Do audiobooks leave the brain distracted and disjointed or are they just another way to enjoy and absorb a story? Are they real reading, or cheating? Audiobooks are the fastest growing format in publishing. With the rise of podcasting and storytelling events, both highly respected mediums, why do audiobooks continue to suffer this stigma?
The science of listening: decoding and translating
Daniel Willingham is one of the most respected authorities on learning styles, and has written a lot about audiobooks. He explains that there are two basic processes happening when you’re reading. There is decoding, or translating the strings of letters into words that mean something. And then there is language processing, or comprehension — that is, figuring out the syntax, the story, et cetera. Researchers have studied the question of comprehension for decades, and what you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension. As science writer Olga Khazan noted in 2011, a “1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension — suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well. In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarize it with equal accuracy as those who read it.” Listeners and readers retain about equal understanding of the passages they’ve consumed, in other words.
Not only are audiobooks a valid form of reading, but there might be some benefits that readers of the written word miss. According to Two Guys on Your Head podcast, “because you can’t go back and re-read, when you listen you are more likely to extract the deeper meaning from things quicker.” Could audiobooks may actually boost reading comprehension and analytical skills?
This kind of data might explain the discovery that podcasts help children learn to read. Audiobooks can help the struggling reader, too, who might get frustrated with where they “should” be and give up too soon. Experiencing some success and enjoyment can fuel the hunger to practice and engender an appreciation for reading. “Listening while reading helps people have several successful reading events in a row, where they are reading “with accuracy and enjoyment.” And, listening has been shown to help with decoding, a fundamental part of reading.”
Audiobooks uniquely serve non-native speakers
With so many benefits for typical, native-speakers, imagine the impact audiobooks might have on English Language Learner students. They can can make note of proper pronunciation as well as slang and typical sentence structure in a closed, curiosity-welcome space. Non-native speakers might also use Read-Alongs, which offer an audio element and all its advantages, alongside a reading component. The connection between speaking and reading defines literacy and fluency, and Read-Alongs tie the spoken word to written word perfectly.
One OverDrive partner district in Hawaii has seen great success serving ELL students with audio books. Watch below.
Reading is about enjoying the destination
For native speakers or those acquiring language, audiobooks are a valuable and enjoyable reading tool. Audiobooks are real books, when you listen you are reading. Willingham with the last word: “Comparing audio books to cheating is like meeting a friend at Disneyland and saying “you took a bus here? I drove myself, you big cheater.” The point is getting to and enjoying the destination. The point is not how you traveled.”