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Apr 2 / Elissa Zimmer

Listen Up!

Deb Hemmye

If you haven’t listened to an audiobook recently, you’re missing out not only on an awesome personal reading experience, but on great readers’ advisory possibilities, too.  For many, audiobooks, more than print books, are proving to be the path of choice toward a love of reading.  Although it might be countertuitive to believe that one of the best ways to develop a love of reading is to, well, not read, but in fact, audiobooks are doing exactly that.

First, let’s dispel the myth that listening to an audiobook is cheating.  Although it isn’t, strictly speaking, reading in the traditional sense of printed words on paper, more and more researchers are finding that listening to audiobooks does, in fact, use and develop many of the same thinking skills as visual reading (Lesesne, 2013).

One common misconception is that listening to an audiobook is the same as passively having music playing in the background while you’re doing some other activity.  Consider that there is a difference “between simply hearing something and actually listening to that same thing”  (Lesesne, 2013).  For example, listening to an audiobook requires the listener to create his/her own visual images from the spoken text and to listen for meaning in order to comprehend what is taking place in the story (Lesesne, 2013).  Like print reading, students who listen to audiobooks show gains in vocabulary (Lesesne, 2013) with the only difference being that with an audiobook, the listener also learns the correct pronunciation of these new words.

Still, the big question for parents, educators, and librarians is:  Do audiobooks help reading development?  An oft-cited report, done in 1985 by the Commission on Reading, states “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children” (Noland, 2011).  Gene Wolfson, an education professor in New York writing about the benefits of audiobooks for adolescents, echoes that sentiment saying, “Since the reading process develops through our experiences with oral language, audiobooks simply provide another opportunity to increase the understanding and appreciation of the written word”  (Wolfson, 2008).

In particular, one of the best uses of audiobooks is with reluctant readers – those children and tweens with dyslexia or other challenges with traditional print reading.  By listening to an audiobook, these tweens are able to experience books “at levels higher than their measured reading level” (Lesesne, 2013).  Another researcher concurs, “By allowing listeners to let go of the anxiety sometimes associated with reading, students are able to develop a concept of the story.”  (McLean, 2007)  In fact, listening skills are so important that the State Common Core Standards now include listening as part of the curriculum (Lesesne, 2013).

The narrator of an audiobook can, through his/her skilled use of voice, inflection, and pacing, make a difficult text – think Shakespeare – easier to understand.  Other types of reading material that lend themselves especially well to the audiobook experience are books that:

  • take place on foreign ground, where the narrator can correctly pronounce the names of characters, cities, and other dialect-dependent words that slow readers down
  • are written from multiple character viewpoints (Eleanor and Park comes to mind) can be confusing to still-developing readers, but the different voices used by a skilled narrator can make it easier to distinguish between characters
  • are written with historical language that is not easily accessible to young readers; similarly, as researcher Wysocki notes, “Whether it’s personal history or world history, listening to someone recounting important events personalizes the experience” (Wysocki, 2005).

All of this leads to a much more level “playing field,” so to speak.  Students who were formerly disengaged are now able to participate fully in class discussions and can talk knowingly with their print-reading friends about the latest teen book phenoms.  These activities often lead to higher self-esteem, fostering more positive associations with reading in general.


If the last audiobook you listened to sounded like it was read by someone the publisher pulled off the street and handed a microphone to, you’re in for a very pleasant surprise when you check out one of today’s new audiobooks.  With the rise in the popularity of this format – the total number of audiobooks published doubled between 2007 and 2010 (Audio, 2012), while the market share of rose from $480 million in 1997 to $1.2 billion in 2012 (Alter, 2013) – publishers are “investing six-figure sums in splashy productions with dozens of narrators”  (Alter, 2013).


For many, audiobooks bring a story to life in ways that a print books does not.  The non-profit advocacy organization Audio Publishers Association conducts ongoing research of audiobook listeners.  Their 2012 annual consumer survey reported that “49% of listeners feel audiobooks increase their children’s love of reading, while 59% said it exposes them to books they might not otherwise read”  (Audio Publishers Association, 2012).


Ready to take the first step?  Check out the industry’s Audie Award winners at , check out School Library Journal’s annual list of best audiobooks for children and teens, or just visit your local library and take a chance on a book you’ve been meaning to read but haven’t found the time.  Happy listening!







Alter, Alexandra.  (2013).  The new explosion in audio books:  How they re-emerged

as a rare bright spot in the publishing business.  Wall Street Journal, August 1,

  1. Retrieved from



Audio Publishers Association. (2012).  2012 consumer survey.  Retrieved from


Lesesne, T. (2013). Reading with our ears. Young adult library services, 11(3), 30-32.

Retrieved from


McLean, C. D. (2007).  Reading with your ears:  Preconference workshop at ALA’s

2006 annual conference.  Young adult library services, 5(2), 21-23.  Retrieved




Noland, Liz. (2011).  Why listening is good for all kids – especially in the digital age.

AudioFile, April/May 2011, 13-16.  Retrieved from listening is good for all kids.pdf


Wolfson, Gene.  (2008).  Using audiobooks to meet the needs of adolescent readers.

American secondary education, 36(2), 105-117.


Wysocki, B. (2005). Louder, please. School Library Journal, 51(4), S10-S14. Retrieved




One Comment

  1. Jack Schultz / Apr 6 2015

    I really enjoyed your article. I have a mild dyslexia but it is enough to make reading a slow process. I have found that audiobooks are a great way to read a book quickly while enjoying the content and the acting.

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