Which is better – reading a book or listening to an audiobook?

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I love reading! And as an English language learner, I find that it’s the best way to improve my vocabulary, grammar and comprehension. However, just like any adult, responsibilities get in the way of sitting down and enjoying a good book. So when I discovered audiobooks, it was a eureka moment for me. It’s a great way to catch up with the latest bestsellers while travelling to work or doing some chores.

But sometimes, I do wonder if listening to an audiobook is really the same as reading a book. Am I losing out on certain benefits that can make me more proficient in the language when I just listen instead of read?

“Reading a physical book and listening to an audiobook are two different paths that lead to the same destination. Each creates differing experiences and memories, but neither is better or worse than the other.”

Reading vs. listening to an audiobook

Some might say that reading has more cognitive benefits because of all the “work” you have to put in. A reader would have to decode the words/text, process them and imagine or comprehend what they mean. Listening to a book seems like a shortcut – the words have been decoded for you to listen to and then understand. It can be seen as a passive way of learning or understanding text.

However, new studies suggest that when it comes to mental processes involved, there is no real difference between listening to a book and reading it. Psychologist Daniel Willingham in his book on the science of reading said that “by about late elementary school, decoding becomes so second-nature that it isn’t any additional work for your brain. It happens automatically.”

It would be good to note that there is a difference between reading/listening to learn (as in textbook reading) and reading/listening for pleasure. A 2010 study showed that students who used printed material to study scored higher than those who listened to a podcast of the material. It had something to do with being able to easily go back to review points which is easier with reading than with a recording. Plus, you can’t highlight or underline audio material if you want to be reminded of a point that is important. So you may want to remember that for school or work, reading is still the best way to go. But audiobooks do have strengths. Listeners can benefit from the narrator’s inflections and intonation to help comprehension. For example, sarcasm is more easily communicated in audio than in text. And as you get more used to audiobooks, you increase your critical listening skills.

To make a long story short, each method has benefits. As writer Dana Lee says, “Reading a physical book and listening to an audiobook are two different paths that lead to the same destination. Each creates differing experiences and memories, but neither is better or worse than the other.”

Benefits of listening to an audiobook:

  • Convenience – You can read while doing other things. Plus, you don’t have to carry a physical book around or need ample light to do it. It’s a great travel companion.
  • Improves your listening skills – When listening to an audiobook, you rely mainly on your hearing since there are no visual clues. This makes your ear sharper and trains you to listen to cues such as intonation for meaning. You’ll also get used to the pace and accent of native English speakers.
  • Improves vocabulary, pronunciation and comprehension – Just like reading a book, you retain these benefits when you listen to an audiobook.

Also, it’s better than not learning at all! It enables you to sustain your language learning momentum even while you are busy with other things in your life.

Interested in trying audiobooks? Here’s what you need to get started

To start listening to audiobooks, you will need a device to download books and listen to them (preferably internet-capable), a source of books to download from, and a headset or earphones (you can also use a speaker if you prefer).

It will be more convenient to install an app to download books on your phone or tablet. However, many audiobook services allow you to download in MP3 format so that you can download them to any computer or gadget. You can even burn (copy) them into a CD if you’re into the old school way of listening to audio. If you want a gadget solely dedicated for reading and listening to books, some eBook readers are now also capable of playing audiobooks.

Here are suggested sources of audiobooks:

Downloading an eAudiobook from the Millennium Library:
The Millennium Library allows you to borrow audiobooks for free. You can download them either through OverDrive, which has 4,000 book titles or RBdigital, which has 7,000. Note that not all of them are audiobooks, some are ebooks, which means they do not have audio. You can use your computer, tablet, mobile phone or MP3 player depending on the source and file format.

  1. You will need a valid library card, internet access, and a listening/transferring software or app.
  2. Go to the library’s eAudiobooks Services page and choose which source you prefer.
  3. Type in the title of your preferred book on the search box or look through the book titles and choose the one you prefer. Look below the image of the book cover if it is an audiobook. Click on the image.
  4. It will be indicated on the next page if the audiobook is available or if you need to wait for the book to become available. You can choose to place a hold so you can borrow it as soon as it become available. You may also listen to a sample of the book to get an idea of how the narrator sounds like and how the book starts.
  5. Click on “borrow” if the book is available. You will have to sign in to proceed. You will need your 14-digit library card number (no spaces) and your PIN (the last four digits of your phone number).
  6. Follow the prompts to download your audiobook. You can borrow the audiobook for 7, 14 or 21 days.
  7. At the end of your loan, the audiobook automatically expires. Therefore, there are no late fees!

If you need more help downloading eAudiobooks from the library, go to OverDrive Help or OverDrive Basics, RBdigital App for audiobooks (iOS and Android) or RBdigital eAudiobooks on your computer. You can also ask your friendly librarian for help.

Other free sources of audiobooks:
You can listen to audiobooks immediately online, download it as MP3 or to your iPod or iPhone. Many titles are classic literature as well as best-sellers that are free, public domain audiobooks.

  1. Librivox
  2. Loyalbooks
  3. Open Culture
  4. Project Gutenberg
  5. Download the Audiobooks app

You can also subscribe to an audiobook app for more choices. The most popular ones are Audible (US$14.95/month), Bookmobile (US$3.99) or Scribd (US$8.99). Happy listening!
Sources: Audiobook vs Reading: There rules are, there are no rules, Dana Lee, Book Riot; To your brain, listening to a book is pretty much the same as reading it, Melissa Dahl, The Cut; Benefits of audiobooks for all readers, Denise Johnson, Reading Rockets; and Are audiobooks as good for you as reading? Here’s what the experts say, Markham Heid, Time. Accessed May 14, 2019.

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