Being shelf-less: How digital reading and listening boost literacy

Reading apps allow educators to drop entire libraries into students' hands, inviting them to read on their terms.
Gretchen Zaitzeff
Gretchen Zaitzeff
Gretchen Zaitzeff is a district library media specialist at Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah, which uses OverDrive Education’s Sora reading app to deliver digital reading material and audiobooks to its students. Zaitzeff believes access to authentic stories and accurate information is both life-changing and lifesaving.

When you walk into any of the libraries in the Canyons School District, there is a large portion of the collection that you will not be able to immediately see. That’s because that portion may reside in a student’s pocket—on the phone they scroll during their bus ride home or in the kitchen on the tablet a parent might use to read to their child after dinner.

These moments are why we choose to invest in the e-books and audiobooks on our digital bookshelves the same way we invest in physical books. They create one more opportunity to turn students into readers. Students and families need all the opportunities to access eBooks and audiobooks as educators confront falling reading scores following the pandemic and the knowledge that reading has a higher correlation to future achievement than socioeconomic status, gender, family structure and time spent on homework.

Digital reading content meets students where they are

Students spend five to nine hours a day passively consuming content on their phones. We can chisel away at some of that passivity by giving them access to eBooks and audiobooks. While that still requires teaching new habits that encourage students to read instead of scroll, at least their phones are already at their fingertips and accessible when their school library collections are not.

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Embracing the way students want to consume content fosters choice, which makes them more receptive to new ways of spending their time. If that time adds up to reading 15 minutes a day, they are likely to experience higher academic achievement. Double it to 30 and it can amount to 12 million more vocabulary words learned over the course of a student’s schooling.

As a librarian of 15 years who often gets asked this question—yes, audiobooks count as reading. Cognitively speaking, hearing the words is similar to tracking them on a page.

All students can benefit from reading apps

With physical books, what you see is what you get, and sometimes you get text that is too small for students to read comfortably. Those kinds of limitations do not exist in digital reading apps. Readers can personalize their experiences with adjustable fonts, line spacing and screen contrast.

Some apps even offer dyslexic font, which is weighted and spaced in a way that makes it easier for some people to access text. Changing how text is presented can make the difference between a student who reads and one who decides to spend their free time doing something else.

Reading apps are also exempt from the constraints of supply chains, shipping times and shelf space, so librarians can often get different versions of books in a matter of hours. For struggling students, that could mean having access to the young reader edition of the same book their peers are reading without feeling singled out because it is on their school or personal devices. Multilingual and dual-immersion students can get books in dozens of languages, while advanced and voracious readers can access higher-level books or additional content.

24/7/365 access breaks down barriers

If reading is the most fundamental academic skill a student can acquire, we should make the material they need to practice that skill available at the tap of a screen. Most of the free time students have for reading is during weekends, holidays, breaks and vacations when schools are closed and they cannot go to their school library. eBooks and audiobooks bridge that gap, and take advantage of moments of downtime in a student’s day so that reading can take place on a bus ride to a game or in the waiting room of a dentist’s office.

While the quality of books students read is important, so is the quantity of books available at home. Studies show that children with access to more books score proficient in reading at markedly higher rates than those with less access. Only some children have a shelf full of books at home, and many still need help accessing devices, but the combination of expanded one-to-one technology initiatives and reading apps that function on laptops can make the difference they need.

Screens are not going away, but one of the best ways to use them is for educational purposes. I can relate to anyone who believes there is nothing like the feel of a book in your hands, but today’s students want their reading material in the format that best meets their immediate needs—in print, on their phones while traveling, and through their headphones while being active. Reading apps allow us to drop entire libraries in their hands that invite them to read on their terms.

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