The Current·Q&A

Prefer listening to your books? It's not that different from reading, says prof

Audiobooks are growing in popularity, but some people question whether listening to a book is the same as reading it.

Audiobook can be a 'goldmine' for people who struggle with reading: Willingham

A woman hearing a scarf listens to audio with headphones.
Audiobooks are the fastest-growing area of publication. Last year, audiobook sales jumped by 10 per cent. (Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock )

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Have you ever felt guilty about listening to an audiobook instead of reading the physical copy? If so, you're not alone.

"I hear this a lot from people who are in book clubs, that they're ashamed to admit, 'Yes, I did read the book, but I didn't really read it. I listened to it,'" said Dan Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia. 

Audiobooks have recently become a multi-billion dollar industry and are the fastest-growing area of publishing. Last year, audiobook sales jumped by 10 per cent.

Major streaming services have also taken note of its growth. Spotify is now adding audiobooks to its subscription services.

But as the medium grows, some people are wondering if the enjoyment of reading a physical book is being lost.

Willingham, author of The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads, talks to The Current host Matt Galloway about whether reading versus listening to an audiobook impacts the brain differently, and whether listening counts as cheating. Here's part of their conversation.

Do you know what happens in our brains when we're listening to a story rather than reading that story?

The interesting thing is that what's happening in our brains is there's a lot of overlap between those two cases. It's not identical, but there's a lot of overlap. 

An easy way to appreciate this is think about a child who cannot yet read and they go to school and they're going to learn how to read. Well, by the time children start school, [they] already have oral language in place. I mean, they can speak and they can understand when someone is speaking to them. 

So listening comprehension is already in place by the time they start reading, and when they are learning how to read, it's not as though they're going to learn a new mental process for reading comprehension. They're just going to use the process they already have in place in their brain that they've been using for listening comprehension. 

Books lined up on cards all with spines pointing away from camera
Willingham says 'the process of understanding what you read is really the same one as the process you use when you're listening.' (Yulia Grigoryeva/Shutterstock)

So when you're reading, the process of understanding what you read is really the same one as the process you use when you're listening. 

Now, again, there are some differences around the edges. There's not 100 per cent overlap, but I think the idea that you're doing something wildly different when you're listening to a book versus reading it, that really is overblown.

You're the expert in this, but from my own experience is when I'm reading, I'm all in. That I'm paying attention, the phone is tucked away, I'm not going to be distracted. Whereas if I'm listening to something, whether it's a podcast, whether it's an audiobook, often on the radio, you can be distracted. You can have active reading and you can have passive listening in some ways.

I think that's right. I think and … there are two reasons, really. 

One is, as you describe, that we more often sort of set ourselves the task of just reading when we're reading print. Reading print doesn't really afford the opportunity to do something else. You can't think like: Oh, I'm going to sweep the kitchen and I'll have a paperback in my hand.

But the other factor is that when you're reading, it's self-paced. I can go as fast or as slow as I want when I've got print. But when I'm listening to a book, it really just sort of keeps running. 

So, you know, in principle I can stop if I sort of, you know, there's something I get distracted for a moment. I don't really get it. [In] principle, I could go back and relisten, but most of the time I'm not going to. 

In this Sept. 24, 2013 file photo, the 8.9-inch Amazon Kindle HDX tablet computer is held up in Seattle.
Audible audiobooks are displayed on the Amazon Kindle HDX tablet. (The Associated Press)

So, yeah, I'm probably tuning in and out a little bit and I'm missing some things when I'm listening. I think that's fair.

Part of that could lead to people feeling like they're cheating when they're listening to a book rather than reading. Do you know what I mean?

I think another part of that is, as we describe before, it becomes a performance very often and there actually is extra information in that performance. Prosody is the term that psycholinguists use for the sort of melody of speech. 

So when you're listening to somebody's reading aloud, you get that prosody information, whereas if you're just reading, those will look exactly the same on the page. 

So I think that's another reason why people feel like you're kind of cheating, is there actually is a little bit more information when you're listening compared to reading print. 

You wrote a piece in which you said … there might be a cohort of people who look down on audiobooks, and you said there's no reason for book devotees to sniff at audiobooks. There are situations — and you've hinted at this already, in which you think perhaps listening could be better than reading. What are those situations?

The complaint about audiobooks seems funny to me because at the same time, people are always complaining about nobody reads anymore. And so here's this opportunity where more and more people are going to read. 

Why not? Why sniff? Why not just like, congratulate people or cheer them on as they're reading?

Can it open writing ... and reading to people who perhaps struggle with reading? I have a friend who has dyslexia, for example, and she says an audiobook is a lifesaver and changed her life.

I'm so glad you brought that up. Yeah, that's absolutely right. I mean, I especially think about children who are struggling to learn how to read, and, you know, so much of class time in very early grades is devoted to reading. 

WATCH | Audiobooks' growing popularity good for Canadian literature:

Audiobooks' growing popularity good for Canadian literature

6 years ago
Duration 3:18
Audiobook sales are surging, and Amazon-owned Audible is behind the boom in Canadian content being commissioned and developed in the country.

So I think about that child who for for them, like the the main thing that they do at school is they're asked to do this task that plainly everyone else can do much better than I can. And so school becomes this place where I mostly struggle and feel shame. 

So having the opportunity to have similar sorts of experiences that the other children are having, being able to listen to stories and also being able to access information that other children can access so easily through reading is absolutely essential. 

For people who, you know, continue to struggle with, you know, making sense of print through adulthood, absolutely. Audiobooks are just a goldmine for them.


Mouhamad Rachini is a Canadian-Lebanese writer and producer for CBC Radio's digital team. He's worked for several CBC Radio shows including The Current, Day 6 and Cross Country Checkup. He's particularly passionate about stories from Muslim and Middle Eastern communities. He also writes about soccer on his website Between the Sticks. You can reach him at

Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Amanda Grant.

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