Talking Books Help Kids Learn To Read

By Elisha Sauers

Published August 11, 2006, issue of August 11, 2006.
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In the first passage of a grade-school primer called “The Little Midrash Says,” Moses assembles the Children of Israel one last time before his death to make a speech, because he knows he will not survive their trek to the promised land. “I will repeat the Torah and mitzvos to them, and I will make sure they learn them well,” he decides — and then he repeats the Torah and the Commandments so many times that it takes him 36 days to finish his speech.

Carrie Idler, a speech-and-language pathologist who works with reading-disabled students at Magen David Yeshiva School, in Brooklyn, understands the power of repetition.

Having vast expertise with dyslexic students, Idler realized that using “talking books” — audio recordings of texts that students can play over and over — in conjunction with books like “The Little Midrash Says” would be an effective classroom tool for students with special needs. She commissioned the nonprofit Jewish Braille Institute, which produces audio- and large-type books in addition to Braille texts, to create large-type versions of her teaching materials, as well as recordings of the texts being read aloud.

After just one year of using these new materials, three of Idler’s 26 special-education students will enroll in mainstream classes at the academy this fall. She credits much of their improvement to the experiment with large-type texts and talking books.

Idler said standard-sized print can be overwhelming for students with reading problems. “Regular print, for a child with dyslexia, is very hard to follow,” she said. “If the children see a book [in] a regular-size font they say, ‘How am I going to do this? I’m never going to be able to do this.’ But, this way, it’s not as daunting of a task.”

Idler explained her method: To learn the weekly Torah portion, for instance, her elementary-school-age students first hear it read aloud in Hebrew by the teacher. Next, the teacher tells a story related to the portion. Then the students listen to the same story repeatedly on their cassettes while following along in their large-print books.

“People think that it’s cheating if you listen along to a recording while reading a book,” Idler said. “It’s not. People with reading disabilities need to use all of their senses to learn. Listening while you visually see the words is a tremendous help.”

Pearl Lam, the president, CEO and library director of JBI, said she was pleased by the results of Idler’s program: “We have been hearing from various educators that when the type is larger on the page children with reading disabilities seem to navigate more easily,” she told the Forward. “And that success seems to be true also for listening to the audiobook. Their success rate is even higher. So we’re not surprised it did so well.”

David Hammer has more than his eighth birthday to celebrate this month. He’ll also be starting second grade in all mainstream classes at Magen David — quite an accomplishment considering that, just two years ago, he was held back in kindergarten. His grandmother, Rona Hammer, couldn’t be more proud. As a special-education teacher in public schools, she is familiar with students’ struggles with reading disabilities. A year ago, David struggled with a stressful home life and vision problems; now, thanks to an eye examination and Idler’s teaching method, his Hebrew and English reading skills have improved immensely. His grandmother’s kitchen cabinets are plastered with his schoolwork, which now receives the highest marks.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful program,” Rona Hammer said. “When he started making better grades, his chest swelled up, he puffed it out and he said, ‘Grandma, I’m smart.’ And I said, ‘Yes, David, you are.’ Before that, he was afraid of his own shadow.”

When asked if he’s good at reading Hebrew, the once timid David now confidently responds, “Yes.”

Idler is optimistic that more of her students will feel as confident in their reading as David does. She plans to keep JBI busy with requests for more books reproduced to her specifications. She hopes to put together a library with the resources JBI is producing. She’s also setting some lofty goals for her students.

“I hope that, by January, all of my first graders will be fully mainstreamed,” she said. “We’ve started out slow with the program, but I think it will make a difference. It’s exactly what we need done.”

For more information on the resources provided by the Jewish Braille Institute, call (212) 889-2525 or visit

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