The Problem with Audiobooks

Kids love audiobooks. Heck, parents love audiobooks! Our family has enjoyed listening to entertaining renditions of Mr. Popper’s Penguins and My Father’s Dragon on long car rides up the East coast. Many commuters have found audiobooks to be a handy way to redeem the time. Who can say no to a good audiobook?

The Read-Aloud Revival championed by Sarah MacKenzie has brought to light the many benefits of hearing stories and books in the home. Shared books inspire, cultivate relational warmth, and promote learning. In fact, children can comprehend advanced concepts through aural learning long before they can decode them phonetically on the page. Psychologists have found that babies and toddlers who hear more words in the home are at an advantage when they become school-aged.

Moreover, audiobooks provide a convenient compromise for parents who know their kids should read but for one reason or another won’t read. Kids who refuse to sit still and read a book are often willing to listen to a book while they draw, play legos, workout, or lay in bed.

Audiobooks end the fight over reading. Parents are happy. Kids are happy.

After all, whether your child listens to a book or reads it is really immaterial, right? What matters are the stories, the ideas, the concepts. Whether it’s seen or heard doesn’t really matter, does it?

Books and Audiobooks Are Not the Same.

I hate to throw a wrench in the works, but not all mediums are created equal. Tell me you haven’t said this before: “The movie was good, but not as good as the book.” There is a difference between books and movies, even if they are communicating the same story. This is because they are two different forms of media. There is a difference between reading a new article about genocide and seeing a photograph of the mass grave. Media are not one-to-one replacements for one another.

The same is true for books and audiobooks. Each have their benefits and disadvantages, but it would be unfortunate to assume they are essentially identical. Well-intentioned as they may be, many parents are operating under this false equivalence. We assume, or at least hope, the same educational benefits come from hearing and reading.

While audiobooks can be a great piece in the educational growth of students, there are at least three vital areas where audiobooks cannot duplicate the benefit of reading visual text.

Spelling and Vocabulary.

In my experience as a high school English teacher, students who rarely read physical books often turn out to be poor spellers. Some of this is probably due to the fact that they never mastered decoding to begin with–which might explain why they began to favor audiobooks early on. However, I would guess more of it has to do with the fact that they have a very limited visual memory.

We don’t realize it, but over years and years of reading, we subconsciously build a sight-word bank. When you send an email at work or type a tweet, I would bet you don’t think about the phonetic syllables of a single word you use. That’s because you have memorized the spellings of thousands of words from your encounters with the English language on the printed page.

Students who rarely read have infrequent visual encounters with words. The effect is cumulative and debilitating. Without years of regularly seeing text on a page they will have a limited bank of sight words. When it comes time to write papers, they will be clueless as to how to spell even basic words. Those who can decode will do their best to sound out words, but writing will be an absolute slog. Imagine: To write a basic five-paragraph essay a high schooler not only has to wrestle with complex ideas but also has to struggle for the correct spelling of every other word they want to use in composing those thoughts. Absolute torture.

A small sight-word bank will also lead to a limited writing vocabulary. Students will favor words they know how to spell over those they don’t. Even if a student has an extensive speaking vocabulary, never having seen words spelled on a page will discourage them from incorporating more complex words into their writing. While audiobooks may be the easy short-term option, good spellers are fashioned by years regularly spent with the printed word.

Syntax and Structure.

There are certain lessons I would rather not have to teach in English class: how to write a bibliography, the proper use of commas, capitalization rules. While these structured lessons are necessary, many of these concepts are caught more than taught. Students learn a language’s punctuation, syntax, and structure simply from seeing it in action.

A student knows whether a space goes before a period because she’s seen tens of thousands of sentences in books. She intuitively understands how to punctuate dialogue because she sees it all the time in her novels. She knows how a semicolon and colon function. It’s second-nature that the title of a book should be italicized and capitalized. She doesn’t know how she knows it. She just does.

There are certain questions students who read never have to ask themselves: Do I indent a paragraph? Do I capitalize the first letter of the sentence? Does the period go inside or outside of the quotation marks? They pick up these rules as they read. In-class teaching only reinforces what they already know.

Students who heavily favor audiobooks will struggle with syntax and punctuation when they do their own English compositions simply because they don’t have much experience watching the experts do it. It would be like setting your high schooler loose in the kitchen who has never seen, tasted, or smelled sofrito. Something may end up on the plate–but I’m not going to want to eat it.

Active Learning.

There’s a reason why your kids don’t fight you about audiobooks. They are easier than books. That’s because listening is a passive activity while reading is an active one. In a child’s education, there should be ample space given to both passive and active learning. Students should both hear stories aloud and read them on the page, watch documentaries and create their own WWII collages, read poetry and compose their own rhymes, learn about great paintings and try their own hand with a brush.

There is an imbalance, however, when a student’s only diet of text comes through passive learning. Often, phonetic decoding is the first hurdle for grade school children. Audiobooks can present a tempting alternative, especially when it feels like your student is falling behind content-wise. However, struggle should not be seen as something to avoid in education but as a part of the growth–both for teachers and students! Inasmuch as read-alouds cultivate relationships, the struggle to overcome educational hardships together is also a God-given opportunity to grow as a family.

Give the Gift of Literacy.

The goal for our students is literacy, the ability to read and write. While audiobooks have many benefits—especially when used in conjunction with books—they are unable to teach basic literacy on their own. Students cannot learn to read or write by listening to audiobooks. Literacy requires the written word.

Literacy is a precious gift. In the narrative of his own life, Frederick Douglass recounts how learning to read and write were the key to his freedom. His mistress began to teach him the ABCs but when his master found out, he put a quick end to it. Douglass writes,

“The very decided manner with which [my master] spoke, and strove to impress his wife with the evil consequences of giving me instruction, served to convince me that he was deeply sensible of the truths he was uttering. It gave me the best assurance that I might rely with the utmost confidence on the results which, he said, would flow from teaching me to read. What he most dreaded, that I most desired. What he most loved, that I most hated. That which to him was a great evil, to be carefully shunned, was to me a great good, to be diligently sought; and the argument which he so warmly urged, against my learning to read, only served to inspire me with a desire and determination to learn.”

At his own peril, Douglass learned to read and write through glances stolen over the shoulders of white boys, moments spent with tattered bits of newspaper, and stubs of stolen chalk. The zeal with which his master guarded the printed word only strengthened his resolve to gain mastery of it himself.

Even as we take advantage of the many benefits of audiobooks, particularly as a secondary reinforcement, may we as parents and teachers encourage our students through hardship and hurdles to take firm hold of the treasure that is literacy.

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC

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