Even for people who love books, finding the opportunity to read can be a challenge. Many, then, rely on audiobooks, a convenient alternative to old-fashioned reading. You can listen to the latest bestseller while commuting or cleaning up the house.
But is listening to a book really the same as reading one?
“I was a fan of audiobooks, but I always viewed them as cheating,” says Beth Rogowsky, an associate professor of education at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
For a 2016 study, Rogowsky put her assumptions to the test. One group in her study listened to sections of Unbroken, a nonfiction book about World War II by Laura Hillenbrand, while a second group read the same parts on an e-reader. She included a third group that both read and listened at the same time. Afterward, everyone took a quiz designed to measure how well they had absorbed the material. “We found no significant differences in comprehension between reading, listening, or reading and listening simultaneously,” Rogowsky says.
Score one for audiobooks? Maybe. But Rogowsky’s study used e-readers rather than traditional print books, and there’s some evidence that reading on a screen reduces learning and comprehension compared to reading from printed text. So it’s possible that, had her study pitted traditional books against audiobooks, old-school reading might have come out on top.
If you’re wondering why printed books may be better than screen-based reading, it may have to do with your inability to gauge where you are in an electronic book. “As you’re reading a narrative, the sequence of events is important, and knowing where you are in a book helps you build that arc of narrative,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read. While e-readers try to replicate this by telling you how much of a book you have left, in a percentage or length of time to the end, this doesn’t seem to have the same narrative-orienting effect as reading from a traditional book.
The fact that printed text is anchored to a specific location on a page also seems to help people remember it better than screen-based text, according to more research on the spatial attributes of traditional printed media. All this may be relevant to the audiobook vs. book debate because, like digital screens, audiobooks deny users the spatial cues they would use while reading from printed text.
The self-directed rhythms associated with reading may also differentiate books from audiobooks.
“About 10 to 15% of eye movements during reading are actually regressive—meaning [the eyes are] going back and re-checking,” Willingham explains. “This happens very quickly, and it’s sort of seamlessly stitched into the process of reading a sentence.” He says this reading quirk almost certainly bolsters comprehension, and it may be roughly comparable to a listener asking for a speaker to “hold on” or repeat something. “Even as you’re asking, you’re going over in your mind’s ear what the speaker just said,” he says. Theoretically, you can also pause or jump back while listening to an audio file. “But it’s more trouble,” he adds.
Another consideration is that whether we’re reading or listening to a text, our minds occasionally wander. Seconds (or minutes) can pass before we snap out of these little mental sojourns and refocus our attention, says David Daniel, a professor of psychology at James Madison University and a member of a National Academy of Sciences project aimed at understanding how people learn.
If you’re reading, it’s pretty easy to go back and find the point at which you zoned out. It’s not so easy if you’re listening to a recording, Daniel says. Especially if you’re grappling with a complicated text, the ability to quickly backtrack and re-examine the material may aid learning, and this is likely easier to do while reading than while listening. “Turning the page of a book also gives you a slight break,” he says. This brief pause may create space for your brain to store or savor the information you’re absorbing.
Daniel coauthored a 2010 study that found students who listened to a podcast lesson performed worse on a comprehension quiz than students who read the same lesson on paper. “And the podcast group did a lot worse, not a little worse,” he says. Compared to the readers, the listeners scored an average of 28% lower on the quiz—about the difference between an A or a D grade, he says.
Interestingly, at the start of the experiment, almost all the students wanted to be in the podcast group. “But then right before I gave them the quiz, I asked them again which group they would want to be in, and most of them had changed their minds—they wanted to be in the reading group,” Daniel says. “They knew they hadn’t learned as much.”
He says it’s possible that, with practice, the listeners might be able to make up ground on the readers. “We get good at what we do, and you could become a better listener if you trained yourself to listen more critically,” he says. (The same could be true of screen-based reading; some research suggests that people who practice “screen learning” get better at it.)
But there may also be some “structural hurdles” that impede learning from audio material, Daniels says. For one thing, you can’t underline or highlight something you hear. And many of the “This is important!” cues that show up in text books—things like bolded words or boxed bits of critical info—aren’t easily emphasized in audio-based media.
But audiobooks also have some strengths. Human beings have been sharing information orally for tens of thousands of years, Willingham says, while the printed word is a much more recent invention. “When we’re reading, we’re using parts of the brain that evolved for other purposes, and we’re MacGyvering them so they can be applied to the cognitive task of reading,” he explains. Listeners, on the other hand, can derive a lot of information from a speaker’s inflections or intonations. Sarcasm is much more easily communicated via audio than printed text. And people who hear Shakespeare spoken out loud tend to glean a lot of meaning from the actor’s delivery, he adds.
However, a final factor may tip the comprehension and retention scales firmly in favor of reading, and that’s the issue of multitasking. “If you’re trying to learn while doing two things, you’re not going to learn as well,” Willingham says. Even activities that you can more or less perform on autopilot—stuff like driving or doing the dishes—take up enough of your attention to impede learning. “I listen to audiobooks all the time while I’m driving, but I would not try to listen to anything important to my work,” he says.
All that said, if you’re reading or listening for leisure—not for work or study—the differences between audiobooks and print books are probably “small potatoes,” he adds. “I think there’s enormous overlap in comprehension of an audio text compared to comprehension of a print text.”
So go ahead and “cheat.” Your book club buddies will never know.