Listening in on the Relationship between Audiobooks and Reading Comprehension

In this day and age of technological everything, the debate about whether people should read on a screen or from a printed page rages on. A less obvious, but equally important, debate centers on whether students should be encouraged to “read” using audiobooks instead of traditional media, especially when they’re doing it outside of a classroom setting. That brings up a central question – just what is “reading?”

Most people would agree that reading traditionally involves two processes: decoding and language processing. “Decoding” is when an individual deciphers the meaning of the words written on a page or a computer screen. “Language processing” uses the same mental processes as those for interpreting oral language. Since humans are hard-wired for oral language but not for reading or writing [read our related blog post here], interpreting written material has to piggy-back on mental processes that existed before written language was created. Those processes are are brain pathways we use for spoken communication.

But what, specifically, is reading? Is it the act of decoding words, or is it the creation of meaning from those words? That is, does the process of decoding add value to interpretation, or is it merely a means to an end? This is an important question, as listening to an audio book is the same as reading print material, except the latter requires decoding and the former does not. Kyle Redford of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity says, “I would argue that reading is simply the processing of language into story and information, and it has value for readers whether it’s on paper or through sound. The only difference is that reading text requires decoding and listening to an audiobook does not … Though the research doesn’t establish whether higher achievement is tied to the act of decoding, I would argue that increased exposure to words, information, and ideas, regardless of format, plays a big role in helping students improve academically.”[1]

Many opponents of audiobooks claim that the time students spend listening to them takes away from the critical practice of decoding skills, especially for struggling and dyslexic readers. But print and audio do not need to be mutually exclusive. Students learning decoding skills can pick up valuable information from audiobooks that corresponds with their interests and has the ability to engage them. They can also learn new vocabulary in context that will strengthen their word skills both in and out of the classroom. And for students in the upper elementary grades whose reading skills are below their peers, audiobooks can provide a much-needed outlet to obtain ideas, information, and new vocabulary, often through vocal expression – changes in pacing, rhythm, and pitch.

Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between academic achievement and the amount of independent reading (both print and audio) done outside the classroom environment.

Tilstra et al, (2009) found that, as expected, in the early grades, a lot of the differences in reading proficiency are due to differences in students’ decoding skills. In the later grades, most children are relatively fluent decoders; differences in reading efficiency are therefore more due to processes that support comprehension.[2]

Bell & Perfetti (1994) and Gernsbacher, Varner, & Faust (1990) predicted that for typical adults (who decode fluently) listening comprehension and reading comprehension would be mostly the same thing, so there would be very little difference between print and audiobooks. Their results demonstrated very high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests in the adults measured.[3]

The idea of reading being composed of decoding and language processing, sometimes called “the simple view,” is useful when considering the mental processes involved in reading texts that are more similar to spoken language, and those that we read for purposes similar to those of listening, such as novels or magazine articles. However, the written word is not always similar to speech. This simple view is less applicable when an individual is reading for other purposes, e.g., when students study for a quiz, or when we scan a document looking for facts useful to research.

When text does not correlate with speech, it is possible for prosody to aid in comprehension. Prosody refers to changes in pacing, pitch, and rhythm in speech, which would be found in audiobooks. An example would be the statement “You’re really amazing.” It can either be a sincere compliment or a sarcastic put-down; while both look identical on the page, prosody communicates the difference by providing audio clues and aids comprehension as a result. When listening to audiobooks, the reader doesn’t need to supply the prosody – that comes from whoever is reading the book out loud.

For those educators not swayed by the evidence for audio’s assistance in reading proficiency and believe it takes time away from concentrating on decoding skills, it’s important to point out that new technology has become available that brings both text and audio together into a synchronized whole. Synced ear-and-eye reading systems allow students to read highlighted text and listen to that text being read at the same time. This can help with unfamiliar words, as well as provide the prosody that communicates how words can be interpreted. These systems are especially important for struggling readers, who then become able to read text at their intellectual or grade level rather than fall behind their peers.

Some of the synced ear-and-eye reading programs available are Bookshare, a free service, and Learning Ally, a subscription service. Both organizations provide audiobooks to students with diagnosed reading difficulties, and they enhance students’ fluency and comprehension, as well as improve concentration.

It is also important to point out that after about Grade 3, teachers are no longer focusing on teaching decoding skills – learning to read turns into reading to learn. Students who have fallen behind their classmates, if only given print material, may never be able to catch up. Should we really deny them the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas and new vocabulary available in the audio format?

What are your thoughts on this topic? Are audiobooks a form of reading? Should they be used as an aid within the classroom and for independent reading? Please leave us your comments in the section below.

 

Citations:

[1] Redford, Kyle. (March 7, 2018). Want to Enrich Students’ Reading Lives? Don’t Dismiss Audiobooks. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2018/03/07/want-to-enrich-students-reading-lives-dont.html

[2] In Willingham, Daniel. (July 24, 2016). Is Listening to an Audio Book “Cheating?” Retrieved from http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/is-listening-to-an-audio-book-cheating

[3] In Willingham, Daniel. (July 24, 2016). Is Listening to an Audio Book “Cheating?” Retrieved from http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/is-listening-to-an-audio-book-cheating

 

Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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