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Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book? Is it “cheating”?

1st February 2021

Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book? Is it “cheating”? It is certainly a divisive question and it is one I have seen repeated over and over on various Social Media threads. I belong to various Facebook groups and invariably, every couple of weeks or so, a similar question is posed. To be honest I am amazed sometimes by the vehement views of those who believe audiobooks are vastly inferior. In this article I highlight some of the benefits, which perhaps aren’t at first evident.

During the Coronavirus pandemic I have discovered the absolute pleasure of being hooked up to my earbuds, listening to a narrator feeding me with a book. The walks I do are repetitive, the seasons and the weather of course make each walk unique but somehow the familiarity can slightly dull the pleasure. Being occupied by multiple stimuli – having my ears plugged by words and my eyes firmly on my footfall and surrounding countryside – I have found Covid walks once again have become a little more rounded.

Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading a book?

Cody Kommers in Psychology Today (10/12/18) states: The critical difference, for me, between reading and listening is that reading is something you do, where listening is something that happens to you. Reading is an act of engagement. He goes on to clarify that for the story to move forward in a book, the reader actively has to turn the page and engage. Listening does not require that of you and the story will move forward even if your mind and imagination wander off. Further, he notes, if there is a difficult text, then it needs to be visually computed (you wouldn’t listen to a mathematical formula, for example, you actually need the visuals).

On the one hand he flags that when you read a book there is a symbiosis between the book and the reader. On the other he says that with audiobooks there are actually three elements – audiobook, listener and narrator – and the narrator can of course make a huge difference to the overall experience. He concludes that “At the end of the day, time spent contemplating new ideas and experiencing new worlds is what matters“, and he feels that one isn’t necessarily superior to the other.

In an experiment in Discover, the author Jennifer Walter cites evidence from a study at Gallant Lab, where they mapped out the brain of readers and listeners. They discovered that the words tend to activate the same brain regions with the same intensity, regardless of input. Thus at that level there is no difference in the way a book is assimilated – reading and listening stimulate the same part of the brain.

The word ‘cheating’ is very commonly used when audiobooks are being discussed. Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor at The Bloomberg University of Pennsylvania, was in the cheating camp and so decided to do some research. Again, she found no significant difference between the two forms but interestingly did note that there is a difference in assimilation of information between paper books and screen texts: The fact that printed text is anchored to a specific location on a page also seems to help people remember it better than screen-based narrative; she extrapolates further: that like digital screens, audiobooks deny users the spatial clues they would use whilst reading from a printed text. Does that matter? Probably not. The article detailing these findings can be found in Time Magazine here.

In an interesting article in the ABC news blog, there is a discussion about the merits of listening to books has been a phenomenon for many decades and they offer evidence why ‘reading with your ears’ counts.

An incontrovertible benefit of the audiobook is that people who struggle to read the written word can so often find audiobooks such a boon. So many publishers offer a narration along with digital, hard and paperback. Audiobooks have become pretty mainstream and for this reason alone they are here to stay!

In a piece posted by Western Downs Libraries they assert that there are plenty of benefits to regularly listening to audiobooks and the amazing findings are:

  • Increasing reading accuracy by 52%
  • Increasing reading speed, expanding vocabulary and improving fluency
  • Teaching pronunciation
  • Improving comprehension by 76%; and
  • Increasing test scores by 21% when engaged in multi-modal learning.

My personal thoughts? With audiobooks you have an interpreter of the text – you may or may not like the narrator. We read Shakespeare in school as a text (his work was never really intended to be studied in that way) and then going on to see a performance and interpretation of his writing is another way to understand and appreciate his creativity. And thus with audiobooks, they are part of the bigger picture of learning and entertainment and they fulfil a different but equally valid function in how I ‘take in’ culture and ideas. I guess one thing I can note is that I always choose a lighter read for my audiobook listening, a book that will entertain and allow me to multitask (never was so much ironing done in our house!). I agree with Cody Kommer that: At the end of the day, time spent contemplating new ideas and experiencing new worlds is what matters.

Read more about the – almost – damascene conversion of one of TF’s Team members here.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the audiobook v reading debate in the COMMENTS below.

Tina for the TripFiction Team

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  1. User: Susan Gilley

    Posted on: 01/02/2021 at 8:51 am

    I do love an Audio book at bedtime or if I am ill. I find it comforting. Like listening to a radio drama. It does take you into another place . But a good book does that as well. It is just a different experience. I do not like to use the word cheat.


    1 Comment

    • User: Tina Hartas

      Posted on: 01/02/2021 at 2:33 pm

      Interesting. Yes, cheat is an odd word… so many people seem to use it, I for one think the two ways are complementary!!


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