The current boom in podcasting has captured public attention for a variety of reasons, from the nostalgic reference to radio shows of the pre-TV era to a source of inspiration for some of the more popular TV projects of the current streaming era. Perhaps something less known is the positive impact audio can have on developing preliteracy skills.
Most teachers know that audio delivers educational and developmental benefits, something worth taking a closer look at during the current audio renaissance through podcasts. Podcasting is still a relatively novel tool for supporting literacy and learning in primary and preschool classrooms. Similar to audiobooks, podcasts aid in building background knowledge, vocabulary acquisition, and comprehension skills. However, the wide variety of podcast formats can provide added benefits for auditory learners since the medium can be adapted to suit various learning styles more than even an audiobook might be.
For early learners, listening is an essential skill when learning to read, and podcasts offer an entertaining introduction to active listening to children as young as three years old. Similar to audiobooks, tuning in to podcasts exposes children to narrative structure, understanding language, and how that language conveys meaning. In their paper “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age Three,” Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found a correlation between the number of words a child hears and that child’s rate of language acquisition. While listening to a variety of podcasts, both fiction and nonfiction, students build their vocabulary, ultimately improving their reading skills.
The connection between language and auditory learning is extensive. Research out of University of California, Berkley, published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveals that listening to a book or story likely stimulates the same cognitive and emotional parts of the brain as reading it.1 “At a time when more people are absorbing information via audiobooks, podcasts, and even audio texts, our study shows that, whether they’re listening to or reading the same materials, they are processing semantic information similarly,” says lead author Fatma Deniz, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience in the Gallant Lab at UC Berkeley and former fellow with the Berkeley Institute for Data Science.
Daniel T. Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, wrote in the New York Times, “Examining how we read and how we listen shows that each is best suited to different purposes, and neither is superior.”2 For example, audiobooks cut out the decoding process—the translation of print on the page to words in the mind. By high school, decoding is an automatic process, yet it is an essential skill beginning readers must tackle. So, while auditory supplements should not replace reading, audiobooks and podcasts provide opportunities for literacy learning where there may otherwise be none.
As high school English teacher Michael Godsey reported in an article for the Atlantic back in 2016, after having his class listen to episodes of This American Life and Serial, he was impressed by the critical thinking and engagement he saw from students.3 Students began having in-depth discussions about the stories with other adults who were listening to the same podcasts. Moreover, maybe most importantly, listening to podcasts makes his students want to read more. The embedded advertisements and overwhelming amount of seemingly irrelevant children’s podcasts available can be overwhelming to primary and preschool educators.
The Kids Listen survey had similar findings to Godsey’s in-classroom exploration of podcasts.4 The survey uncovered that 80% of kids listen to a podcast more than once, and after they’re done listening, 75% start discussions based on what they have learned. On top of that, kids may learn better when they listen. According to the Audio Publishing Association, comprehension, vocabulary, reading speed, and even motivation are all positively impacted by auditory learning.5
No matter the listener’s age, whether in the classroom or at home, podcasts are an entertaining tool to teach students about themselves, their peers, science, history, and other subjects. The variety in kid-friendly podcast formats lends itself well to reaching a range of learners and a wide variety of interests. For example:
• Trivia and audio game shows such as ExtraBLURT (grades 3–6) and ExtraBLURT Jr. (K–2) invite kids to play along with immersive trivia games and encourage listeners to shout out the answers. From the challenge of listening and formulating an answer in their minds to the natural dopamine burst of correctly answering questions, unbeknownst to them, children are building literacy skills, all while being entertained without a screen aiding the fun.
• Rich story-based podcasts require listeners to concentrate, comprehend, and react carefully. A perfect example of this is the fairy-tale podcast series Grimm, Grimmer, Grimmest (K–5), which asks listeners to anticipate plot twists and question logic in these Grimm tales.
• Interactive podcasts also lend themselves well to reaching those students who might need to move their bodies while learning or those who love to test their comprehension skills. For example, American Public Media’s Brains On!® science podcast answers questions about the world, all while encouraging kids’ natural curiosity and wonder using science and history. Meanwhile, the Anytime Art show teaches young children new creative skills through a virtual art project that is taught over the course of five days, resulting in a completed piece of art spanning painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, and more.
With no accompanying visuals, podcasts by nature encourage children to listen actively, start conversations, and ask questions. The portable nature of podcasts also makes them perfect forms of entertainment, sneaking in a bit of learning in the car, on the school bus, even as a background to morning breakfast at home. In the classroom, they can be used for whole-class instruction, small-group pairings, or independent listening, and with the wide variety available, they can support instruction across the curriculum. Their entertainment value is high as well, keeping kids engaged with age-appropriate music, serial stories with cliffhangers, and in many cases, jokes that can be shared again on the playground.
When beginning the search for curriculum-appropriate podcasts, it is essential to ensure the podcasts are of the highest quality, with a strong appeal to the listeners. Start by looking at award-winning and best-of children’s podcast lists from credible resources. Look into the creators of the podcasts and their backgrounds in entertainment, education, and content development for the listeners’ age ranges as a credibility test.
Common Sense Media and Parents’ Choice Foundation both offer unbiased reviews of podcasts and audio entertainment streaming services, for example. Listen to a few episodes, paying close attention to the quality of sound, opportunities to listen actively, content relevancy as it maps to your teaching objectives, and age appropriateness as tests. Exceptional editorial and storytelling, as well as sound quality and high production values, are essential to keep listeners engaged.
While podcast offerings are extensive, for age-appropriate offerings and ad-free audio for younger learners, on-demand streaming services are great solutions for preschool and primary school educators—offering thousands of podcast episodes, audiobooks, and songs that have been carefully created and curated for both home and school listening and developed specifically for children ages 3–12. My company, Pinna, is widely experienced in both the kids’ education and entertainment spaces and is dedicated to creating safe content that encourages active listening, conversation, social interaction, and imaginative play—and gets kids giggling, guessing, puzzling, and participating.
1. Journal of Neuroscience, https://www.jneurosci.org/content/39/39/7722
2. New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/08/opinion/sunday/audiobooks-reading-cheating-listening.html?module=inline
3. Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/03/the-benefits-of-podcasts-in-class/473925/
Maggie McGuire, CEO of Pinna (www.Pinna.fm), is a seasoned media expert with deep experience in product and content development as well as innovation experience. McGuire brings a background in education and over 20 years of experience in children’s media to Pinna, most recently serving as vice president of eScholastic, the digital division of Scholastic. This article appeared in Language Magazine’s November 2019 issue.