While textbooks are still a preferred medium of learning in educational institutions, audiobooks are becoming increasingly popular in today’s times. The convenience of listening to an audiobook is driving more people to choose them over print books. Although this is a welcoming change, as people can select their preferred mode of learning, the question of which method results in better learning comes into the picture.
Researchers have been drawn to this subject too, and many have conducted studies to establish which mode of learning is more effective in learning – reading or listening? Before we discuss the effectiveness, let us understand the differences between the two.
Key differences between reading and listening
1. Brain activation
The cognitive processes required for reading occur on the left side of the brain. That means when a person is reading, the left hemisphere of the brain is more engaged and active. On the other hand, listening entails two things at once – listening and interpreting. It involves bilateral temporal cortex activation and overall activation of the entire cortex.
2. Learning approach
When a person reads straight out of a book, they are involved in active learning. Reading requires focus which results in higher engagement levels. Even if the person does not comprehend the information completely, they are still actively engaging with it. On the contrary, listening is a passive learning process. It does not require active participation. In fact, many people listen to the subject matter passively while tending to other activities. Therefore, listening often has lesser engagement than reading.
A study has established that the average reading rate for adults in English is 238 words/ minute for non-fiction and 260 words/ minute for fiction texts. That means it is possible to comprehend the meaning of those many words in just a minute. Meanwhile, for a person to understand an audio text, the talking speed of the narrator should be between 150-160 words/per minute. This shows that people can understand the meaning of a bigger section of text when they are reading compared to listening to the same text.
4. Effort required
Reading requires more effort compared to listening because one must put energy into going through what is printed in the book to make meaning out of it. One has to really get involved in the act of reading to do it successfully. Stop reading, and you will not know what follows next. Listening is a more laid-back approach to learning where the audio file shares the information, and one has to merely listen to it. Even if one loses focus for a minute or two, the learning still continues.
5. Emotional response
The act of listening triggers an emotional response in the minds of the listeners. This is possible because the narrator of the audiobook does not merely narrate the content of the book but also subtly enacts the nuances through their narration. This builds an emotional connection with the listeners, who develop a better understanding of expressions such as joy, sarcasm, etc. Reading may not necessarily evoke these feelings in the minds of the readers as it totally depends on the level of understanding and involvement of the reader.
6. Retention of information
Reading allows enhanced information retention in contrast to listening. It is believed that people who read through books are better at recalling what they have read. This is possible because when a person is reading, they are actively involved in the process. They also develop a visual memory of the information while reading. Reading also gives them the option to highlight or underline important points, which is not possible when a person is listening to an audiobook.
Which is more effective for learning and comprehension – Reading or Listening?
A study on “The Effects of Reading, Listening, and Dual Modality on Comprehension” was published in 2016. Ninety-one participants were divided into three groups. Each group was asked to go through the same instructional material in different formats – audiobook, e-text, and both. Later, the participants appeared for written tests to check the extent of comprehension and retention. The results of the study confirmed that there were no significant differences in the level of comprehension and retention between the three groups. This means that all three modes of learning were equally effective.
However, the effectiveness of reading and listening depends on a few factors. Let us see what they are –
The first factor that affects the effectiveness of any mode of learning is distractions. We are constantly surrounded by distractions and there is no way to escape them. However, when a person is reading, the chances of getting distracted are a little less than listening. As reading is more immersive, the level of engagement is high, and therefore, distractions are less of a problem.
However, when people are listening to audiobooks, besides using their listening skills, they are also involved in other activities as well, such as doing chores, exercising, etc. As a result, they can get easily distracted and miss out on crucial information once in a while.
2. The complexity of the subject
Another factor is the complexity of the subject matter. Listening tends to be more effective when it is used to study simple and generic topics which do not require added attention to grasp the concepts. Reading is better suited for complex subjects that are content-heavy and require effort for comprehension. Reading allows the reader to go back to previous points and review them when required, which is not conveniently possible while listening.
3. Learning environment
The effectiveness of different modes of learning also depends on the learning environment. People who wish to sneak in a learning session while performing other activities can benefit by listening to audiobooks. For them, avoiding listening can result in a missed learning opportunity. Similarly, those who have the privilege to study in a quiet and peaceful environment can benefit more from reading as they can engage and comprehend the content better.
Both reading and listening are effective ways of learning a concept, and each has its own advantages. It is more about an individual’s personal preference and comfort level with a particular mode of learning. While audiobooks are creating their space in learning environments, print books are still preferred over audiobooks and ebooks. A survey conducted by PEW Research Center in 2021 has confirmed the same.
To provide learners with the best of both worlds, educational institutions must incorporate reading and listening activities in their curriculum because both skills are equally important to excel in life.
In the end, we would like to share what writer Dana Lee has to say on this topic – “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.”
- Waldie KE, Haigh CE, Badzakova-Trajkov G, Buckley J, Kirk IJ. Reading the wrong way with the right hemisphere. Brain Sci. 2013 Jul 17;3(3):1060-75. doi: 10.3390/brainsci3031060. PMID: 24961521; PMCID: PMC4061874.
- Buchweitz A, Mason RA, Tomitch LM, Just MA. Brain activation for reading and listening comprehension: An fMRI study of modality effects and individual differences in language comprehension. Psychol Neurosci. 2009;2(2):111-123. doi: 10.3922/j.psns.2009.2.003. PMID: 21526132; PMCID: PMC3081613.
- Brysbaert, Marc. (2019). How many words do we read per minute? A review and meta-analysis of reading rate. Journal of Memory and Language. 109. 10.1016/j.jml.2019.104047.
- Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2016). Does Modality Matter? The Effects of Reading, Listening, and Dual Modality on Comprehension. SAGE Open, 6(3). https://doi.org/10.1177/2158244016669550