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Audiobooks Take Off With Students During Pandemic

The use of audiobooks has grown among kids, but the question persists: Does listening to an audiobook qualify as “reading?”

Set of books with headphones
Like e-books, the use of audiobooks grew substantially during the pandemic for both kids and adults. With many school and public libraries closed for print book checkout, readers had to resort to borrowing books online in digital formats. And for audiobooks, a groundswell of listeners also subscribed to services such as Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook market leader.

With many libraries open again and hard copy books more readily available, one might wonder if the use of digital books will wane. But since receiving laptops from their schools for virtual learning, more students now have devices for reading ebooks. And with the popularity of smart speakers helping drive audiobook use, it’s a safe bet the growth of digital books — both ebooks and audio — will continue apace, and libraries are taking note.

I’ve written about some of the challenges libraries face in working with publishers and third-party providers like OverDrive to license e-books for their patrons. And a recent New Yorker article takes a good look at these issues, as well as how the pandemic has shifted libraries’ budgets and spending patterns for e-books and audiobooks.

However, the use of e-books among kids has raised questions for parents and educators about their potential downsides. The main concerns are increased screen time with ebooks, plus research that shows retention of digital texts is less than when the same material is read in hard copy form. But one can’t muster a good argument that reading e-books isn’t, in fact, “reading.”

The same can’t be said for audiobooks. The role they play in developing students’ literacy skills is an ongoing point of contention for those who see them as a form of literary “cheating,” or at least not actually “reading.”

The audiobook debate raises such questions as: Does a student who listens to an audio version of a book glean the same amount of information as a student who reads it? Should teachers, especially in the upper grades where students have presumably mastered the mechanics of reading, let their students use audiobooks in lieu of texts, or care one way or another if they do? Is listening to To Kill a Mockingbird inherently better or worse than reading it?

In discussing the pros and cons of audiobooks, it’s useful to divide listeners into two groups: Developing readers and proficient readers. For developing readers, the assumption is that audiobooks will help them become proficient readers, but will not be used to replace reading altogether. For proficient readers, the discussion is more nuanced.

Audiobooks and Developing Readers

Research shows that audiobooks can play an important role in developing literacy skills in developing readers because:
  • The brain works in the same way to decode words whether listening to them or reading them.
  • Audiobooks help listeners develop comprehension skills that are transferable to print reading, and they also expand students’ vocabularies and phonemic awareness — their ability to identify and manipulate the sounds in spoken words.
  • For developing readers, listening to an audiobook while simultaneously reading along can help build reading fluency through modeling. This reading-while-listening approach is especially important for kids whose parents aren’t fluent readers or don’t spend quality time reading to and with them.
  • For struggling readers, audiobooks allow them to stretch beyond their reading levels and engage with a wider range of books in genres and topics of personal interest. And doing so can motivate them to continue working on their reading fluency. Some studies have shown this is especially important for boys.

Audiobooks and Proficient Readers

In 2018, an opinion piece in the New York Times, “Is Listening to a Book the Same Thing as Reading It?,” Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, fired up a wave of debate that still continues. Citing research, Willingham concluded audiobook listeners aren’t cheating and should feel no guilt in continuing their practice. But he also described a study conducted with students who listened to a 22-minute scientific podcast and subsequently scored far worse on a written quiz than their class counterparts who had read the material.

Willingham wrote, “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.”

And that’s an important point for teachers as they consider the role of audiobooks or podcasts in their classrooms. Using Willingham’s thesis, allowing students to listen to The Grapes of Wrath for a high school literature class may be fine, but less so for a treatise on Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Seeing the benefits of the reading-while-listening approach, elementary teachers long ago adopted books on tape, setting up listening corners in their classrooms where students were encouraged to listen to a book while following along with its print version.

So the audiobook phenomenon is nothing new in education, and even some of Thomas Edison’s early phonographs were recordings of stories. But with the growth of digital audiobooks and podcasts, new opportunities are now available to educators and students at all levels.