Why Read When You Can Listen?

Will audiobooks, podcasts, and text-to-speech software make reading obsolete?

Posted Apr 30, 2019

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In the early days of television, some proponents confidently claimed that it would shortly replace textbooks for learning (Vandermeer, 1948), while others apparently worried that television would eventually replace reading of any kind, turning children into “red-eyed, illiterate morons” (Cerf, 1958). 

We know that didn’t happen; people still read and television never became more than an adjunct instructional technology in schools. 

But today a number of people are asking the same question:  Is reading obsolete? 

Not because of television, but because of podcasts, audiobooks, and especially greatly improved text-to-speech software that is available for most common word processing programs and web browsers and almost all e-books.  Due to the Internet, most informational and academic text, as well as an increasing amount of recreational text, originally occurs or can be found in digital format.  Since almost any digital text can now be listened to, rather than read, will reading eventually become unnecessary?  Is there any reason to read, when one can just listen?  Aren’t reading and listening just different ways to get the words into our brains so we can think about them?  Or is reading a text really “better” (more effective, more useful) in some way than just listening to it?

It turns out the answer isn’t a simple “Yes” or “No.”  It depends on who is reading, why they are reading, and what they are reading…

Listening and reading comprehension are similar in many ways. 

In their well-known simple view of reading, Gough and Tumner (1986) assert that reading is just the combination of word identification and listening comprehension, and it has long been known that, in skilled adult readers at least, listening comprehension and reading comprehension are highly correlated.  A classic 1977 study found that college students who listened to short stories were able to summarize them just as well as those who had read them, and a recent research study showed similar results:  Adult readers’ comprehension and memory of a true-life narrative was essentially the same whether they had read the book or listened to it as an audiobook.  It seems likely that, for most stories and lighter reading, listening probably “works” just as well as reading. 

Listening to text, instead of reading it, has definite advantages sometimes.

The most obvious advantage is that you can listen to a recorded text while doing something else with your hands and eyes, especially routine tasks like driving, washing dishes, or working out.  This is probably the main reason both audiobooks and podcasts are quickly growing in popularity; 18% of Americans say they listened to at least one audiobook in the past year (up from 14% in 2016) and, for the first time ever, over 50% of Americans report having ever listened to a podcast.

Spoken text has another advantage over written text that can actually enhance comprehension.  Good readers read with prosody; that is, they read with expression, and this expressiveness can sometimes help the listener understand text that uses unusual words or words in unusual ways.  For example, the meaning of some lines in Shakespeare is much clearer when read aloud by a good actor than when simply seen on the page, while oral poetry readings can often convey both figurative and emotional meanings better than can those same poems in print. 

Finally, of course, listening has great advantages for those with disabilities or disadvantages that make reading either impossible or extremely difficult.  Audiobooks and reliable text-to-speech programs have greatly expanded the quantity and variety of texts accessible to people with vision impairments and have even been shown to help dyslexic and struggling readers improve their reading skills. Reading aloud to young readers, after all, is a time-honored and research-proven way of introducing them to texts and ideas more complex than they can yet access on their own. 

But listening isn’t always as effective as reading.

Reading has several advantages over listening, especially for informational texts or studying.  You cannot skim when listening, and skimming is increasingly important in today’s information-overload environment.  Also, if you run into a puzzling passage, you cannot as easily look back or reread in an auditory text as in a written one.  Likewise, widely-used study strategies like making notes, highlighting, and cross-referencing are all easily carried out in written text, but difficult to impossible with auditory text.    

Contrary to what one might think, reading can also be more time efficient than listening. Most podcasters and audiobook performers speak at about 150-160 words per minute, the optimal speed for most listeners, while the average twelfth-grader reads silently at about 250 words per minute, and skilled readers can easily read 300-400 wpm, more than double the rate at which they could listen to a text.  An impatience with the relatively slow rate of listening versus reading may be one reason research suggests that listeners are more easily distracted than readers, and why many of us prefer to listen to audiobooks or podcasts while also doing something else, rather than just sitting and listening.   

But perhaps most importantly, a number of research studies have shown that reading is more effective than listening for learning from text.  For example, the same research study mentioned above, which found that listeners were more distractible than readers, also found that readers remembered information from the experimental texts better than those who had listened to them.  Similarly, a 2010 study found that psychology students who read a professional article scored consistently higher on a subsequent quiz than did their peers who listened to a podcast of it.  Another study done with college students in 2018 showed that they recalled a textbook passage they had read better than one they had only listened to, and this effect was especially strong for English language learners.  Nurses in another 2018 study learned medical vocabulary better from reading than from audio text instruction, while yet another recent study showed that even incidental (unintentional) vocabulary learning happens more effectively from reading versus listening.

For all these reasons, reading is clearly not obsolete but is still an essential part of modern life and learning.  We should perhaps be especially cautious about switching from written articles and textbooks to their spoken counterparts in education.  On the other hand, you are probably not missing much by following your favorite political podcast while cooking or listening to an audiobook as you drive (as long as you don't get too distracted...).  We are lucky to be living in a time when so much text, both informational and recreational, is available in so many formats that we all can find and enjoy the ones best suited to our purposes, needs, and circumstances.