Audio books have surged in popularity in recent years, enabled by their ease of use and advancements in smart phones. Gone are the days of numbered cassettes and bulky players. Technology has created more opportunities to listen to good books.

But not everyone believes listening to books is a good thing — biases in favor of reading run deep, and those who listen are often accused of “cheating.” There’s a common perception that listening doesn’t require the same amount of work to reach understanding as reading does.

The debate can come to the fore of the classroom, where audio books can be a valuable tool for learning. Listening is a critical component of Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts, as is reading. To help teachers and students (and perhaps audio book listeners who get pulled into these debates), professor Daniel Willingham, author of Raising Kids Who Read, explains the difference in how the brain processes listening vs. reading. In his blog post, he answers the question he gets all the time, is listening to audio books cheating?

Listening to an audio book 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. 

Learning to read is certainly important, no one is saying that it isn’t, but in some cases, listening to the story can encourage students to read more, something high school English teacher Michael Godsey discovered using podcast audio with transcripts. And let’s not forget the role of speaking in the writing of books. Numerous classics, including the “Illiad,” were based on the spoken word, and some authors dictated their stories. In reading Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl,” Henry James Scholar Greg Zacharias told the Wall Street Journal:

“I was not really successful in reading James until I slowed down my reading speed to almost-speaking speed,” he says. That way, “we can sort of mimic the dictation.”

To learn more about the differences between reading and listening, check out Daniel Willingham’s post below:

Is Listening to an Audio book “Cheating?”

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 audio…

Listening Isn’t Cheating: How Audio Books Can Help Us Learn 18 August,2016Ki Sung

  • Joe Ochterski

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been trying to promote a new verb “ristening” a portmanteau of reading + listening to replace the prolix “listening to an audio book”. I’ve got three people who use it so far. 🙂

  • mildmannered

    Come on. Does anyone really think that listening is cheating? Does anyone care how someone else approaches a book?

  • Nikki60

    I’m a fan of audio books and I agree with the comments above. There is however one fundamental difference that isn’t addressed here. The reader (of the audio) interprets the book as part of reading aloud and this can determine the meaning that is ascribed to the text. When you read direct from the print, this is a direct transaction between the writer and the reader. It does make a difference in terms of literary interpretation and appreciation. I’m sure it will have less significance with transactional texts.

  • GoldenGateCA

    Yet another thing we have turned into a moral issue so we can feel self righteous and talk about how the younger generation is going to pot. If you want to listen to a book, go ahead. My daughter was having a tough time slogging through a book assigned at school and found it easier to listen to it. She reads plenty for pleasure, so I didn’t care. I figured it was better to listen to it than read the summary cheat notes they still have today (I think Cliff notes are still around, but there is another one the kids talk more about). I personally prefer to read – I rarely listen to the little audio casts of NPR, I just read the summary.

  • Valerie Chernek

    Thanks for bringing up this important discussion. There are a lot of opinions among teachers, parents, administrators and of course, students.
    I’d like to address a specific population of students who require accessible books to learn and who deserve learning equality — students with learning disabilities or visual impairments who cannot see a book, hold a book or decode print.

    Often, these students must have accommodations like audio, large print, or braille to make classroom and homework materials accessible. This is a significant effort for school staff and teachers to produce accessible educational materials (AEM).

    Teachers and librarians struggle to find etextbooks and Common Core materials in accessible formats. Students who do not get the support they need fall behind in their classwork, sometimes leading to frustration, behavioral issues, and a decline in academic performance.

    Bookshare, (www.bookshare.org) is a free online accessible library for U.S. schools and students with qualified print disabilities. It is supported by awards by the Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. DOE. For these student populations, accessible books can be a critical requirement to help them reach their true learning potential. Thanks!

  • Monika

    In our family we all prefer to read with our ears rather than with our eyes. We can multitask while we listen: drive, fold laundry, cook, paint or draw, pull weeds, take a hike, work on a puzzle, cuddle. My daughter, (age 9) has ear-read so many books, including all of the Oz novels (yes there is more than one), all Swallows and Amazons, all Harry Potter, all Hobbit/LOTR, Alice in Wonderland, all Nesbit, all Ingalls Wilder, all Thornton Burgess, the list goes on and on. Her ability to listen, comprehend, memorize after one hearing, recite back quotes, even months later is amazing. She can comprehend accents from all around the world (thank you Librivox). If this is cheating, then cheating is a FABULOUS thing. We love podcasts, NPR, audio books, and we won’t stop no matter what anyone calls it. We feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t discovered the joys of reading with their ears.

  • Edie

    Librivox.org has an enormous amount of audiobooks available. They are all read by volunteers and, since they are in the public domain, they are all older books but I have found some amazing books!

  • nnyl

    Audiobooks are great for road trips and housework.

  • madisontruth

    For those with vision issues, the issue is moot.

  • LadyRosely

    Audio books are a great tool to speed up reading if you love multitasking or simply put road trips

  • mikehardin63

    If the point is increasing reading speed and comprehension, it’s cheating. If a kid is given a summer reading list for school, they need to actually read the books. If the point is gleaning information, or just enjoying a good story, of course it isn’t cheating. I drive a truck for a living. I much prefer listening to books over music while I’m driving. The music is the same songs over and over. The books are always something new, and I work so many hours I don’t have much time to read with my eyes.

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Author

Ki Sung

Ki Sung is the senior editor of MindShift. Prior to joining MindShift in 2014, she was a digital news trainer at NPR.

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