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Friday 24 May 2019
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Go ahead, listen to a book

Debbie Jacob
Debbie Jacob

ONE OF THE most interesting articles I read earlier this year tackled the issue of whether or not listening to a book is less beneficial than reading one. This is an important question to tackle during the upcoming Christmas season when audiobooks offer holiday stories that many struggling readers can enjoy – if no one seeks to guilt-trip them about listening to a book as opposed to reading one.

Even avid readers like me enjoy audiobooks, yet we often get accused of cheating when we listen to books. Although I know this is not true, I always feel a pang of guilt when I list a book I listened to on my goodreads page. But why is this so? Where did this misguided notion come from?

An article titled “To Your Brain, Listening to a Book Is Listening Pretty Much the Same As Reading It” by Melissa Dahl sheds light on this issue while claiming the benefits of listening to a book and reading a book are identical.

Dahl discusses the work of University of Virginia psychologist Daniel Willingham, who tackled the question of reading vs listening, which he says he gets asked fairly often – especially since he published a book in 2015 on the science of reading.

Willingham says people assume that those who listen to a book don’t put in the same amount of work as those who read a book. It’s an unfounded misconception.

“It’s not that you’re missing out on something, or it’s not that this experience could be better for you,” Willingham said. “It’s that you’re cheating if you listen to a book. And so people think those listening to books are getting the rewarding part of it… and it’s the difficult part that they’ve somehow gotten out of.”

This implies, Willingham argues, that to your brain, listening is less work than reading. “And that is true, sort of – but it stops being true somewhere around the fifth grade,” he says.

Put simply, Willingham says there are two basic processes happening when you read: decoding, or translating letters into words and language processing, or comprehension – that is, figuring out the syntax of the story. Researchers have studied comprehension for decades, and Willingham says they have found “very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension.”

Decoding is specific to reading, but by late elementary school, decoding becomes so second-nature that it isn’t any additional “work” for your brain. It happens automatically.

Science writer Olga Khazan says that a 1985 study found listening comprehension “correlated strongly” with reading comprehension. Further back, in a 1977 study called “Summarizing Stories After Reading and Listening,” college students who listened to a short story were able to summarise it with equal accuracy as those who read it.

After reading several articles, it becomes clear that comprehension improves equally well with reading or listening to a book, but it seems to me that listening to a book has the added advantage of developing reading expression. Listening to a book can peak interest in developing readers who enjoy the sound of language.

There are many reasons that make listening to a book aesthetically pleasing. For me, a person who didn’t have a mother who read to her as a child, an audiobook offers that warm experience I missed out on. But that’s not the reason I turned to audiobooks.

Originally, I decided that audiobooks would offer an experience to boost my listening skills, which are a declining skill among everyone in this push-button, visual world. Everyone could use a boost in their listening skills.

Listening skills can be a bit tricky to measure, but one indication of improvement might come with the length of the book that someone is willing to listen to. When I first started listening to audiobooks, I couldn’t sustain my concentration for a book over eight hours in length. Within six months, I felt comfortable listening to books that were 12 hours in length. After about two years, I had worked my way up to listening to books that were 35 hours in length.

Audiobooks have come a long way. They can now be downloaded on phones that can be played on car radios. For parents who still don’t feel they have time to read books to their children, audiobooks reserved for long commutes can offer invaluable, shared book experiences. Just imagine the magic of listening to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on the way to work.

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