let the kids chose the titles but we control the level of the book," Johnson explained, "and we push them to read them in increasing increments, so we use the tool the way it was intended."

To organize purchases, Johnson set up a spreadsheet that lists a given book's title, author, whether the school had a hardcopy in the library, the link to the audiobook, and what the school paid for it. The process ultimately helped to ensure that the school was only buying materials that they could quiz students on. However, Johnson describes it as a "labor of love," as data was painstakingly pulled from multiple sources like iTunes and Scholastic that do not interface with each other.

As part of the program's expansion, language arts teachers began using the iPods in their reading groups--called lit circles--with students on a broad range of reading levels. Since the school does not have iPods for every student, Johnson purchased a Belkin-made add on, called a RockStar, which lets up to five students listen to the same device on headphones without compromising the fidelity of the sound.

Recently, Johnson created video clips with students to gauge their interest in the program, where he discovered students that were beginning to genuinely enjoy reading for the first time. "Every kid I interviewed said 'I didn't like reading before because it was difficult. Now I have a tool and I like it,'" he said. "If you look a the overall data from our district, which has seven elementary schools, we read more words per year than some of the schools that have more readers."

Lexile scores have also seen improvement. "These non proficient readers are, for the most part, hitting the 100 points that Scholastic says the average reader will grow per year. And we have many kids hitting 200, 300, or even 400" points of growth.

About the Author

Stephen Noonoo is an education technology journalist based in Los Angeles. He is on Twitter @stephenoonoo.