by Martha Tyler

Is homework – especially reading homework – a struggle in your home? Do you wish your children would read more independently? Let me introduce you to the power of audiobooks!

Many students and families struggle when it comes to assigned reading. Children are assigned books, and sometimes those books aren’t the most interesting to an individual child. Especially in high school, many of the books do not speak to a high school student’s experience, so they have trouble connecting with the old-fashioned text.

As a former high school English teacher, I know that audiobooks can go a long way to repair the relationship between students and literature. That’s because students can understand the story without getting bogged down with difficult-to-understand language. Audiobooks also help children feel more confident in their reading and help build vocabulary because these young, possibly inexperienced readers can hear the words used in context

Many parents worry that audiobooks are “cheating” or giving their children less of an education than actually reading the text. While it is true that reading comprehension can be better achieved through words on a page, a 2019 study at the University of California Berkeley found that both audiobooks and reading physical books light up the same parts of our brains. As a result, a student who listens to a book read by someone else is experiencing that text in a similar manner as is a student who is reading the book. Some students even enjoy both reading the words on the page while listening to the audiobook simultaneously, and that’s great too! 

A 2016 study tracked the reading comprehension of three approaches:

(1) students read a text on an e-reader,

(2) students listen to text audio,

(3) students both read and listen at the same time.

Interestingly, this study did not find a significant difference between the three approaches in terms of reading comprehension. It would also be interesting to see the results of an approach-based study conducted with a physical book instead of an e-reader, however.

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Raising Kids Who Read, says that comprehension may increase in a physical book because some of our reading on a page is actually going back to re-read sections quickly as we gain more information. A reader can also track progress in a story better when using a physical book or article. Audiobooks also move forward at a regular pace whether or not the listener is actually listening. Consequently, a student’s attention may wander during an audiobook reading, and thus miss a significant part of the story or know exactly where to find the missing information. This can be tricky to navigate and might impact how much of the story is understood. 

The ability to physically read is an important skill that all students must learn. As for any skill, we become better at reading the more we practice this skill. However, if your home has become a battleground around finishing reading assignments – especially when they include longer books and fictional stories – it is better for the overall well-being of the child (and you) to try other methods of reading (such as audiobooks). 

Audiobooks are also a great resource for neurodiverse students. ADHD or ADD students may benefit from being able to read and go for a walk at the same time. Students who struggle with social cues might benefit from hearing things like sarcasm in context. Even students who simply have taken some hits to their confidence around reading will gain confidence from finishing new stories.

Finally, when teaching English, my goal was always to help students find a book they loved by the end of the school year. We want students to fall in love with storytelling. If sitting and physically reading a book is a barrier to exploring new stories, I would rather a student listen to it than not read a book at all. I also listen to audiobooks as an adult so that I can read more than my busy schedule allows. Even if your student isn’t a reluctant reader, exploring audiobooks can gain them access to more stories than physically reading books can! 

In conclusion, what and how much a student reads is far more important than how a student reads. Audiobooks are a wonderful resource to help kids build confidence and absorb different kinds of stories. They can also make completing English assignments so much easier for students! Your child’s English teacher would rather your child listen to a book than not do the assignment at all. And, it can help support a child who is struggling in reading by allowing the child to still participate in discussions in class and take the quizzes and tests no matter how the information was absorbed.

In the audiobook versus physical book reading debate, I firmly support both. Find out what works best for your kids and family situation and read on!

Photo by Charlotte May from Pexels