Letters to A Dyslexic: A Brief History of Recorded Books

Dear Young Dyslexic,

Recorded books are such a part of my life, it is hard to think about a time when I did not use them. I listen to books on both my computer and iPad. However, my favorites are professionally recorded books on my iPhone. I can listen to them anywhere. Forty years ago, recorded books were very different.

My sophomore year in college, I finally decided to admit I had dyslexia and try some accommodations. My university was no help. However, my father found that I qualified for tape-recorded books for the blind. I begrudgingly agreed mostly because it meant I would have a reel-to-reel tape recorder, which I could use to record my guitar playing. We filled out the application and I gave them the list of books I would need the next semester. About two months later, huge boxes began appearing at my apartment. Recordings of four or five large college textbooks consisted of dozens of reel-to-reel tapes. Because the books were being recorded, reels for a given book came at different times. Keeping the books straight was very difficult. Keeping the reels for each book in order was nearly impossible.

Furthermore, listening to the books took forever. There was only one speed—slow. A couple of my professors liked to skip around to different chapters of the textbook. Trying to find the right chapter or page drove me nuts. Switching from one textbook to another also was a lengthy project. Eventually, I only used taped books for my most difficult textbooks.

Modern digitally recorded books have revolutionized this process. Companies like Penguin Random House AudioLearning Ally, and Bookshare provide products that are inexpensive, fast, and easy to use. Here are a few recommendations for dyslexics when using these books:

  • Use these companies' applications to listen to your books. This greatly improves downloading and organizing your materials. Furthermore, many of these apps allow you to listen to the books at greatly increased speeds.
  • Whenever possible, listen to and read the information at the same time. In talking to students over the years, this multisensory approach helps them focus and comprehend the material. Research has also shown that the more you read, the better a reader you become.
  • Learn to speed-listen. Start with an easy recreational book; read and listen to it at normal speed. After a couple days, increase the speed by 20 to 30%. Continue this process until it’s going too fast for you to understand. Most of my students find that they eventually can cover material much faster this way than they can on their own. They do not have to go back and reread pages and their comprehension is much better. Finally, research is showing that this method will improve your reading speed and fluency.

Be well and make a bit of noise,

Dr. Michael Ryan

Dr. Michael Ryan