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Flipping pages or pressing play: do audiobooks count toward reading goals?

Rin Ryu
According to Reader’s Digest, the differences between audiobooks and reading a physical book are minimal which is why audiobooks should count towards one’s reading goal. However, not all sources agree. Psychology Today’s Jessica Schrader and Daniel Willingham insist that there is a distinction between the two, and that they cannot be substitutes for one another.

It may not be reading, but audiobooks should count towards one’s reading goal. According to Reader’s Digest, experts say that the difference between listening to audiobooks and reading a physical book is minimal. They say that not only is it reading, but it is an essential part of the culture of reading. 

“I do believe audiobooks do count as a reading, or count towards reading goals, as long as they’re actually sitting down and thinking about it,” American Studies and AP Language and Composition teacher Ashley Harrison said. “I listen to audiobooks on the way here, and I’m able to process them.” 

Reader’s Digest spoke to psychologist Mairead Molloy, and she contests that although the information is processed differently, the overall comprehension of the content is negligible. 

However, according to Psychology Today’s Jessica Schrader and Daniel Willingham of The New York Times insist there is a clear distinction between the two and that one act cannot substitute for the other. Willingham says that reading is something you do. Schrader similarly says that reading is something you do, while listening is something that happens to you. She also adds that when physically reading the book yourself, the story cannot progress without you, but with audiobooks, the story moves forward with or without you. So their point, is that the engagement is not the same. 

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But just because it isn’t the same act, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t count towards a book or reading goal. Listening still takes effort. The scientific term is selective listening. We humans have the ability to block out unwanted stimuli and completely focus on one thing. And some make the argument that many zone out when listening to audiobooks so they don’t even absorb all of the  information. But do people not zone out while looking at books? And addressing the claim about the progression of the book made by Schrader, audiobooks can be paused. It’s not like you can just move forward in a book and understand, so people go back and read it. It is the same with audiobooks. The content won’t make sense if parts are skipped over so you rewind the audion and listen to it.

Librarian, Chelsea Hamilton, is adamant that audiobooks should count as reading or towards a reading goal. 

“Anytime you are consuming literature, whether that is novels, graphic novels, audiobooks, ebooks, it all counts and it all works on your brain,” Hamilton said. “Audiobooks are excellent for anybody. Especially those who do best listening and seeing at the same time. I also roll through four or five audiobooks a week.” 

GT Humanities and African-American Studies teacher Sarah Wiseman shares this similar sentiment. 

“Audiobooks are really reading because it engages you in character development, or analyzing an argument, whether you’re reading fiction or nonfiction,” Wiseman said. “You have to follow the plot, the details, you’re processing the rich language, and its just great for your brain.”

And aside from the standard/average readers, there are those who are visually impaired, have learning disabilities, such as ADHD or dyslexia, or simply those who just don’t have the time. So would it be discriminatory to say that those who can only easily obtain information through audiobooks are not actually reading? Well maybe? Because they can’t help the fact that a body part can’t pick up a certain piece of information, can they? 

“Audiobooks are great tools for different learning differences, whether it’s a visual impairment or maybe a processing disorder, like dyslexia or even ADHD, can make it really difficult to maintain reading for a really long time,” Wiseman said. 

Harrison says there’s a differentiation between active and passive reading and listening. 

“I do think that active reading is actually looking at the book and following the words and reading it to yourself,” Harrison said. “Whereas listening to an audiobook, you’re still able to get the comprehension aspect, but you’re not working on your fluency. So there’s two different advantages to both of them.” 

And if you really think about it, blind people can “read” by using braille. But they’re not actually reading according to the logic of skeptics. They’re not using their eyes to look at the words on the books. They’re using their fingers, their sense of touch to comprehend what the book is telling them. That’s the same with audiobooks, you are still comprehending the story just through a different one of your senses. 

I can agree that there is a differentiation between actually reading a book with your eyes and listening to an audiobook. But what really is the difference when it comes to counting them towards a reading goal? Audiobooks should be applied to a reading goal because of all of the components that go into it. There are multiple parts of actively following a book that match up with listening to audiobooks. There might be some differences between them, but the end goal is all the same. 

This story was originally published on Wingspan on October 11, 2023.