Humans rely on five senses to gather and process information about the world around them. Arguments about comprehension and absorption of material which is spoken or read depend to some extent on the purpose of the exercise. Research also indicates that relative comprehension levels when listening as opposed to reading on the printed page can differ between individuals.
Audio books have not replaced printed books, but it is not because of the quality of the experience. Neither listening nor reading is inherently better than the other. Each type of sensory input has advantages and disadvantages.
Some of the reasons for participating in the experiences of reading or listening include entertainment, learning, communication, and persuasion. Read on to learn more about listening versus reading in each of these environments.
How the brain processes information
There are many studies in the scientific world which have to do with the ability to process information. Some of the benefits of reading include cognitive health, improved communication skills, improved vocabulary, concentration, reasoning, emotional intelligence, critical thinking skills, promoting empathy, brain network connectivity and social perception. Reading and then processing what was read activates different areas of the brain.
For both listening and reading, you are processing information to grasp story comprehension. Your brain works to make sense of a plot, and attempts to predict what will occur next. The areas of the brain which are involved include the frontal lobes, temporal lobes, parietal lobes, occipital lobes and the cerebellum.
There are some activation differences between processing speech and print. Understanding of what you are reading is a left brain activity, specifically in language processing, while understanding what you are listening to activates both the right and left brain to process speech and acoustics. However, processing the information happens in the same cortical areas.
The human brain is equally stimulated by both reading and listening. A study which mapped the human brain and checked for brain activity from the two senses found no significant difference between the two.
Listening to an emotional presentation by a narrator may lead to greater empathy, because the emotional circuits of the brain are activated. The imagery and intensity fostered by emotion can lead to greater enjoyment of the material and deeper processing of the narrative. While listening makes the story come alive, comprehension and retention is not markedly different between audio books and printed materials.
If you are trying to improve your reading speed, comprehension of the written word, spelling, or ability to focus on text, then audio books cannot help you in those areas. If you are trying to improve your listening comprehension or simply trying to multitask, then audio books are the clear choice.
Many experts believe that reading helps us improve our listening skills. One recommendation to improve listening skills is also to read the same content. Listening to new material in a relaxed environment helps us comprehend complex or new material more efficiently. When initially learning a foreign language, reading is often recommended. Seeing the text of a word helps reinforce our ability to remember the word and its use.
When audio books hit the market several years ago, futurists suggested that listening would eclipse reading as our preferred learning method. At this point in time, that forecast has not proven to be true.
Some may find that reading a book at the same time as listening to the book in audio form can improve their ability to read and retain information. This captioning or follow-along feature is offered by some audio book sources, where it is intended to help students, language learners, or anyone else who finds it helpful to focus.
Everyone processes and learns new information in different ways. There are three main cognitive learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual learning applies to reading the material, auditory involves listening to the same material being read aloud, while kinesthetic learning is a little harder to relate than the first two and is beyond the scope of the original question.
While individuals may have a preference for hearing or reading material, most are able to learn by either method.
Advantages of audio books
Because of the weight and bulk of printed books, audio books are a more portable option than their printed counterparts. You can enjoy listening to a book while on a commuter train or bus. You can take along an entire library of reading material in a space the size of a smartphone or tablet.
You can regain your love of books while doing other tasks such as driving, exercising, doing household chores, or even working. Because audio books can be hands-free, you can perform repetitive tasks at the same time as you are immersed in a book. Reading a book or magazine while walking in the park or on a treadmill is often challenging. That’s when using our earbuds to listen to audio books or podcasts is a better method.
Depending on the genre of the material and the speaker, listening to a narrator’s voice can be soothing and immersive. It may allow for better appreciation of the material you are listening to.
Some individuals understand and remember information better through hearing it, than through seeing it, although some studies find that retention may depend more on other factors than on distinction between the two senses.
For individuals with visual impairments, or who have injuries making holding a printed volume tiring, listening to a narration provides enjoyment. Those who struggle with reading comprehension may benefit from an oral rendition.
Advantages of printed books
Setting aside dedicated time to read and process information with no distractions can be a form of self-care. Although many people feel that multitasking is something they can manage, time spent on enjoying a leisure activity such as reading involves a singular focus on comfort, lighting, and freedom from distractions.
People who are highly visual may struggle to follow an audio book due to the input coming in a form they are not best suited to pay attention to without excessive focus on the task, which eliminates being able to listen while multitasking.
Flipping back a few pages to reread something is much easier than trying to find a particular place in an audio file. Even a short loss of attention can cause missing elements of the story in an audio venue.
Some prefer letting their own imagination stage the events of a book, and find a narrator’s interpretation limiting when it comes to character voices, emphasis, and tone.
What About Distractions
Evaluating both learning methods under ideal conditions is intriguing, but what about all the distractions humans encounter daily?
Most of us will agree that humans can be easily distracted. With all the options available that allow for the immediate flow of information, we can lose concentration or our train of thought. We often hear someone across the table or on the phone, but our listening skills determine the level of comprehension.
If an individual is distracted, chances are they will not understand the concept of a subject. Many times, speaking is linear. There may be no way for the listener to “rewind” the speaker and go over the idea again.
However, if an individual gets distracted while reading, they can reread the words as often as necessary to understand the subject. In this respect, reading is better for retention and comprehension.
Reading speed vs speaking speed
Most avid readers will find that their reading speed is much faster than the speaking speed of an audio book. Many resources indicate that the average reading speed of most adults is around 200 to 250 words per minute, which translates to two minutes per page. College students, probably because they must practice reading, move that pace up a notch to about 300 words per minute.
Not everyone can read fast and hit the average reading speed, regardless of their age. Many factors play a role in how fast a person can read, such as practice, reading material, and their health. However, this does not mean that they can’t improve their reading pace.
An experienced public speaker will deliver their message at a rate of about 160 words per minute. It is possible to speak more rapidly, but it is recommended that readers of recorded books speak at around this pace because it is comfortable for most listeners.
In comparison, we form thoughts at around 1000 – 3000 words per minute, which gives the average listener lots of time to wool-gather, plan menus, and argue with the speaker. It is this discrepancy between thought and speaking that often results in a loss of focus in a conversation.
Would you prefer to read a book or listen to the audio version? Your answer may depend on several variables, such as genre, convenience, or availability. The debate about the differences between reading and listening comprehension requires looking at which of the two methods is best able to help us retain vital information, improve comprehension, and make us more efficient.