Do audio books bring the same benefits as regular reading?

Even for people who are passionately fond of reading, it can be difficult to find the time and opportunity of their favorite hobby. In this situation, many rely on audio books, a convenient alternative to old-fashioned reading. You may well be listening to the latest bestseller while traveling or cleaning the house.

But is listening to audio books the same as reading?

“I was a fan of audio books, but I always saw them as a hoax,” says Beth Rogowski, a professor at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania.

In 2016, Rogowski proposed a study of this issue. In the course of it, one group in its study listened to parts of the “Irresistible”, a popular science book about the Second World War by Laura Hillenbrand, and the second one read the same parts using an e-book. The third group at the same time read and listened. Subsequently, all subjects answered a number of questions in the questionnaire, which was to establish how well they learned the material. “We did not find significant differences in perception between reading, listening, or reading and listening at the same time,” Rogovsky says.

Plus for audio books? May be. But Rogowski’s research used electronic books, not traditional printed books, and according to some sources, reading on the screen reduces perception and understanding compared to reading printed text. Therefore, it is entirely possible that if traditional books were to take part in the study, then conservatives could be ahead.

If you are wondering why printed books can be better than electronic books, then you should pay attention to an interesting feature: it is difficult for a person to evaluate exactly where he is in the electronic book. “When you read the story, the sequence of events is important, and knowing where you are in the book helps you build the right line,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Growing Children Who Read.” While readers of electronic literature are guided by the percentage of read volume, this does not seem to have the same narrative-orientating effect as reading a traditional book.

The fact that printed text is tied to a specific place on a page also seems to help people remember it better than screen text, according to more detailed studies of the spatial attributes of traditional print media. All this may be relevant to discussions on the audiobook and books in general, because, like digital screens, audiobooks prevent users from using the spatial signals that they use when reading printed text.

Self-directed reading rhythms also distinguish traditional books from audio books

“10 to 15% of eye movements during reading are actually regressive, that is, [eyes] come back and run through the text again,” Willingham explains. “It happens very fast.” He says that this quirk of reading will almost certainly contribute to understanding, in analogy when listening to audio it is as if you are listening to a lecturer, and then asking him something else. “When you ask, you pay extra attention to what the speaker just said,” he says. Theoretically, you can also pause or go back while listening to an audio file. “But it’s troublesome enough,” he adds.

Another consideration is that, both while reading and listening, our thoughts sometimes wander. According to David Daniel, professor of psychology at the University of James Madison and a member of the National Academy of Sciences study project, it may take seconds (or minutes) before we get out of our fantasies and refocus our attention.

If you are reading, it’s pretty easy to go back and find the point at which you lost the thought. Daniel notes that it’s not so easy if you are listening to a recording. Especially in the case of complex text, the ability to quickly backtrack and revise material can help in learning, and this is probably easier to do while reading than while listening. “Turning over a book’s page also gives you a little break,” he says. This brief pause can create space for your brain to store or analyze the information you absorb.

Daniel is a co-author of the 2010 study, which studied students who listened to lessons in the form of podcasts – as a result, they learned less well than students who studied information from the lesson on paper. “And a group of podcast listeners showed significantly worse results,” he emphasizes. Compared to readers, the result of listeners was 28% worse – the difference between the highest and the lowest rating.

Interestingly, at the beginning of the experiment, almost all students wanted to be in a podcast group. “But before passing the final test, most of them changed their minds – they noted that it would be better to choose reading,” says Daniel. “They realized that a lot to learn failed”

He says it is possible that with practice, students will be able to compete with readers. “We are well versed in what we are doing, and it is quite possibly better to learn to perceive information by ear, if we learn to listen more critically,” he says. (The same can be said about screen reading, some studies show that people who practice “e-learning” perceive this information better over time).

But there may be some “structural hurdles” that prevent learning from audio material, Daniels notes. First, you cannot emphasize or highlight what you hear. And many of the important points that appear in text books — things like bold words or bits of critical information — are more difficult to emphasize when listening to audio.

But audio books also have their own strengths. Willingham says that people transmit information verbally for tens of thousands of years, while the printed word is a much more “fresh” invention. “When we read, we use parts of the brain that have developed for other purposes,” he explains. Listeners, on the other hand, can receive a significant portion of information from the timbre of a speaker’s speech or intonation. Sarcasm is much easier to convey through audio than through printed text. And people who hear “Shakespeare” speak out loud are inclined to grasp additional meaning thanks to the actor’s play.

However, there is another factor in favor of reading, and that is multitasking. “If you are trying to learn by doing two things, then you are unlikely to succeed,” says Willingham. Even actions that you can more or less perform on autopilot, such as driving or cooking, take up enough attention to impede learning. “I listen to audio books all the time while I’m driving, but I wouldn’t listen to something important for my work,” he says.

But if we are talking about light, entertaining literature, then the differences in reading and listening to audio books are insignificant, the specialist adds. “I think there is a huge coincidence in understanding the audio text compared to understanding the print text.”

So in this case, you can continue to “cheat”. Friends from your book club will never understand the difference.

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