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March 10, 2014

Is audiobook reading really reading?

By Leslie Crawford, Senior Editor

It’s 10:48 p.m. on a Sunday night. I know because that’s the moment my teen son starts tapping on the door to wake me up. I squint one eye open long enough to examine my bedside clock.

“Mo-om! Audible's not working! I need help!”

If I weren’t so tired, I'd find this hilarious. My 16 year old asking me for any technological support is nothing short of ludicrous, since he does computer programming and, well, unlike some people around here, he wasn’t born somewhere in the middle of the past century when the single glowing thing in my childhood home was a clunky TV with only six channels that you had to stand up to change.

“Pl-ease! I’m going to fail the English quiz tomorrow if I can’t read it.”

This is also funny because my very smart son doesn’t intend to read The Grapes of Wrath. He’s going to listen to it on his phone, just the same way he listened to The Great Gatsby last month.

“Arghhhhh!” he yells, stretching out the word into a sentence out as only a teenager can. “Help me!”

I stumble out of bed and into his room where, what do you know, a vestige of times past is affably sitting on his nightstand: a paperback copy of Steinbeck's classic. 

“You have it right there!" I growl. "Just read the book!”

“You don't understand! I read books better by listening to them!”

There is no winning this fight, this attempt to have him hold the unwieldy foreign object in his hands and, as my people learned to do long ago, read left to right, turning pages from book's beginning to end. I log into my Amazon account and download the book. I’m just about launch into my, “When I was your age, we read actual books” speech but, in a rare moment of parental control, I stop myself. Moralizing about the superiority of consuming a book the right way will ring hollow and induce no end of eye-rolling.

In the morning, I whine to my husband why I’m so tired and he starts in with me, that I should just have made the kid read the book. “That’s not really reading," he says. "It kind of feels like he's cheating.”

And just like that, I’m on my son’s side. He has the technology to listen to books, I argue, why not use it if that’s how he “reads”? The truth is I know better: we've had too many years of me trying to foist books on him that remain defiantly shut. Despite the fact his two parents are writers and editors and have stacks of books littering the house, the majority of his entertainment and education is found primarily on screens, with some exception. Textbooks he’ll happily consume, and an occasional magazine article, especially if it’s about physics or biology, but otherwise, the whole lot of dusty old tomes could go the way of the great library at Alexandria, with nary a teen tear shed.  

"I'm not so sure," I respond. "As long as he's enjoying to and listening to the story, why does it matter if he uses his eyes or ears?"

My husband will have none of it. "He's not exercising a part of the brain that is essential to personhood."

Personhood?!! Geesh. Anyway, yes, arguably you may gain less language acquisition since there's something about seeing a curious new word pop out as you read it over to take it in. Or that you may not marvel in the same way at breathtaking passages that are the stuff of so many dog-eared books. Or that your neurons aren't making the same connections through listening, not looking. Finally, maybe your own imagination doesn't stretch quite as far since the narrator is interpreting the author's words for you, giving voice to the Heathcliff and Jane Eyre he imagines.

But if there are studies proving reading a book by listening to a book doesn't do as much for your brain or learning, I haven't found them. Can't a person hearing a story similarily follow the plot, feel for the characters, and derive the same pleasure from a great story artfullly told - thereby gaining what a recent study found are the brain-boosting benefits of reading fiction, including flexing the imagination and empathizing with others?

Certainly, a year or two ago, I would have stood passionately on the side of the - as my son puts it - "boring" book, but recently people like author and activist Ben Foss, who talks about how technology can help different kinds of learners get an incredible education in ways they couldn't in years past, has radically altered my view.

I've also been swayed by the likes of educator Jim Trelease, who argues that no matter what age, being read aloud to holds vast benefits for kids of all ages – even grown-up kids like me who now, confession time, listen to most of her books on her runs since it's near impossible with work and kids to find time to sit down and read one of the 10 books stacked next to my bedside, a towering symbol of false hope that one day I'll make time to read them.

And if in our too busy, digitally overloaded world, the only way to actually read a great book is my son's way, to that I say, get me my headphones. It's time to read.

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Leslie: I appreciate your shedding light on the bias your husband and others have toward "real" reading, but I think your piece could have gone even further to dispel the false notion that listening to books is somehow a lesser way to connect with literature. In Proust and the Squid, Maryann Wolf makes a compelling case for the fact that our brains are in no way hard-wired for reading written words on a page. It's, in fact, a skill that every human being needs to learn from scratch — not one that is innate or one that we've developed through evolution. Some people learn this skill with ease; others don't. Some people process words best by seeing them; others process words best by hearing them. My daughter, who is dyslexic and consumes audiobooks voraciously, has an enormous vocabulary and a love of literature. I don't think her personhood is in any way compromised by how she chooses to devour books.

I disagree. How are you exercising your brain physically by letting a voice actor's emotive phraseology determine the author's intent? And reading as opposed to listening is a HUGE time waster and probably contributes multitudes to the ADHD masses overcrowding our special ed classrooms. So, no, less thinking as opposed to more thinking is not an option in our house. And jeebus!!! Your kid is up late on a Sunday night catching up on assignment he should have finished already????? Spoiled kid. Jeez.

Please. Let's not judge the author who seems to be doing her best to juggle the many responsibilities of individuals in families. Kids learn differently, their brains work inconsistently, and they learn best in their own styles and intelligences. The factory style of education in past years left many students underemployed or in prison and generally undercontributing as members of society. Technology is a tool that can and often does improve learning for many students. We are a diverse society and need to recognize that, differentiating instruction based on what we now know about how and when the brain matures. I speak from decades as a teacher, high school librarian, and parent of 3 very different sons in terms of learning styles and intelligences who are raising the next generation of students and embracing the uses of appropriate technologies as needed.

Regarding the idea that audio books are like "cheating" are dead wrong. The fact is that most of us, including myself, is that while we read we are subvocalizing. You're "saying" the words. I read about 1 book per week, that I do for pleasure. People tell me that I speak fast. So, inevitably I read faster than most people, While in college I'd turn in tests earlier, particularly when you have to read and then write. Audio books have been around for a long, long time and probably got a huge kick from the Sony Walkman, where you could listen to someone read the book, while you jogged. They even advertised them so that you could listen to the book while driving. I know that is not a good idea, but that is how they used to be advertised. Today with smartphones it's just get the right app. I if you are subvocalizing, and it is really hard to tell (you probably think that you don't but the vast majority of people are doing it, that is the key to any speed reading method is to male you stop subvocalizing). What is the difference between hearing your own "voice" vs. someone else's voice?

I have a son who has issues with reading comprehension, but when he listens to a book, not only does he get it, he remembers what he hears much more readily. Did it kind of feel like "cheating" to me? Yes, at first, then I saw how much more engaged he was and the arguments about "go read your book for class" stopped. Sometimes, you have to find out the best way for your child and go with it.

We all have different learning styles and time constraints. I have two dyslexic children. They often listen to their books and text books. There are many incredibly bright students out there who spend so much time and effort decoding the words that they lose the meaning of what they are reading. Listening to a book can be an enormous relief and allows them access to a higher level of learning.

Okay, subvocalizing while you read is MUCH faster than listening to someone else read. Nearly everyone subocalizes, and you aren't "hearing" yourself read. You're actively moving your eyes, increasing your focus, and using much more of your brain than if you just listen to someone else. Yes, there are people with myriad problems and tons of different learning styles, but we all compete in the same marketplace and world.

Differentiated teaching exists; different teaching styles accomodate kids who have problems with learning, but a spoiled kid who wasn't considerate enough to let his mother sleep so she could fix his problem when he already had a copy of the book in his room he could have read much faster sickens me. The author is very indulgent, and I completely agree with the dad. She made a mistake. I'm also dyslexic, no diferrentiated instruction for me, and I was always at the top of my classes in elementary school, high school, and college. It's the struggle that makes you better (read any book by Carol Dweck to see exactly how struggle and character build success). I saw a lot of "excuses" in this short article, and I applaud the father for his take on what happened with their son.

My son and I do both--reading and listening to books. They're different activities using different senses that require different methods of focus for the brain. I require my son to actually "read" but he prefers to read on his iPad as opposed to the physical book. At home I don't care if it's an ebook as long as he finishing the book. But he also listens to audiobooks, primarily when he's working on a project, on a long trip in a car or stuck inside and bored but doesn't want to read. He's a pretty active kid who also has electronics. We read to him in the evening until he stopped letting us at around age 11. And now that's his prime reading time. But at other times I encourage him to use audiobooks. It shouldn't be in lieu of reading, but learning to listen, remember, and understand aurally is an equally important skill.

To all commenters: I appreciate the thoughtful debate about whether or not listening to a book is cheating or not. Because of my own ambivalence on this issue, it's so helpful to read insights from both sides. For those who have expressed - some in very strong language - that I'm the worst mother ever, maybe I'm asking for strong criticisms by exposing moments that as a parent, one (me in this case) doesn't always do the right thing. But I'd argue that it's helpful to keep in mind that we all have our strengths and weaknesses as parents and most of us are trying the best we can, even when we stumble and make big mistakes. When we do make mistakes, what's important is to decide, "How am I going to do this next time, how can I do much better?" Getting helpful advice, not biting criticism, is far more effective in changing a person's (be it a parent or child) behavior. So thank you to those who gave constructive criticism. I like the idea of insisting on both book reading and having some flexibility for audiobook reading, since both have value and their place.

When I clicked on this link I expected an article on the benefits of listening to words as opposed to reading them, but I didn't see either thing. Alrighty then. In the same situation my kids would have solved their own problem, read the book, and not disturbed my sleep. They'd have been considerate. I raised them that way, and really, they were like that to begin with. Compassion and consideration of others is paramount in our home. Now my kids don't have learning issues, they're good at school, and enjoy learning, they're "gifted" (9 and 6 years old), they read primarily on Kindles, and their vocabularies are stunning ( having a dictionary at the touch of a finger is an awesome tool; they no longer skip over words they don't know, or try to figure things out only in context, they have precise, and immediate understanding of a word in its context, this shows the value of technology). I've never had to use audio books as an alternative to reading a book, but I'm sure there's a benefit to kids who can't read text easily, but this kind of tool isn't a replacement for reading, interpreting, or absorbing textual information. At a good job you're expected to read long reports, write them, interprate and revise these written things you're "expected" to read quickly; no one is going to have the benefit of an audible.com fiancial report to refer to at a finance of banking job. It would be much too slow. So, yes, for kids who can't read well, recordings are fine to learn the other things they're expected to learn that use text, but these kids are are also expected to catch up, and meet a standard by the time they're in college. So what's fine for now, and what works as an aid for consistent learning now, is not going to help a kid reach eminence later (if that's a goal for anyone). This article is an a parenting anecdote about a whiny, and inconsiderate kid (this is the outward appearance of this teenage boy) who got his way. The neuroscience of reading isn't given much attention, but there are people doing that kind of research: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2012/september/austen-reading-fmri-090712.html

For some books that use a lot of descriptive language, I find that I enjoy them more when I listen to them than when I try to read them. I always have 3 books going at one time. An upstairs book and a downstairs book and an audio book in the car. As long as he is listening to the unabridged version he is still "reading" the full work and not "cheating" like he would with Cliff Notes or something like that.

As a teacher at a school for the blind, we have been debating for years about braille reading vs listening to a book. Listening of course is easier for the student, but is it literacy? Much can be gained by "seeing" spelling, punctuation, and writing formats that are missed by just listening.

Of course, for struggling readers, listening to talking books may be the most efficient way to quickly gain access to content. But we never give up on real reading for anyone.

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