Each is best suited to different purposes, and neither is superior.
A few years ago, when people heard I was a reading researcher, they might ask about their child’s dyslexia or how to get their teenager to read more. But today the question I get most often is, “Is it cheating if I listen to an audiobook for my book club?”
Audiobook sales have doubled in the last five years while print and e-book sales are flat. These trends might lead us to fear that audiobooks will do to reading what keyboarding has done to handwriting — rendered it a skill that seems quaint and whose value is open to debate. But examining how we read and how we listen shows that each is best suited to different purposes, and neither is superior.
In fact, they overlap considerably. Consider why audiobooks are a good workaround for people with dyslexia: They allow listeners to get the meaning while skirting the work of decoding, that is, the translation of print on the page to words in the mind. Although decoding is serious work for beginning readers, it’s automatic by high school, and no more effortful or error prone than listening. Once you’ve identified the words (whether by listening or reading), the same mental process comprehends the sentences and paragraphs they form.
Writing is less than 6,000 years old, insufficient time for the evolution of specialized mental processes devoted to reading. We use the mental mechanism that evolved to understand oral language to support the comprehension of written language. Indeed, research shows that adults get nearly identical scores on a reading test if they listen to the passages instead of reading them.
Nevertheless, there are differences between print and audio, notably prosody. That’s the pitch, tempo and stress of spoken words. “What a great party” can be a sincere compliment or sarcastic put-down, but they look identical on the page. Although writing lacks symbols for prosody, experienced readers infer it as they go. In one experiment, subjects listened to a recording of someone’s voice who either spoke quickly or slowly. Next, everyone silently read the same text, purportedly written by the person whose voice they had just heard. Those hearing the quick talker read the text faster than those hearing the slow talker.
But the inferences can go wrong, and hearing the audio version — and therefore the correct prosody — can aid comprehension. For example, today’s student who reads “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” often assumes that Juliet is asking where Romeo is, and so infers that the word art would be stressed. In a performance, an actress will likely stress Romeo, which will help a listener realize she’s musing about his name, not wondering about his location.
It sounds as if comprehension should be easier when listening than reading, but that’s not always true. For example, one study compared how well students learned about a scientific subject from a 22-minute podcast versus a printed article. Although students spent equivalent time with each format, on a written quiz two days later the readers scored 81 percent and the listeners 59 percent.
What happened? Note that the subject matter was difficult, and the goal wasn’t pleasure but learning. Both factors make us read differently. When we focus, we slow down. We reread the hard bits. We stop and think. Each is easier with print than with a podcast.
Print also supports readers through difficult content via signals to organization like paragraphs and headings, conventions missing from audio. Experiments show readers actually take longer to read the first sentence of a paragraph because they know it probably contains the foundational idea for what’s to come.
So although one core process of comprehension serves both listening and reading, difficult texts demand additional mental strategies. Print makes those strategies easier to use. Consistent with that interpretation, researchers find that people’s listening and reading abilities are more similar for simple narratives than for expository prose. Stories tend to be more predictable and employ familiar ideas, and expository essays more likely include unfamiliar content and require more strategic reading.
This conclusion — equivalence for easy texts and an advantage to print for hard ones — is open to changes in the future. As audiobooks become more common, listeners will gain experience in comprehending them and may improve, and publishers may develop ways of signaling organization auditorily.
But even with those changes, audiobooks won’t replace print because we use them differently. Eighty-one percent of audiobook listeners say they like to drive, work out or otherwise multitask while they listen. The human mind is not designed for doing two things simultaneously, so if we multitask, we’ll get gist, not subtleties.
Still, that’s no reason for print devotees to sniff. I can’t hold a book while I mop or commute. Print may be best for lingering over words or ideas, but audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none.
So no, listening to a book club selection is not cheating. It’s not even cheating to listen while you’re at your child’s soccer game (at least not as far as the book is concerned). You’ll just get different things out of the experience. And different books invite different ways that you want to read them: As the audio format grows more popular, authors are writing more works specifically meant to be heard.
Our richest experiences will come not from treating print and audio interchangeably, but from understanding the differences between them and figuring out how to use them to our advantage — all in the service of hearing what writers are actually trying to tell us.
Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.”
Kin Leung is a Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT practicing in the San Francisco Bay area. Kin specializes in helping couples overcome struggles related to infidelity, intimacy, miscommunication, mistrust, and parenting. Kin’s kind, thoughtful and compassionate approach to marriage counseling San Francisco helps guide couples to a calmer and safer space to explore issues and move forward in a more productive manner.