Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia psychologist who wrote "The Reading Mind," says that the most common question he receives these days is the following: "Is it cheating if I listen to an audiobook for my book club?" In a New York Times essay, Willingham parses the benefits and drawbacks of both formats. Which one is better? Of course personally preference and convenience matter, but Willingham argues that generally right now when it comes to listening or reading a book, there is "equivalence for easy texts and an advantage to print for hard ones." For example, audio books provide prosody, the intonation, tone, and rhythm of the words. Sometimes, hearing those cues helps us understand the material. But not always. From the NYT:
For example, one study compared how well students learned about a scientific subject from a 22-minute podcast versus a printed article. Although students spent equivalent time with each format, on a written quiz two days later the readers scored 81 percent and the listeners 59 percent.
What happened? Note that the subject matter was difficult, and the goal wasn't pleasure but learning. Both factors make us read differently. When we focus, we slow down. We reread the hard bits. We stop and think. Each is easier with print than with a podcast.
Print also supports readers through difficult content via signals to organization like paragraphs and headings, conventions missing from audio. Experiments show readers actually take longer to read the first sentence of a paragraph because they know it probably contains the foundational idea for what's to come.
So although one core process of comprehension serves both listening and reading, difficult texts demand additional mental strategies. Print makes those strategies easier to use. Consistent with that interpretation, researchers find that people's listening and reading abilities are more similar for simple narratives than for expository prose. Stories tend to be more predictable and employ familiar ideas, and expository essays more likely include unfamiliar content and require more strategic reading.
image: detail of Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "A Young Girl Reading" (c. 1770)