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Audiobooks are Cheating? Not at all.

Categories: Audiobook Library, Curriculum & Access, dyslexia, Education & Teaching, Learning Disabilities, Student Centric Learning

With the rise of audiobooks and technology supporting spoken text to accommodate students who struggle with reading, or even those who just enjoy listening to a story in that format, there is great speculation as to whether the impact to learning and comprehension holds any weight. And some regard listening to audiobooks as cheating. Psychologist, Daniel Willingham writes that some, “think you’re getting the rewarding part of it … and it’s the “difficult” part that you’ve somehow gotten out of..{..}..and your brain is doing less work than reading” (Science of US, 2016)

While some researchers have hypothesized that reading and listening would process semantic information differently, findings from a study by the University of California, Berkeley, revealed just the opposite (Deniz, Nunez-Elizalde, Huth, & Gallant, 2019). 

Lead researcher, Fatma Deniz, used 3D semantic maps that represented MRI recordings of their volunteers’ brain activity while listening and reading a story. They paired this technique with semantic word categorization and “voxelwise encoding” (or in other words, how the brain decodes things we have previously remembered) to indicate which parts of the brain would be activated when words were listened to or read. It was expected that different areas of the brain’s cerebral cortex would be activated, but the semantic maps revealed that listening and reading yielded identical brain activation. 

What does this mean? Whether we are reading or listening to an audiobook, our brains process the words in the same way—they have the same semantic processing reaction. We create the same meaning with text whether read or listened to, which implies that we derive a comparable level of critical thinking in both formats—there is no slacking in how our brain sorts, remixes, and creates inferences. 

The findings of this study have significant implications for the estimated 1 out of 5 people who have Dyslexia (International Dyslexia Foundation, 2019), and warrants further exploration regarding how people with the disorder make meaning of text through audiobooks. 

"If, in the future," Deniz suggests, "we find that the dyslexic brain has rich semantic language representation when listening to an audiobook or other recording, that could bring more audio materials into the classroom."

So, go ahead, pick out that audiobook, it’s not cheating. Over 375,000 students in over 17,500 schools have boosted their reading skills by using the Learning Ally Audiobook Solution. Our multisensory reading accommodation allows students to not only read in a way that best suits their needs, but also to take an active role in reading. They can listen, take notes and highlight text, and still be able to process what they are reading, aiding in retention, comprehension and the ability to apply their critical thinking skills..In fact, our audiobook solution empowers students to work to their true potential by leveling the playing field and allowing students to access grade level content that they couldn’t previously.