I want to follow up my previous audiobook post with a more serious look at the format, literacy, and “reading.” The goal is to make one thing very clear: audiobooks are not cheating.
I enjoyed adults reading aloud to me when I was a kid, and have enjoyed audiobooks for years as an adult. Since becoming a teen librarian, I have always allowed teens to count audiobooks as part of my Teen Summer Reading program, and have encouraged teens to try the format. To some, though, listening to a book is somehow “taking the easy way out” and deemed “cheating.”
Cheryl Herman outlines this in her Listening Library article. The primary arguments from audiobook naysayers “were tied to the misconception that audiobooks are for people who don’t like to read, or that allowing kids to process stories through listening was somehow a disservice to them.” The facts don’t match these claims, though, as Herman points out: “1) the more voracious listeners are also voracious readers, and that 2) 85% of what we learn is learned by listening and 27% of students are auditory learners—indicating just how important listening skills are in today’s media-saturated world.”
As far as your brain is concerned, the idea that audiobook listening is “cheating” simply isn’t true. In his 2016 blog post, Dr. Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, discusses decoding and language processing. Decoding is the brain’s process of deciphering the little squiggles on a page into letters and grouping them into words. Language processing is your brain converting those words into meaning. Language processing is also required for any verbal communication. Our brains have to decipher what the random sounds coming from someone’s mouth are supposed to mean.
Willingham makes the case that once reading is second nature to you (i.e. your brain puts virtually no effort into decoding), the amount of work your brain does to process a story as text or as audio is nearly identical. As he puts it, “for most books, for most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing.”
Delving deeper, audiobooks are a way to help struggling readers improve and find more joy in reading. Frank Serafini’s article states that audiobooks are capable of improving vocabulary, expanding access, and assisting with intonation. Comprehension, accuracy, and recall are also improved, based on findings from Sound Learning. Audiobooks are also capable of providing a better connection with the story. Listeners may form an “emotional connection to the narrator,” which draws them deeper and motivates them to keep going.
For those with attention deficiencies, such as ADD or ADHD, audiobooks free them up to do other tasks while listening. For these individuals, doodling in a notebook, or doing some other task while listening to the story can channel their focus enough to make “reading” an audiobook enjoyable.
People that have dyslexia can also benefit from audiobooks. The difficulties a dyslexic person faces while reading text can ruin any enjoyment. As a result, they read less than their peers. Reading less sometimes translates to learning less, resulting in even more difficulties. Audiobooks help by allowing a dyslexic person to access material that matches their spoken language ability rather than their limited reading ability. This makes reading more enjoyable by granting access to materials of interest and learning easier by overcoming the obstacles that print poses.
BOOSTING AVERAGE & ADVANCED READERS
Further still, average and gifted readers can also benefit from audiobooks, according to Denise Johnson of Reading Rockets. For young people, their auditory language skills are often at least two grade levels ahead of their reading skills. The benefits of audio include introducing advanced vocabulary, improving critical listening skills, highlighting humor, and sidestepping unfamiliar accents or dialects.
Changes in tone or pacing, along with the dialects being used, are referred to as prosody. When reading text, the reader must provide prosody themselves. That is where the little voice we hear in our head while reading comes from. In fact, if you know what my voice sounds like, you’re likely reading this in my voice.
With audiobooks, the narrator provides the prosody. This can provide assistance for difficult texts, such as classical texts. One notable example that Willingham discusses comes from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. It is easy for a reader to mistake “wherefore” (as in “wherefore art thou Romeo?”) to mean “where.” The actual meaning is “Why.” Audio often makes the true meaning easier to understand in the wider context of Juliet’s monologue.
Audiobooks are not the easy way out, and are certainly not cheating. Instead, they are a useful tool for struggling readers, a resource for advanced readers to expand their abilities even further, and a format that adapts well to busy schedules. I remain a diehard audiobook user, and I encourage others to give them a shot.
Morgan Gariepy, Teen Librarian