Forget about flipping through the pages of your favorite book, smelling the scent of print on paper, and plunging into a mysterious world of fantastic characters. That is what many children with reading difficulties are forced to tell themselves when faced with the daily challenges of reading.
This is why the Modiin-based Israel Audiobook Project has set up an initiative to provide these kids with free access to texts in audio, rather than written, form, so that they too can enjoy the pleasure of well-known children’s stories and their characters.
“I always tried, but it would take me a few months to read a book,” co-founder and managing director of the project Rashi Kuhr told The Times of Israel in a café in Jerusalem.
Kuhr, today a school psychologist and himself a slow reader, said that he discovered the magic of audio books in the early 1990s, while at college in the US, attempting to cover the readings for course material. At the time, these books came “on cassette tapes,” he said, but “because it required carrying around 10-20 tapes” for each book, listening to the books was “only practical on really long car rides” on US highways. “I would take 11-hour car rides and buy a case of 6-10 tapes to listen to,” helping to make the trip pass quickly, he said. However, when Apple came out with its iPod some 15 years ago, he was suddenly able to listen to books anytime and anywhere, just the way he had always dreamed he would have read them.
“Audiobooks changed my life,” he said. “Now I can ‘read’ more than a book a week,” he said, whereas in the past it took him a little more than a month to read a book. “The way I see it, audiobooks are a lifestyle.”
By setting up the Audiobook Project, together with Michael Saltzman — a director of digital products at a firm that makes and distributes dental implant systems — he wants to give children that same privilege, and for free.
How reading a book can be a painful process
When it comes to learning disabilities, there is an array of diverse problems for a variety of reasons, Kuhr said. Groups affected by learning difficulties include people who can’t read at all, but also kids whose reading is slow due to dyslexia or issues with decoding. He also said that some people just guess what they’re reading, leading to misunderstanding of the material.
Kuhr, who is also the Director of Psychological Services for the Maaleh Efraim School District, meets and makes a psycho-educational assessment of kids with learning disabilities on a daily basis. “They are smart and curious but they think that they hate books,” he said.
Audiobooks, he said, keep the children engaged because they have special features like the presence of narrators, with unique voices and personalities. They also allow students to “read” books in a short period of time.
‘No, no, no don’t stop’
Kuhr’s Audiobook Project – which he set up three years ago – has managed to engage “an amazing number of people who want to read for us for free,” he said. Specific readers are chosen for each and every book, according to their accent, voices, the book’s genre and age of characters, he explained.
“The first reading goes for about five minutes,” he said, talking of the moment when he first gets the kids to listen to audiobooks. “After five minutes, I stop and they are like: ‘No, no, no, don’t stop.’ So, I say: ‘I thought you didn’t like books’.”
“The best part about it is that right away and very quickly, the kids latch onto it,” he said.
By simply surfing the project’s website, or via its app, special education kids from third grade to high school can access an online platform where audiobooks are streamed.
“We give a password to teachers who give it to the kids,” so the teachers are “really the ambassadors of the project and the ones who make it happen,” said Kuhr. Then, kids just need to get on the platform of the Israel Audiobook Project through their mobile phone, select the audiobook they wish to listen to and press play.
Starting with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
For the project Kuhr teamed up with co-founder Saltzman – his best friend. Kuhr said that the two men had always thought of doing a venture together.
They decided that the first audiobook would be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl because they thought it was the perfect story to herald the kids into the fantastic world of books. They contacted the Dahl family foundation in England, who retains the book’s rights.
Once it was explained to them that the book would be audio-translated into Hebrew and made freely available to kids in special education, the foundation granted them the rights for about $1,000 — way lower than they expected.
Kuhr was even more surprised when the translators with the Hebrew print rights gave them access to the translations for free, telling him that “they loved the idea of helping disadvantaged students gain access to their great books,” he said.
In the first year, the Israel Audiobook Project was able to produce three books, followed by six books in the following year. Now in its third year, the total has risen to 10 books, with the latest due out this week, Kuhr said. The project is also hoping to raise money to produce more books — by acquiring texts and in some instances the translation rights, Kuhr said.
The project has been working with a number of Israeli publishers, including Kinneret-Zmora, Iso Yediot, and Hakkibutz Hameuchad. It has created audiobook versions of Israeli writers such as Smadar Shir and Chagit Aharonoff as well as books specifically dedicated to the Haredi population, like Yeladim Mesaprim al Atzmam, (Children Talk About Themselves), by Chaim Walder.
Alongside other books by Israeli authors, Uri Orbach, Roni Givati and Naomi Shmuel, the Israel Audiobook Project has also purchased additional books from the Dahl foundation such as Matilda and James and the Giant Peach. The project is also in talks with American publishers to get access to a broad range of new and older books, for both elementary and high school students.
All of the audiobooks are in Hebrew with some in English and Arabic as well.
The project has recently set up a partnership with AlManarah, an Arab-Israeli organization that works to empower disabled Arabs in Israel.
AlManarah produces the audiobooks in Arabic and then the Israel Audiobook Project works with teachers and kids on a day-to-day basis, helping them access the books on the site, Kuhr.
AlManarah and the Israel National Library for the Blind and Reading Disabled as well, operate under the Law of Accessibility, “which allows them to record books without having to obtain rights,” Kuhr said.
Touching the lives of 10,000 children
Today, “a lot of people listen to our books: we are talking about 600-700 schools,” Kuhr said, with a total of about 10,000 children; Haredim, Jewish and Arab Israelis, are being touched by the project. Even so, Kuhr said, much more needs to be done as the use of audiobooks in Israel has only just begun, and there are some 200,000 kids in special education that are eligible for the program throughout the country.
The Audiobooks team work endlessly to continuously improve the free service it offers, providing teachers with tools in addition to the audio-story. These include word games, quizzes, and other creative activities that can be implemented after every chapter, said Kuhr.
Because studies have shown the benefits of listening to stories, Kuhr said, the project is now developing a way to combine e-books and audiobooks. This way, he said, kids won’t just listen to the audiobook, but can also look at a computer or phone screen and read highlighted words as they are read by the narrator’s voice, similar to a karaoke system.
The aim, he said, is to come out with one book a month, and above all, to get the audio and digital books combination up and running, Kuhr said.
Closing the gap to help childreen succeed
Kuhr believes audiobooks represent the future.
“It’s the way the world is going,” he said, but most importantly, Kuhr argued, audiobooks could help overcome the gap between those who can easily access books and be very successful at school and in life, and those who have a much harder time at reading, thereby focusing on video games and videos on demand, he said.
“Books are something you have to pay for,” and libraries are still a place for privileged people, he said, adding that the Audiobook Project provides poor kids with free books to help them succeed in life and at school.
The Israel Audiobook Project — inspired by the model of the PJ library, which provides free books to kindergarteners in poor areas — is a non-profit organization whose funding came from the staff in the first stages of the project. They have since received several donations and have also organized fundraising events.
The project has launched a national fundraising campaign to try to raise money between now and the end of the year, he said.
In the meantime, the project gets calls every day from parents and teachers thanking them for the service they provide and often stating that it took only a few days for their kids, who had never finished a book before, to complete a “reading.”
“Their responses are emotional and very thankful” and “I feel like this is really important and the potential is tremendous,” he said.
“We are not anywhere near reaching that potential and we have a lot of work to do,” Kuhr said. The aim is to enable “readers” to finish a book in a day or two, so that they will get “into the lifestyle of listening to books in their free time and turn them in to lifelong learners who will succeed in school and in life.”
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