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The joy of listening to the spoken word

In 1976 I accessed RNIB’s Talking Book service and Calibre books for the very first time, and I’ve never really stopped listening since then. I usually manage at least one book per week, but a good week can see me listening to three books.

My career as a rehab worker and now at London Vision means I’ve spoken to over 2000 thousand people with sight loss and, I’ve always tried to get people enthused about the joy of listening to books. Listening to books is different to reading and if you have never done it before it does take a little practise and patience.

So, below you’ll find some top tips on how to make the most of your listening experience along with details of how to access different reading services. If you would like to learn more why not come along to one of London Vision’s All Things Reading sessions where we explore the topic with colleagues from RNIB.

My top tips for listening to audio books:

  • If you have been a keen reader of print, it’s very different to listen and you will need to be patient. Listen in short bursts, try a different genre of material or perhaps something very familiar. If you find the pace a little slow you may be able to increase the speed of the reading.
  • If you have never been much of a print reader you may well enjoy audio books as they are such a different experience, so give them a try
  • You might find completing simple household tasks whilst listening helps you focus on the audio.
  • Even the most exciting book can lull you to sleep! Set a sleep timer so the player switches itself off and you don’t have to search too far back for your place.
  • Set bookmarks so you can return to your last reading position. Bookmarks are also great for students studying texts.
  • Jump back a few minutes each time you start listening to remind yourself where you are and what’s been going on.
  • Listening with a partner or friend can be an enjoyable way to get through a book.

If you struggle to hear what’s being read to you

You might try headphones. Or if you are a hearing aid user it may be possible to connect your aid directly to the talking book via Bluetooth. Other ways include using loop systems or listening devices.

Get advice from your local audiology department on best listening options, or your sensory team may also be able to advise you.

Where to get talking books and how to listen

Your local library is a great place to start! Most likely you will be able to borrow books on CD or download books to your computer, tablet or phone from their collection. If there is a charge for these services, then being registered blind or partially sighted usually exempts you.

Local libraries can loan you e-books which you can read in very large text or through synthetic speech. If you can’t get out and want books on CD or in large print, ask about your library’s home delivery service – sometimes CDs and large print books can be delivered to you by volunteers. It’s also a great way to have a regular visitor as your books are dropped off and collected.

RNIB Reading Services

The Royal National Institute for the Blind has probably the largest collection of free to use spoken word materials in the UK, along with e-books and books and magazines in Braille. RNIB’s helpline team will walk you through how to join the service and you can phone them to place orders for books on 0303 123 9999 or email For detailed information on RNIB reading services follow this link.

Books can be sent free in the post, on CD or memory stick. RNIB sell players or you may be eligible for a player from British Wireless for the Blind (BWFB). RNIB also provides newspaper and magazine content. If you are a student or teacher, explore RNIB Book share for textbooks and educational materials .

RNIB services  are available to download and stream  so you can listen on your phone or computer. The best way do this  is via the Dolphin Easy Reader App which we will explore in more detail below.

Calibre Audio book library

For many years Calibre has been providing audio books for blind and partially sighted people for free. Books are available on audio stick, for downloading and playing through apps like Dolphin Easy Reader or streaming direct from Calibre’s website. Follow this link for full details of how to listen.

Other sources of spoken word materials

  • Seeing ear providing books for people unable to read print
  • Librivox free public domain volunteer read audio books
  • National listening library: postal and internet audio books

Commercial spoken word service

All the above services do have ae certain number of audio books that are free of charge. If you are choosing a book to listen to from Apple Books or Google Play ensure you are purchasing the correct format as it’s very easy to buy electronic texts instead of audio books.

Dolphin Easy Reader

This app for Apple, android and PC allows access to a range of reading materials and specialist libraries in audio and e-pub formats. To add a library from the list, open the manage library tab once you’ve downloaded the easy reader app and set up a Dolphin easy reader account.

Both Calibre and RNIB reading services  can be accessed via Dolphin Easy Reader app. As well as allowing you to access spoken word content from around the world, the app has features which makes the reading of e-pub books simpler by highlighting texts as it reads or through the use of synthetic speech.

For students, the app has features that allow you bookmark and clip sections of text and audio. At London Vision’s regular Managing Sight Loss assistive technology lunchtime drop we explain how to make the best of the app.

Visit this page for details of upcoming Managing Sight Loss events.

Smart speakers

Alexa and Google smart speakers allow you to listen to paid for books.  If you have Alexa, ask what is free on Audible and you will be able to choose from four books a month. Both Amazon Alex and Google smart speakers allow you to listen to short snippets for free, sometimes up to 30 minutes.

Activate by saying: “Alexa read me Wuthering Heights”, or say: “OK Google read Wuthering Heights”. Kindle and Audible are Amazon services. Alexa will allow you to purchase audible books, but be cautious: listen to a minute or two of a book before purchase as it’s easy to buy books with a similar title. If you want a Google book then it’s a case of visiting the Google Play store. If you are using Audible, then it can be cheaper to buy a number of credits as opposed to subscribing monthly.

Controlling the volume, jump forward or backwards with a book and setting sleep timers on a smart speaker is very straightforward and makes for a positive reading experience.

Coming soon on Alexa

Very soon RNIB reading services will be available on Alexa. We have tested this service at London Vision and it works well. Once set up you will simply be able to enter the talking book library and select books to listen to. You will need to be a member of RNIB’s library service

In Your Pocket

In Your Pocket is a voice activated system based on a Samsung phone. Using only your voice you can choose and listen to books from the RNIB Reading services, newsagents and podcasts. Find out more about the RNIB reading services here or from the In Your Pocket website.

RealSam, which produces In Your Pocket also have a skill for both the Amazon Alexa and Google smart speaker. RealSam is subscription based and provides access to Calibre books, Torch Trust materials and Libravox. For more information on how to use the RealSam smart speaker and subscription, read this London Vision review. 

Jonathan Ward, London Vision Development Manager


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