Audiobooks Aren’t ‘Cheating.’ Here’s Why.

Audiobooks and podcasts can be great alternatives if books aren’t your thing

Griffie Jess teaches 11th and 12th graders at an alternative learning center.

Her subject is English. But getting students to follow a story can be a challenge.

“My students need extra help, so telling them, ‘Take this book home and read (a chapter) as homework’ does not work,” she said. “They don’t comprehend what they read or get sidetracked.”

So while many teachers might assign reading or tell students to read silently in class, Jess takes a different route.

She plays audiobooks.

Jess started using them because of the relaxed pace. They’re low-key and comfortable, not stressful, like reading can be for some people.

And she’s seen them have an impact.

“I have a kid that is 17 and cannot read,” Jess said. “After we listen to the audiobook, he can tell me everything that happened in the chapter. It’s an amazing thing.”

That sort of success isn’t just a fluke. A new study from neuroscientists at the University of California-Berkeley found that whether you’re reading a story or listening to it, you’re activating the same parts of your brain.

In other words, audiobooks and podcasts can be great alternatives if books aren’t your thing. They’re just as mentally engaging.

Not a shortcut

For the study, participants listened to episodes of the podcast “The Moth Radio Hour,” and then read the same stories. Scientists created maps of their brains using MRI during both activities.

A woman listens to headphones. Rewire PBS Living AudiobooksCredit: Adobe
We all have different learning styles. Some folks may find it easier to absorb information by listening to it rather than reading it.

The maps were nearly identical whether the participants were reading or listening.

While that’s good news for teachers like Jess, it’s also good news for everyone.

Both audiobooks and podcasts have exploded in popularity in recent years — half of all Americans over the age of 12 have listened to an audiobook in the past year, and two-thirds listen to podcasts at least once in a while.

Despite their popularity, there’s still an attitude among serious readers that listening to audiobooks is “cheating” — that you can’t claim you’ve read a book if what you’ve actually done is listened to it.

But past studies have shown that listening to a book brings you to the same level of comprehension as reading it. In other words, people who listen to audiobooks can understand the book just as well as someone who read it.

And that’s what reading is all about, right?

Leighanne Scheuermann, a reading specialist, says that audiobooks require their own skill set. Listening to one is not taking the easy way out.

“The reader must be able to maintain focus and practice comprehension skills, such as pausing to take notes and ask questions,” she said. “Readers learn to reread or re-listen to areas they did not understand. Children must also practice inferencing skills to understand unfamiliar or new vocabulary words.”

Jill Valerius, a fourth grade teacher, regularly uses podcasts with her students. Right now, it’s “Six Minutes,” a mystery and science fiction podcast for kids.

“They love ‘podcast time,’” Valerius said. “Our class goal this year is to improve our active listening skills, and podcasts are a great way to do that.”

The good news

The UC-Berkeley study is even better news for people with learning and speech disorders like dyslexia, who traditionally struggle with reading. Audiobooks could be good alternatives to written books for those folks.

Delilah Orpi, a literary specialist who works with struggling readers and students with dyslexia, has been using them in her teaching for years.

She says audiobooks and podcasts aren’t as passive as watching videos. That makes all the difference.

“When listening to a book or podcast we must visualize what we hear and make a ‘mental movie’ much like we do as we read printed text,” she said. “Through visualizing we can comprehend and recall information. Listening to stories actually strengthens our comprehension skills.”

Orpi often recommends audiobooks to her dyslexic students when the assigned reading is above their reading level.

That way, they’re still able to fully understand the story and participate in any discussion about it.

“One of the definers of dyslexia is having a discrepancy in reading ability compared to a higher overall IQ,” Scheuermann said. “Therefore, children with dyslexia are interested in complex plot lines and relevant topics.”

Kids (and adults!) with dyslexia need access to difficult books. Audiobooks can help with that.

Ancient history

Learning disability or not, many adults simply have different learning styles.

Some may find it easier to absorb information by listening to it rather than reading it, says Chris Drew, an educational podcasting expert. That’s just in our DNA.

The spoken word storytelling we hear in podcasts and audiobooks has been around eons longer than any written language.

“Storytelling is one of the oldest ways humans connect with one another,” Drew said.

“It stretches all the way back to cavemen sitting around a campfire. Audiobooks and podcasts are a renaissance of an ancient form of human intimacy.”

Gretchen Brown

Gretchen has reported on the criminal justice system in rural Minnesota and covered everything from politics to millennial truck drivers for Wisconsin Public Radio. She is passionate about public media as a public service. She’s also into music and really good coffee. Follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.