Awesome Audiobooks: On the Value of Audiobooks in Life and Education

conceptual photo of a headset
Photo by Sound On on

“Video killed the radio star”, sang the Buggles. “In my mind and in my car. We can’t rewind we’ve gone too far.”

Audio gets a bad rap these days. Audiobooks have it worse. Why listen when you can read? Why listen when we can watch? Talking books get it from two sides: the purists who don’t regard it as reading and the entertainers who distract us with candy for the eyes. One side tells us we need to work to conjure up bookworlds for ourselves, the other does it all for us.

Are they right? Is it too late to rescue audiobooks?

My answer? Absolutely not. Audiobooks are remarkable. They mediate the space between the written word and our imaginations. Narrated books bridge text and mind – but they still ask us to walk the path ourselves. Audiobooks are a campfire story. They’re a soothing bedtime voice. They’re a hand to hold.

Says Stephen King:

“But man, when these things are good, they are really good. A Charles Dickens novel read by the late David Case is something you can almost bathe in. A suspense novel is more suspenseful — especially in the hands of a good reader — because your eye can’t jump ahead and see what happens next. When I heard Kathy Bates reading The Silence of the Lambs (an abridgment, alas), I was driving at night and had to shut off the CD player, even though I knew how the story went. It was her voice, so low and intimate and somehow knowing. It was flat creeping me out.”

So why exactly should we invite more audiobooks into our lives?

First, let’s get this out of the way: Listening is reading. Sure, youngsters must learn to read text to learn literacy, and we all love to read a good piece of fiction or an enlightening non-fiction book. But it is a false dichotomy to suggest that it’s either (visual) reading or it isn’t reading. If reading is making meaning from words, listening does exactly that, just using our ears instead of our eyes. The same applies to brail and reading with the sense of touch. We ‘read’ every time we have a conversation. Listening to a book is just different to reading it with our eyes, as any audiobook listener will tell you. It isn’t a diluted version. It isn’t a poor cousin. It isn’t a pale substitute. It isn’t cheating.

Audiobooks are immersive. They help to make fictional worlds and factual content come alive. They can be read while doing something else that is repetitive and automatic like gardening or working out or driving or sitting through a Disney movie. And who doesn’t want to cram more reading into their day?

For kids who struggle to read, an audiobook listened to while reading the same book – or on its own can help them to become engrossed in books for far longer than they ordinarily could. Audiobooks submerge these kids into their narratives and can help them to overcome distractions which might be a barrier to reading. Reading proficiency scores thus improve significantly.

Listening along with a written version provides a multi-sensory experience – especially for younger students – which can help with concentration, motivation issues, and reading speed. Reading accuracy and comprehension also improve massively by combining print and auditory media.

Audiobooks can also help students of all ages to understand tone – such an important skill for all of us, and something text (on its own) does not always convey well.

Writing skills also improve when we listen to books. Unlike printed text, both bad and good writing are exposed for what they are when we hear them spoken out loud. We can learn from this, and use the lessons learned to improve our own writing. Many authors do indeed read their books aloud to catch bad writing. Says Stephen King again:

“Audio is merciless. It exposes every bad sentence, half-baked metaphor, and lousy word choice. (Listen to a Tom Clancy novel on CD, and you will never, ever read another. You’ll never be able to look at another one without gibbering.)”

Used appropriately, audiobooks help readers with dyslexia, visual impairments, and even some cognitive challenges. It helps them to focus for prolonged periods and to decode meaning more easily.

Naturally, audiobooks can be used to help second language learners to pronounce words better and to become more confident in mimicking pronunciation. But it can also help all of us acquire better pronunciation – as well as adding to our vocabulary. (How many of us ‘know’ a word but don’t use it because we’re not sure how to pronounce it?)

Audiobooks stay with you far longer than ‘pure’ reading does. This can be very useful when you want to remember the gist of a book. For kids, audiobooks can thus be an important tool for content revision, or for remembering things like plot points.

A nice way to revise something is to listen to it. You can even speed up audiobook chapters up if you need to swot quickly. And many audiobook programs can bookmark important pages for you to make the process easier.

Talking books are a great way to extend ourselves – and to try new genres. Text-based books that we might think are inaccessible to us are made far less so when narrated. This is a great way to extend gifted students and to differentiate learning.

Audiobooks also encourage critical listening and critical thinking. When we read, we often skim. With audio listening, we slow down. This helps us to ponder the ideas presented to us more fully and to spot incomplete or inaccurate information.


I came to a variation of audiobooks when I was very young: I still remember sitting enraptured by Saturday morning audio stories on the radio. And then tv and the internet killed the radio for a while. A few decades later, I discovered audiobooks – first as books-on-tape, and then the digital equivalent, and I haven’t looked back. I have listened to scores of them – many, audio versions of books I’d read not long before. I can remember almost all of them – which I cannot say about the books I read. And I still read. Voraciously. But audiobooks have a magic to them. Yes, they’re useful in so many ways, but it is also more than that. There is something truly special about closing your eyes, opening your imagination, and listening.








One comment

  1. My 15 year old son and I have enjoyed audio books for years. In the Joburg traffic we were able to listen to the whole series of Cherub stories by Robert Muchamore. When he was assigned Animal Farm in Grade 8 we loved the narrator who bought the story alive. My son is a rower and so has 2 hours 3 times a week going to the dam and back. It is a perfect time to catch up on audio books.

    Liked by 1 person

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