Skip to Content

Is Listening to Audiobooks Better Than Reading?

“This post contains affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases”

Most people have input from five senses in their interaction with the world around them. Reading depends initially on sight, while audiobooks are initially dependent upon hearing. There are specific patterns in the brain which vary in the processing of the information which is gathered. 

Printed books have not replaced audiobooks in spite of forecasts that a change in book habits would occur when audiobooks had more titles available. One style of enjoying books is not superior to the other, but the purpose can affect the benefits which are associated with either. 

When you pick up a printed text or load an audiobook, you might want entertainment with light topics, or to gain new knowledge, such as would be the case with a more scholarly approach. More information about listening to vs reading a book follows. 

Processing activities in the human brain

Scientists have designed studies to learn more about processing written or audible material and which methods are more effective.  It is known that different areas of the brain are employed in reading and processing.

Scientists have designed studies to learn more about processing written or audible material and which methods are more effective. It is known that different areas of the brain are employed in reading and processing.

Is Listening to Audiobooks Better Than Reading

There is no disagreement about the benefits of reading: social perception, brain network connectivity, ability to engage in critical thinking, cognitive health, promotion of empathy, emotional intelligence, and development of reasoning skills. Readers also build vocabulary, improve concentration, and improve communication.

Both listening and reading requires processing of information. Processing is intended to comprehend elements of the plot and predict what will happen next. Reading affects various parts of the brain. These include the frontal and parietal lobes, temporal and occipital lobes, and the cerebellum. 

Processing what you are seeing when reading and what you are hearing in audiobooks is somewhat different. The left brain is involved in understanding what you are reading. Understanding audible speech requires both the left brain and the right brain. The processing part of the data intake occurs in the same area of the brain, specifically the cortical regions. 

Both reading and listening provide stimulation in the human brain. When scientists were able to map the brain and follow activities there which compared hearing and seeing, there were no differences between input from either sense. 

One area where there might be more impact with an audiobook depends on the emotion embodied in the voice of the narrator. An emotionally charged performance activates the emotional circuits in the brain of the listener. The  stimulation of emotion centers and related intensity and imagery can provide more enjoyment and a deeper level of processing in the narrative. 

An emotional performance by an audiobook narrator makes the story come alive. This does not necessarily change the retention and comprehension level when comparing printed text and audiobooks of the same material. 

Enhancing skills 

Improving various skills may be the purpose of reading or listening. To improve your reading speed, spelling, or the ability to focus on written text, obviously reading books would be the format to use. Reading also can improve comprehension of the written words. On the other hand, if your goal is to multi-task, or improve listening comprehension, loading and listening to an audiobook is the right approach. 

Do audiobooks let you read along?

There is some benefit in combining input from both senses. Because there are different ways of learning, some experts believe that listening skills can be improved by reading. If you read the same content as you listen, you are reinforcing the input to your brain. When you are accessing new material through the spoken word, a relaxed environment and seeing the written text may improve comprehension, especially if the material is complex.

An audiovisual approach to learning a foreign language has proven to be effective. Reading the words and hearing the pronunciation can reinforce the capacity of the brain to remember the word and its use in context. 

In the early days of audiobooks, some prognosticators felt that listening to books would replace reading books. Although the market for audiobooks has expanded exponentially, most people still recognize that times for reading and times for listening can each have their place. 

Some audiobooks offer a feature that is called captioning, or follow along. This feature allows the user to listen to the book at the same time as reading the text. Enhanced concentration and improved retention can be especially helpful for those who need help to focus, to learn a new language, or to improve the learning level for students in a variety of disciplines. 

How learning happens

When trying to learn new information, most people believe that they have a preferred way to intake materials. In fact, learning can occur in any of these formats. Although there are various ways of categorizing cognitive learning, the terms kinesthetic, auditory, and visual are applied generally. Kinesthetic learning involves touch and movement, or sometimes ‘muscle memory’, and may not apply to some subjects. Auditory learning depends on listening to materials read aloud, and visual learning depends on seeing the words. 

Advantages of audiobooks

A review of the many options in the marketplace can be the deciding factor in choosing audiobooks. Although the number of audiobooks does not yet match the number of printed texts, the choices are growing. Here are some of the reasons for choosing audiobooks over the printed page.

Portability:  In most instances, printed books are bulky; even mass market paperbacks have weight and bulk. This makes taking a book or stack of books along on a vacation or during a commute both logistically challenging and sometimes prohibited because of airline weight restrictions. Audiobooks are virtually weightless except for the weight of the tablet or smartphone. The number of audiobooks is only limited by the storage capacity in your device. 

Multi-tasking: With the use of headphones, you can read and exercise, do chores, drive (where legally permissible), or even work. Hands-free operation of audiobooks allows you to perform repetitive activities while being immersed in an audiobook. Reading a text while you are walking your dog or jogging in the park is challenging at best. An audiobook makes it easy to listen while exercising on a treadmill. 

Narrator’s voice: The type of material in the audiobook, and the ability of the narrator to express the emotions attached to the material may permit a more immersive and soothing experience. The listener can better appreciate the material with the emotional level of the input. 

Retention: Insofar as various learning styles are concerned, some individuals believe they are better able to remember and comprehend information while listening to the material. However, the research studies indicate that retention levels may be linked more to other factors than the differences in using the sense of sight and the sense of hearing. 

Physical challenges: Visual impairments for whatever reason can make an audiobook more appealing. The person who has some issues with reading comprehension may find an oral presentation more enjoyable. 

Positive characteristics of printed books

Most individuals who are very set in their ways may refuse to consider any form of books except printed texts. Others who have tried both types of books have a preference for the printed words. The typical advantages related to a printed text are identified below.

Self-care: The book held in your hands requires dedicated time, and multitasking is difficult or impossible. Setting aside time to devote to reading is pampering yourself. Multitasking is more accepted among the millennials than older generations, but relaxing with a focus on comfort and freedom from interruptions is a positive experience. 

Improved focus: Some individuals are highly visual and need the input from reading in order to focus. An audiobook provides input, but not in a form which is easy to maintain. The visual individual loses concentration with only the audible input. This means that multitasking is not possible. 

Rereading for checking: Some individuals who are reading jump back a page or two to check input or to restart the flow of information and phrasing. When listening to an audiobook, loss of focus for a moment or two can mean a challenge to back up to the precise area where checking needs to occur. 

Imagination: Reading a book allows for a rich exercise in the imagination of the reader. The imagination is at full strength, and the reader has all the power and control to paint the picture. An audiobook depends at some level on the narrator’s presentation to create a mental picture. The narrator may limit the scope of imagination to his or her own perceptions through tone, emphasis, and voices of the characters. 

How do distractions affect the user?

In the laboratory, it is possible to evaluate each of the methods for enjoying a book, but distractions play a role in learning and enjoyment in real life. Life today is filled with a variety of distractions, whether they are visual, auditory, or physical. The level of ‘noise’ especially as it is related to immersing yourself in a book can affect comprehension.

Distractions while studying or listening will have the effect of reducing comprehension. Loss of focus reduces understanding, and the individual may not even understand where the loss occurred. So, listening to the narrator is a linear process. A speaker, when asked to repeat a statement, will usually try to rephrase it in a slightly different way. You can rewind a narration, but the process is somewhat unwieldy and the listener is likely to lose some of the flow of the material.

When reading a book, distraction is not a major interruption. Rereading and renewed focus can happen over and over until the user is confident that he or she understands the subject. For this reason, reading is recommended for ensuring comprehension and retention of the content. 

Speed of reading vs speed of the spoken word

Reading speed is almost always faster than the normal narration speed in an audiobook presenter. Most studies show that adults typically read at a speed of about 200 to 250 words per minute. So, a page is read in just about two minutes. University level students read at a more accelerated rate, probably due to additional practice. Their typical speed is about 300 words per minute. 

The average reading speed may be faster or slower than the levels mentioned above. Factors which can affect reading speed include age, health, practice, and the type of material. Practice can improve their speed of reading. 

Speakers, on the other hand, will speak at a rate of about 160 words per minute. Some speakers can speak significantly more rapidly, but the understanding of the listener may be affected. Narrators for audiobooks are encouraged to speak at about the 160 words per minute rate for the comfort of the listeners. 

The speed of thought is much faster than either the reading or narration speed. Thought speed is rated at up to 3000 words per minute. This means that a lot of thinking can go on while listening to a speaker. Unfortunately, this is where there is frequently a loss of focus or loss of understanding in a conversation. 

Read or listen–personal preference

If you are deciding whether to pick up a book or turn on your audiobook, what is your go-to pick? The answer can depend on various different factors. These include availability, convenience, or genre. The choices you make may be to read at one time, and put the earbuds in at another time. An honest look at your purpose in choosing the title may make the choice more obvious to you. The purpose of retaining important information and improving comprehension is helpful in selecting your book type.