As a middle school writing teacher, I see a lot of rickety word choice. Students will choose a big word because they naturally think that’s more impressive, or they overuse boring words because they lack the vocabulary for anything better. Often they word sentences awkwardly and obscure meaning in the confusion of unraveling their wayward syntax. Parents and teachers alike look at such writing samples and see an insurmountable task ahead. How do we teach a student to see awkward sentences when what they wrote sounded normal to them? Age and experience may awaken sophistication in their writing, but they don’t have that much time to fix these writing problems, so what’s a parent or teacher to do?
Here’s one simple option that may surprise you: audio books. I don’t mean audio books to teach them how to read. In fact, don’t even hand them the books. Just have them listen to great English writers as they do chores, ride in the car, and drift off to sleep. Every moment they can fill with great stories will entertain them as well as cement advance diction and syntax into their thinking.
I stumbled onto this solution by accident when my youngest son struggled with reading and speech patterns. He had come to me through adoption at six years old and had a hard time putting words together. He didn’t talk much because he was shy, yes, but also because he had a hard time putting words together. It was simply way too much work, and people often misunderstood his pronunciations. Rather than be embarrassed, he just didn’t bother.
I knew he would not get through the reading required in his history course, and I simply did not have the time to read all of it to him. I remembered how much he loved simple stories on audio during long road trips, so I purchased The Story of the World history program on CD. He listened to those CDs like story books—I think that was the author’s point—and man, was I ever glad. Every night he would fall asleep listening to history lessons.
The changes were subtle at first, but suddenly, his speech patterns changed significantly, and then I started noticing advanced syntax and word choice in his writing as well. He had also become a more confident reader, and this mom and teacher couldn’t be happier. Later, as I caught on to the unintended benefits of audio books, we graduated to stories by Charles Dickens and C.S. Lewis.
I started using the advice for English as Second Language students, and the results were even faster. Parents have written to me within months of starting their children on Dickens, Tolkien, Doyle, and Lewis on audio to tell me they already noticed a change, and I saw it in their writing as well. They heard the advanced patterns and somehow began emulating the word choice and sentence structure as second nature.
These students already struggle, and academic pursuits already seem impossible. Here’s one solution they can enjoy, and we don’t even have to tell them they’re learning.