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  • Julie Knight

Are audiobooks cheating?

It’s no secret that I am a fan of audiobooks. I always have one on the go, and have made my way through more literature than ever since beginning on my audiobook journey. I can listen to them when I’m walking, driving in the car, cooking dinner, you name it!

I’m also a fan of audiobooks for my dyslexic students. While they’re learning the process of decoding, they can access material they wouldn’t otherwise be able to read. Their comprehension and vocabulary improves, and the audiobooks put them in a better position to launch into a lifelong love of reading.

And as they get older and complete novel studies in school, they are able to spend their mental energy on gaining a deeper understanding of a text, instead of using their brain power to decipher unfamiliar words.

But I’m often asked by students and parents “are audiobooks cheating?” The short answer is no, but the more curious of you will want to know why.

To answer that question, we must define what the purpose of reading is. Most people would agree that a person who can understand the content of the story, its theme, the author’s message, think critically about the content, make connections and use their imagination is what is at the heart of what it means to be a reader. In this definition, reading could be achieved by either using your eyes, or using your ears.

And it’s not only examining this definition of reading that suggests listening is not cheating. The cognitive psychology behind reading can also be examined. Daniel Willingham, University of Virginia psychologist reasons that the argument of ‘listening is cheating’ suggests that the listener got some reward without putting in the work - that to your brain, listening is less “work” than reading.

Looking more deeply into the act of reading, we know there are two basic processes happening. Decoding is where we translate strings of letters into words that mean something. It is one more step your mind has to take when reading a print book as compared to listening to the audiobook version. But for most children, by about late primary school, decoding becomes so second-nature that it isn’t any additional “work” for your brain. It happens automatically.

Then there is language processing, or comprehension — that is, figuring out the syntax, the story, etc. Researchers have studied the question of comprehension for decades, and “what you find is very high correlations of reading comprehension and listening comprehension,” Willingham said.

Science writer Olga Khazan noted in 2011, a “1985 study found listening comprehension correlated strongly with reading comprehension — suggesting that those who read books well would listen to them well. In a 1977 study, college students who listened to a short story were able to summarise it with equal accuracy as those who read it.” In other words, listeners and readers retain about equal understanding of the passages they’ve consumed.

There’s another way to consider the question of cheating that annoys Willingham the most. During my walks this week, I have been listening to Witi Ihimaera’s The Whale Rider (which is so much more amazing than the movie by the way), and so it might be argued that once I’m done, I can’t claim to have really “read” it. “There are people who think of reading as a sort of achievement, a mark of honor that you’ve done something worthy of respect,” Willingham said. “There’s this sense that when you have read a book, you’ve done something that is worthy of pride, and it is worthy of other people patting you on the back.”

This, to his mind, is nonsense, a holdover from primary school days. “You know, there are classrooms that are set up with that very much in mind,” he said. “There’s a reader wall and you get a star next to your name every time you finish a book, and the number of books is counted.”

In my experience, most teachers are happy for children to substitute ear reading for eye reading. They’re most concerned with comprehension, so checking in with them about whether your child is allowed to use them as an accommodation may yield a pleasant surprise.

In conclusion, audiobooks are beneficial for the struggling reader, who is attempting to keep their comprehension and vocabulary skills in line with their neurotypical peers. They are an enjoyable way to consume more literature on the move, and lastly, according to experts in the field of cognitive psychology, listening is not cheating.

Ready to listen?

For those of you who have been convinced, you’ll want to know where you can get hold of these audiobooks.

  • Your library is most likely to use the Overdrive system to lend audiobooks via the web. You just need to download Overdrive onto your listening device, search your virtual library shelves, and borrow to your hearts content. Overdrive is free, as is borrowing from your library.

  • Youtube has an amazing array of audio books available. The downside is you can’t save your progress as with a regular audio book, but it is free.

  • Audible is a subscription based app that costs around $15 per month, and in return you can download 1 book. While it is pricier, it has a larger selection of books available, they yours for as long as you want them on your device, and you can bookmark where you’ve got to.

If you’d like to find more about dyslexia, or explore interventions for a struggling reader, please check out my website

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