Two years ago, I was practically begging a student to read a novel in my high-school English class. This isn’t an unusual problem. The girl, who’s a relatively bright, college-bound athlete, told me that she “just gets too distracted after five minutes” of reading. When she promised that she would listen to the audiobook of the novel on the team bus that afternoon, I was less than enthused. “Reading is like getting in physical shape,” I told her. “This time, try to read for seven minutes and then take a break.” But a few minutes later, I could see she had spaced out again. I considered the implausibility of students such as her reading the novel for homework, outside my quiet classroom.
In contrast, I recently discovered my students voluntarily reading a story together, all at the same time. And they were inspired by an unlikely medium—podcasts—which is obviously ironic, as many people like podcasts precisely because they don’t have the time or inclination to sit down and read. In fact, Serial has an explicit warning at the beginning of their transcripts: “Serial is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read.” Of course, teenagers are infamous for enjoying exactly what they’re told not to do, but I was nevertheless surprised that while listening to an episode of Serial in class, their collective eyes fixed on the transcripts displayed on a screen at the front of the room. And I was startled—happily so—by their shouts when I was tardy in scrolling down.
I already knew that my students enjoyed listening to contemporary podcasts in class, and I’ve found value in using them as primary texts. In a unit on racial bias, my students were visibly moved by a This American Life episode called “Is This Working?” To learn about slander, libel, and defamation, they loved listening to Bill Simmons’s rant that led to his suspension from ESPN. And we studied the first season of Serial for a variety of reasons, most of them related to critical thinking, listening comprehension, and the art of storytelling. While I felt guilty the students weren’t reading very much during this unit, their engagement with a relevant and timely story—their eagerness to ask questions, their intrinsic motivation to use critical thinking—seemed to make it worth it, at least temporarily. The students voluntarily studied maps, evaluated clues, argued with each other, and wrote twice as much in their journals as they previously had. Perhaps most satisfying to me, they were engaging in adult conversations with teachers, parents, and administrators who were listening to the same podcast.
I also already knew that podcasts, whose popularity continues to grow—one in five Americans listened to a podcast in the last month—were catching on in other classrooms across the country. MindShift’s Linda Flanagan has written a series of articles about students listening to and creating their own podcasts, and Edutopia has listed “8 Podcasts for Learning.” TeachersPayTeachers.com, an online marketplace for lesson plans, reports that annual downloads of lessons based on podcasts increased by 21 percent in 2014—and then 650 percent in 2015 (the year after Serial launched).
What I know now is that high-schoolers—at least my students—like reading and simultaneously listening to podcasts even more. Although many observers attribute the growth of podcasts to recent technological advancements in production and access, relatively little is said about the latest in voice transcription. Unlike the first season, Serial’s second season features almost perfectly accurate transcripts of each episode. I knew it would be a bonus to my lessons this year; I didn’t know it would be a game-changer. I turned off the lights, projected the words, and told them, “Here’s the script in case that helps anyone.” It apparently helped everyone. They all turned their heads, and some of them shifted their desks.
Apparently there were teachers who were at least a year ahead of me with this discovery. Rich Hovey, who teaches English to at-risk high school students at the Grizzly Youth Academy, recently told me that he let his students voluntarily read along with Season 1 of Serial using transcripts found on Reddit, and they jumped on the opportunity. “It was thrilling,” Hovey said, “to watch them so focused on their reading, excitedly scrolling down on their Chromebooks.”
Earlier this week, I asked each of my own students to write down what they’d honestly like to do for the rest of the semester: read a good book together, listen to another podcast, or listen to a podcast with the words on the screen. Sixty-two voted for the latter, while just two voted for podcasts alone, and one for reading alone.
The reasons were as varied as they were compelling. Many of them said that reading along with the audio helped with their focus and kept them from “spacing out” while listening. Others, paradoxically, wrote that they were able to multi-task—they could take notes or write on their worksheets and could keep up with the story even with their eyes off the screen. Some explicitly recognized that they could look back and re-read something they didn’t understand when they first heard it; others said they read slightly ahead and then could write down a quote while they listened to it. A student with eyesight problems said he appreciates the ability to take reading breaks without stopping his enjoyment of the story. A few students learning English as a second language wrote that they like how they can read the words and—as one student put it—promptly “hear how they’re supposed to sound.”
Inside the Podcast Brain: Why Do Audio Stories Captivate?
In an Atlantic piece about “the podcast brain,” the writer Tiffanie Wen quoted Emma Rodero, a communications professor at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, as saying that “listening, unlike looking at a written page, is more active, since the brain has to process the information at the pace it is played.” My student Roberto offered similar insight: “I think it helps me out with my reading since I have to keep a pace up.”
I shouldn’t be surprised they like the transcripts. Ever since my 5-year-old daughter learned the advanced functions on the remote control, she intentionally puts closed captions on her cartoons. My students—particularly those who are learning English as a second language—enjoy a similar motivation to master new words, albeit at a much higher level. Jose Aguilar wrote that the podcast-transcript combination is “so much better than reading because it allows me to read the right pronunciation of the spelling.” His classmate Jon Rios reads the transcripts because, in his words, “It is so helpful, both hearing and seeing the words, so I can kind of know where I’m at.”
A similar situation in India was observed on a much larger scale when—starting in 1999—certain networks started supplementing some of their television shows with “Same Language Subtitling” (SLS), and the country’s literacy rates soared. The Boston Globe reported on the phenomenon in 2010, claiming that “in the last nine years, functional literacy in areas with SLS access has more than doubled. And the subtitles have acted as a catalyst to quadruple the rate at which completely illiterate adults become proficient readers.”
According to a study on the SLS project by the academic and social entrepreneur Brij Kothari and others at Stanford University that was published by MIT, limited exposure to SLS within a telecast period of six months was “found to make an incremental but measurable contribution to decoding skills … The potential for SLS in India and other countries is enormous.” Kothari’s project was ambitious, but the results weren’t anomalous. For example, a study at the University of Nottingham concerning the processing of native and foreign language through subtitles concluded that “Many vocabulary-learning studies seem to confirm that having both written and aural form of a word facilitates learning.”
Drawing conclusions that sounded very similar to my own students’ reflections, the SLS study found that “one’s ability to anticipate the lyrics,” combined with immediate validation through the audio, cultivated “a steady stream of successful reading events”—presumably scenarios in which students read with accuracy and enjoyment. In this way, the SLS contributed to “a nonthreatening reading environment in which to embark upon, confirm, practice, and enjoy one’s developing reading skills.”
The study also noted that the low cost of subtitling television shows is “attractive”—and again, I feel the same way in my own classroom. Two years ago, my English department worked for months to convince the district to buy hundreds of copies of a nonfiction anthology for tens of thousands of dollars. For two seasons’ worth of Serial, including maps, photos, and links to supplementary articles, a teacher simply goes to the website and presses “play.”
Though the similarities with the SLS project are inspiring, I’m not ready to incorporate subtitled movies or television shows. From my perspective, they’re simply not as textually dense; and from the students’ perspective, they’re frankly not as interesting. When I showed Twelve Angry Men and even an episode of Making a Murderer (which has some subtitles) to my criminal-justice class, they were visibly nonplussed, and openly asked for a return to something like Serial.
Again, this could be expected. In the same aforementioned Atlantic article, Rodero explained: “Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production … and that of course, is something that you can never get with visual media.” Or, as one of my students put it, “listening to the words puts the visualization in my head.”
Audiobooks, too, seem to fall short of the podcast’s value in the classroom for a variety of reasons. One, from my experience there are few things more soporific to a teenager than listening to a singular narrator read a classically told story. Even an Edgar Allan Poe tale near Halloween fails to captivate, which used to surprise me. Wen cites Rodero’s study that shows a story told through dialogue “stimulates listeners’ attention” more than a traditional narration. Also, as The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance recognizes in her analysis of Serial’s “fandom,” the listener can participate in many contemporary podcasts rather than feel like a novel is being read to them.
It should almost be remarked that podcasts are, as Kevin Roose explained in New York Magazine, experiencing a renaissance at least partly because they’re “simply better” than they used to be. And in the Wall Street Journal, Alexandra Alter points out that today’s authors are realizing that “writing for audio requires different techniques,” which they’re utilizing. Take Serial, for example: Sarah Koenig’s first-person narration never goes very long without the infusion of somebody else’s voice, very subtle music, slight shifts in volume, and transitions from a formal to conversational style.
And while entertainment writers are gushing about podcasts, educational scholars are excited about the latest findings concerning listening comprehension—and its correlation with literacy. In a 2014 article published in the International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, Tiffany P. Hogan and others review the significant amount of research that indicates that “listening comprehension becomes the dominating influence on reading comprehension,” especially as children grow older. In short, word recognition, or decoding, is the most crucial skill for very young or beginning students of English, but as decoding becomes more automatized and texts become more complex, listening comprehension becomes the primary component for learning language. Podcasts offer an opportunity for students to practice their listening comprehension of complex texts that are both conversational and formal, and the corresponding scripts give the student the chance to confirm their comprehension.
Podcasts can also aid in teaching the craft of storytelling—again, Serial is a great example (and perhaps even exceptional—by no means are all podcasts written and produced with the same level of quality). As LaFrance points out, Sarah Koenig has a tendency to explain why she’s withholding secrets, to foreshadow later parts of the story, and even to muse about what she should publicly publish and what should stay private. In Season 2, she explicitly cites the children’s book Zoom as the model structure for her story, discusses her sources, and even asks the narrative’s “characters” what they think of the reporting so far. For obvious reasons, Koenig’s self-conscious literary reflections are invaluable in an English class full of kids learning to write, as the students get the sense that the author guiding them through the creative process.
With that said, not everyone is impressed with the idea of audio replacing or supplementing books. Speaking for many traditional bibliophiles, CityLab’s Eric Jaffe writes that “the very freedom granted by audio books—inviting the eyes to wander, and then the mind—may make them less intellectually interchangeable with printed ones.” To be fair, he’s writing about audiobooks, but the Frontiers in Psychology study he cites does explicitly call out podcasts: “While listening to an audiobook or podcast may seem to be a convenient and appealing option, our findings suggest that it might be the least beneficial to learning, leading to both higher rates of mind wandering and less interest in the material.” Here, too, however, the study’s authors neglect the possibility of reading the podcast, and for good reason—not very many people outside a classroom would even consider the possibility.
Perhaps another reason the podcast transcripts have been routinely ignored is because they’re so new—even newer than Serial itself (or at least Season 1). Rather than leaving the transcription responsibilities to sites like Reddit as they did in the first season, Serial is now publishing its own within a week of each episode. Educational sites and other podcasts are also catching on. Listen Current, for example, a education website that curates “the best of public radio,” includes the transcripts for their audio clips—along with lesson plans that particularly focus on EL students. This American Life has transcripts of all their shows, as does Freakonomics.
Students like Melissa, who says “I like to listen to story better, but I have to be able to read it at the same time,” are now asking for these aforementioned “successful reading events” with enthusiasm. And there’s hope that while the podcast revolution won’t be televised, it may be transcripted.