By Daniel Willingham
I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it. I’ll describe why in a bit, but for now I’ll just change it to “does your mind do more or less the same thing when you listening to an audiobook and when you read print?”
The short answer is “mostly.”
An influential model of reading is the simple view (Gough & Tumner, 1986), which claims that two fundamental processes contribute to reading: decoding and language processing. “Decoding” obviously refers to figuring out words from print. “Language processing” refers to the same mental processes you use for oral language. Reading, as an evolutionary late-comer, must piggy-back on mental processes that already existed, and spoken communication does much of the lending.
So according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.
Is the simple view right?
Some predictions you’d derive from the simple view are supported. For example, You’d expect that a lot of the difference in reading proficiency in the early grades would be due to differences in decoding. In later grades, most children are pretty fluent decoders so differences in decoding would be more due to processes that support comprehension. That prediction seems to be true (e.g., Tilstra et al, 2009).
Especially relevant to the question of audiobooks, you’d also predict that for typical adults (who decode fluently) listening comprehension and reading comprehension would be mostly the same thing. And experiments show very high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests in adults (Bell & Perfetti, 1994; Gernsbacher, Varner, & Faust, 1990).
The simple view is a useful way to think about the mental processes involved in reading, especially for texts that are more similar to spoken language, and that we read for purposes similar to those of listening. The simple view is less applicable when we put reading to other purposes, e.g., when students study a text for a quiz, or when we scan texts looking for a fact as part of a research project.
The simple view is also likely incomplete for certain types of texts. The written word is not always similar to speech. In such cases prosody might be an aid to comprehension. Prosody refers to changes in pacing, pitch, and rhythm in speech. “I really enjoy your blog” can either be a sincere compliment or a sarcastic put-down — both look identical on the page, and prosody would communicate the difference in spoken language.
We do hear voices in our heads as we read, and sometimes this effect can be notable, as when we know the sound of the purported author’s voice (e.g., Kosslyn & Matt, 1977). For audiobooks, the reader doesn’t need to supply the prosody — whoever is reading the book aloud does so.
For difficult-to-understand texts, prosody can be a real aid to understanding. Shakespearean plays provide ready examples. When Juliet says “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” it’s common for students to think that “wherefore” means “where,” and Juliet (who in fact doesn’t know Romeo is nearby at that moment) is wondering where Romeo is. “Wherefore” actually means “why” and she’s wondering why he’s called Romeo, and why names, which are arbitrary, could matter at all. An actress can communicate the intended meaning of “Wherefore art thou Romeo” through prosody, although the movie clip below doesn’t offer a terrific example.
So listening to an audiobook may have more information that will make comprehension a little easier. Prosody might clarify the meaning of ambiguous words or help you to assign syntactic roles to words.
But most of the time it doesn’t, because most of what you listen to is not that complicated. For most books, for most purposes, listening and reading are more or less the same thing.
So listening to an audiobook is not “cheating,” but let me tell you why I objected to phrasing the question that way. “Cheating” implies an unfair advantage, as though you are receiving a benefit while skirting some work. Why talk about reading as though it were work?
Listening to an audiobook might be considered cheating if the act of decoding were the point; audio books allow you to seem to have decoded without doing so. But if appreciating the language and the story is the point, it’s not. Comparing audio books to cheating is like meeting a friend at Disneyland and saying: “You took a bus here? I drove myself, you big cheater.”
The point is getting to and enjoying the destination. The point is not how you traveled.