One of my fondest early childhood education memories is of my teacher reading aloud to the class. Carving out a few moments of peace in an otherwise crammed schedule felt like an oasis to my younger self. Time evaporated as the cadence of words transported us to other worlds, and when our read-aloud session was done for the day, there were inevitably a few groans from students (perhaps from myself included) hoping for five more minutes or one more chapter. Parents and educators know the power of reading aloud — especially as it relates to forming positive associations with reading and being the single indicator for students’ eventual success in becoming confident and fluent readers. But where do digital media, specifically audiobooks and podcasts, fit into the read-aloud model?
Some critics decry that audiobooks and physical books do not provide the same benefits to children. However, a recent article published in the Journal of Neuroscience notes there is little difference in the way the brain processes the semantics of written or spoken text. Indeed, the similarities and benefits are striking. Over the last decade audiobook market shares have grown from 42% digital to 87%, with publishers keeping a keen eye on investing in audiobooks. What research and anecdotal evidence indicate is that audiobooks are not only beneficial for struggling readers and non-native English speakers (though they are), but also that audiobooks and podcasts can enhance memory and recall for all young learners. Similarly, spoken texts can improve comprehension and increase reading accuracy. While audiobooks and podcasts might be called screen time by some, it is probably the best use of screen time that doesn’t overstimulate children’s brains. Also, because children can understand two grade levels above their reading level as noted in “The Read Aloud Handbook,” caregivers and educators have even more incentive to introduce audiobooks as another gateway to reading.
Of course, quality reading material makes a difference. From a parents’ perspective, we started listening to audiobooks on summer road trips when my oldest was just three-years-old. We then moved into audiobooks on CDs (remember those?) that she could play by herself during quiet time or while I prepped dinner. We started by using books she was already familiar with (such as "The Princess in Black,” “Mercy Watson” and “Frog and Toad”). From there we quickly expanded to a broader range of audiobooks and podcasts. Over the past three years we’ve listened to countless books and episodes, some multiple times.
In addition to the three previously mentioned audiobooks for early readers, here is an incomplete list of the best audiobooks and podcasts for most children ages 3-8 years old.
“Crenshaw” by Katherine Applegate
When Jackson’s family sells their belongings and starts living out of their van, Jackson’s imaginary feline companion, Crenshaw, appears as a welcome confidant just when he needs it the most. From seeing his father play the guitar on street corners for extra cash and managing a series of emotions tied to his uncertain circumstances, we see Jackson’s family pull together during an especially difficult period. My five-year-old has listened to this one numerous times.
Length: 3 hours, 18 minutes
“Magic Treehouse Collection: Books 1-8” by Mary Pope Osborne
Jack and Annie are siblings that happen upon a magic treehouse in Frog Creek Woods in Pennsylvania. Filled with books, the treehouse transports the children through a series of adventurous places where they encounter all kinds of unexpected things and people, including dinosaurs, Medieval knights, Egyptian queens, pyramids and pirates! With a cast of supporting characters and narrow escapes, these books are still beloved by a new generation of readers.
Length: 6 hours, 1 minute
“Princess Cora and the Crocodile” by Laura Amy Schlitz
When Princess Cora was born her parents thought she was the most perfect baby in the world. However, their adoration quickly turned to worry as they feared for her future and all the things she would need to be as a grown queen (clean, smart and strong). By age seven, Princess Cora’s days are filled with baths, dull lessons and inane exercises. When a crocodile arrives on the scene to rescue her, Princess Cora is delighted to be given a day off from her royal duties. Davina Porter narrates and portrays the crocodile with sheer perfection and may even leave you with a penchant for whisking up a batch of homemade cream puffs.
Length: 39 mins
“The Wild Robot” by Peter Brown
When otters discover the remains of smashed box bits and robot parts floating on the outskirts of their island home, one surviving robot (later called Roz) is awakened to the new reality of creating a life among the animals. Soon, however, Roz becomes an unexpected caregiver to a young gosling and readers are swept into a story for the ages. While Brown’s middle grade novel is marketed to older children (ages 8-12), the character voices are done with such superb inflection that the storyline and short chapters are equally enjoyed by audiences as young as five.
Length: 4 hours, 14 min
“Zoey and Sassafras: Dragons and Marshmallows” by Asia Citro
Science-minded Zoey observes the natural world with a keen eye and curious mind, always studying the behavior of the injured magical creatures she encounters. With her sidekick cat, Sassafras, the two make this STEAM series great for a wide range of children. This is also a book with numerous illustrations, so pairing the audiobook with the physical books makes an ideal match.
Length: 55 minutes
*Note: My favorite listening platforms for audiobooks are Audible and Libro.fm (paid); Hoopla and Libby (free with a linked library card).
Few children’s podcasts have captivated both me and my children quite like this unparalleled WBUR show of folktales, myths and legends from around the world. Told with a handful of actors' voices you’ll likely recognize, each episode features a unique instrument to enhance the storytelling experience. In addition, downloadable coloring pages accompany each episode.
Top Episode Picks: Stella and the Dragon; The Hat, The Horn, and the Purse; Three Wishes; The Rice Cakes and the Oni; and Fiona and the Fairies.
An extension of the wildly popular book, this podcast features the life stories and important work of prominent modern and historic women such as Ada Lovelace, Harriet Tubman, Maria Callas, Julia Child, Temple Grandin and more. Each episode is read by a narrator with some sort of link to the featured individual. Don’t be deceived by the title — these episodes are great for boys and girls.
Host Amanda Weldon energetically does an array of character voices and sings in short bursts of G-rated episodes. Some of the stories are broken up into a series of episodes. Because these are front loaded with the commercials at the beginning, you’ll want to skip ahead 2-3 minutes to get started right away.
Top Episode Picks: My Pet Fairy; White Doe, Fairy Doe; A Bone to Pick; White Flowers, Red Berries; and Smaller Than Ever.
Miranda Rosbach is a children's book reviewer + influencer + writer. You can find her @bookbloom