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Listen with Alexa?


The arrival of Alexa in many children's bedrooms has got me thinking: is it better to read or to be read to? And, if the latter, does it matter that it’s Alexa?

When it comes to dyslexia, seeing and hearing the same material at the same time makes the world of difference. This multi-sensory aspect of literacy helps dyslexic pupils uses more of the brain and more channels to help recall that word or phrase the next time it comes around.

This kind of experience was a given for children born before the digital overload. Back-peddle to 1950 and the launch of Read with Mother, an intimate radio story-time, scheduled to flow along with the digestive juices right after lunch. With over a million listeners, it was so popular it went onto the BBC World Service. “Are you sitting comfortably?” asked the reader. “Then I’ll begin...”

Was this radio icon a 1950's equivalent of Alexa or amazon’s Audible? Absolutely not. As the title spells out, Listen with Mother was intended for the mother and child to listen together…and that’s exactly what they did. The experience of hearing language and enjoying a story was a social one, shared with a parent who would be there to respond and reflect on what happened next or to talk about the characters. This was not a device to free up Mother to do the washing-up.

By contrast, today’s audio books are for solitary listening – for driving, train journeys or perhaps for the partially sighted. For anyone with dyslexia, they are a fantastic adjunct to the book itself, bringing together letter shapes, spellings, punctuation and sounds into a single, more memorable mix. They are read by the authors themselves or by readers who love texts and consider carefully how their voice conveys them.

And the use of voice really matters. What audio books bring, which Alexa doesn’t, is those essential prosodic aspects of language, which are vital in conveying inference and meaning. As a story unfolds, intonation, pitch, rhythm and varied tempo are as important as the words themselves. With these stripped away, poor Alexa puts out a semi-robotic word string that falls surprisingly short of the phenomenal developments being made in the field of speech pathology by VocaliD.

So back to my question: it is better to read and be read to, but it must be with the patterns of language that make it meaningful, complex and real. For primary aged children, nothing beats a parent reading while the child tracks the text (or, even better, paired reading where both read the story).

Alexa, while practical, spits out language stripped bare. Her story reading is adequate but nothing more than a word stream without nuance. Books, whether in print or read aloud, are an invitation to another world, as much as linguistic enrichment. What would you rather listen to?

Liz Hawker is a parent, Dyslexia Specialist (Kent College Pembury Prep and Senior School) and linguist (French, German, Linguistics MPhil)

Posted: 03/05/2018 at 14:42
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