Audiobooks Take Off With Students During Pandemic

(Center for Digital Education) Like e-books, the use of audiobooks grew substantially during the pandemic for both kids and adults. With many school and public libraries closed for print book checkout, readers had to resort to borrowing books online in digital formats. And for audiobooks, a groundswell of listeners also subscribed to services such as Audible, the Amazon-owned audiobook market leader.

With many libraries open again and hard copy books more readily available, one might wonder if the use of digital books will wane. But since receiving laptops from their schools for virtual learning, more students now have devices for reading ebooks. And with the popularity of smart speakers helping drive audiobook use, it’s a safe bet the growth of digital books — both ebooks and audio — will continue apace, and libraries are taking note.

I’ve written about some of the challenges libraries face in working with publishers and third-party providers like OverDrive to license e-books for their patrons. And a recent New Yorker article takes a good look at these issues, as well as how the pandemic has shifted libraries’ budgets and spending patterns for e-books and audiobooks.

However, the use of e-books among kids has raised questions for parents and educators about their potential downsides. The main concerns are increased screen time with ebooks, plus research that shows retention of digital texts is less than when the same material is read in hard copy form. But one can’t muster a good argument that reading e-books isn’t, in fact, “reading.”

The same can’t be said for audiobooks. The role they play in developing students’ literacy skills is an ongoing point of contention for those who see them as a form of literary “cheating,” or at least not actually “reading.”

The audiobook debate raises such questions as: Does a student who listens to an audio version of a book glean the same amount of information as a student who reads it? Should teachers, especially in the upper grades where students have presumably mastered the mechanics of reading, let their students use audiobooks in lieu of texts, or care one way or another if they do? Is listening to To Kill a Mockingbird inherently better or worse than reading it?

In discussing the pros and cons of audiobooks, it’s useful to divide listeners into two groups: Developing readers and proficient readers. For developing readers, the assumption is that audiobooks will help them become proficient readers, but will not be used to replace reading altogether. For proficient readers, the discussion is more nuanced.

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Publication:      Center for Digital Education
Author:             Kipp Bentley
Publish Date:   9.15.2021