Which is better? Listening to audiobooks or reading books

By Jonathan Roseland

While I love "normal books," audiobooks are a tool in the lifehacker's war chest for high-leverage learning and do offer some special benefits.

Notably, audiobooks help improve listening comprehension. By listening to audiobooks, one can improve their comprehension by hearing the language. Audio learning helps stimulate the imagination, increase reading fluency, and provide a model of proper pronunciation, sentence structure, and proper grammar. By hearing the language, the listeners build their vocabularies. Listening to books provides the listeners with an audio model and reference to pronounce words properly, create proper sentence structure, and improve grammar. Audiobooks improve comprehension through audio cues like tone, pauses, and pacing.

Comprehension: Audiobooks vs. text books

audio comprehension

Readers who struggle often stop and become frustrated when they stumble across words they do not know or cannot pronounce. This is all cleared up when a narrator reads the story to them and they are better able to discern a word's meaning through context. In fact, students can listen and comprehend text from several grade levels ahead of their current level. Readers who are slower at getting through a book can now confidently move along at the same pace as their peers. In general, audiobooks have proven to...

  • Increase vocabulary
  • Improve listening skills
  • Boost comprehension
  • Improve word recognition
  • Teach proper pronunciation
  • Model good inflection for readers to emulate
  • Motivate kids to read more often
  • Help students read at higher grade levels

Audio learning while multitasking

Multi tasking

Although audiobooks are not for everyone, they provide the listener with a more convenient way of reading. Because they are intended for listening, audiobooks allow listeners to continue a book whether they are at the gym, in their car, at work, or anywhere they can use a listening device.

Amazon's Whispersync audio technology got me through Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, a novel of intimidating length that I'm not sure I could have gotten through were I not listening along while multitasking.



Audiobooks also expose listeners to the art of storytelling. Listeners can hear the tone of the voice change, the different voices of the characters, the pace of the events, and the language of the story. Audiobooks make reading more accessible and appealing to those who have a difficult time reading books.

Worth mentioning: the Let's Read Youtube channel is worth listening to, one of my go-to places on the internet for great storytelling.


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Countless studies have proven the efficiency of using audiobooks in literacy programs. Forest Grove Middle School received the International Reading Association's "Exemplary Reading Program Award" in 2004 after incorporating audiobooks into their lessons. Similarly, Monroe Middle School saw drastically improved reading comprehension scores four years in a row after using audiobooks in their classes.

Disabilities and audio learning

Listening guy

Audiobooks are very helpful in improving reading comprehension as well as listening comprehension in those with reading disabilities like dyslexia. They have also been proven to enhance reading comprehension in children with emotional disorders. They have also been proven to improve comprehension in those with aphasia when applied with certain other learning techniques.

Audiobooks and kids

Child kid listening headphones

Audiobooks can introduce a child to the world of books. By listening to books first and reading the story out loud, children improve their reading comprehension and have a more advanced ability to read than children who do not listen to audiobooks and read aloud. Audiobooks also help alleviate fear and anxiety in children in the classroom because they take away the need to read aloud in front of their peers.

Language learning and ESL

language speaking communication 350

Audiobooks are also an invaluable resource for people who are learning a new language. In this case, the audiobook should be listened to in short segments of 30 seconds or less. You should first listen to the word or phrase 10-15 times. Then repeat the word along with the recording. This exercise should be repeated 50 times or so to really cement the unfamiliar word or phrase into your mind.
Audiobooks are also great for those who are learning English as a second language. The voice allows listeners to hear the proper demonstrations of fluent reading along with appropriate phrasing, intonations, inflections, and articulations. The ESL listener can acquire a broader reading comprehension by using audiobooks as a way to learn the language. ESL listeners aren't the only ones who can benefit from audiobooks to learn another language. Audiobooks are also helpful to those who wish to learn a language other than English. These audiobooks can help listeners understand the language better by listening and supplementing the audio with reading a text.

Disadvantages of audiobooks

Audiobooks have a wide variety of benefits and will only improve a listener's listening and reading comprehension, but there are some disadvantages worth mentioning...

  • You need to listen twice (or thrice) for true comprehension, especially if you're multitasking while listening.
  • Highlighting and notetaking are not possible with audiobooks - which is important if you actually want the knowledge to stick. When I want to master a subject, I read digital books about it on my Ipad and take oodles of notes.
  • They are pricey! Amazon's Audible, in particular, price gouges the listener while paying authors pitiful royalties for their service delivering MP3s. If possible buy audiobooks directly from the author instead of giving your money to Amazon and the publishing industry. Also, the superb podcast app Castbox has a huge library of classic audiobooks that you can listen to for free.

The ShallowsWhile I'm a voracious listener, the excellent (yet pessimistic) book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, convinced me of the value of spending time flipping pages.

One of the points that The Shallows makes repeatedly is that the past time of reading profoundly structures our minds.

For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg’s printing press made book reading a popular pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the center of art, science, and society. As supple as it is subtle, it’s been the imaginative mind of the Renaissance, the rational mind of the Enlightenment, the inventive mind of the Industrial Revolution, even the subversive mind of Modernism. It may soon be yesterday’s mind. (p. 10)

Listen to my review of the book here...


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