Is Listening to an Audio Book Cheating?

I’ve been asked this question a lot and I hate it.  I’ll describe why in a bit, but for now I’ll just change it to “does your mind do more or less the same thing when you listening to an audio book and when you read print?”

The short answer is “mostly.”

An influential model of reading is the simple view (Gough & Tumner, 1986), which claims that two fundamental processes contribute to reading: decoding and language processing. “Decoding” obviously refers to figuring out words from print. “Language processing” refers to the same mental processes you use for oral language. Reading, as an evolutionary late-comer, must piggy-back on mental processes that already existed, and spoken communication does much of the lending.

So according to the simple model, listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.

Is the simple view right?

Some predictions you’d derive from the simple view are supported. For example, You’d expect that a lot of the difference in reading proficiency in the early grades would be due to differences in decoding. In later grades, most children are pretty fluent decoders so differences in decoding would be more due to processes that support comprehension. That prediction seems to be true (e.g., Tilstra et al, 2009).

Especially relevant to the question of audiobooks, you’d also predict that for typical adults (who decode fluently) listening comprehension and reading comprehension would be mostly the same thing. And experiments show very high correlations of scores on listening and reading comprehension tests in adults (Bell & Perfetti, 1994Gernsbacher, Varner, & Faust, 1990).

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Daniel T. Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia, where he is a professor in the Department of Psychology. Willingham’s research focuses on the application of findings from cognitive psychology and neuroscience to K–12 education.


Publication:      Daniel Willingham: Science and Education Blog
Author:             Daniel Willingham
Publish Date:   7.24.2016