Is reading better than listening?

Let’s say that you want to learn something. You can read about it or you can listen to an audiobook.


Which is better? Is reading better or listening?


Reading is how most of us are used to acquiring information, but is it the best way to learn? Today, there are other options for consuming information found in print. Instead of reading a novel, you download an audiobook through services like Audible. Or you can listen to an audio summary, with apps like Blinkist. Or Alpe’s own book club, which is coming soon!


Sometimes we just don’t have the time to sit down and read a book. But is audio just a second-rate option? Is it there for when we have no other choice? In other words: Is reading better than listening?


Of course, at Alpe we’re all about the audio. Even if reading is sometimes more effective for some people, it’s simply not accessible to everyone in every situation. So, we’re a huge fan of the way audio allows people to learn. People who wouldn’t have been able to if they didn’t have a hands free option.

Is reading or listening better for learning?
Is reading or listening better for learning?

So, no matter what, audio is incredibly important. But, it still is time to face the elephant in the room. All things considered, is reading better than listening?


That’s the question, we set out to get some answers to.


Reading or listening for learning?


And here’s what we found.


Along the way, we learned that we’re not the only one’s wondering whether reading is better than listening. There’s an excellent article written by Markham Heid, called Are Audiobooks As Good For You As Reading? Here’s What Experts Say. So Heid had already noticed that his readers were wondering the same thing as we were - is reading better than listening?


So, what’s the answer? Is reading better than listening?


The answer I found is: Yes, but…


Let me explain what I mean. There are a few different components, so I’ll break it down:


Reading is better than listening because you can always trace your way back


In his article, Heid quotes Daniel Willingham, who just so happens to be the author of one of Alpe’s favorite books Why Don't Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom.


It turns out that Willingham also has some opinions on the value of physical books in learning. He explains that having a physical book helps you make mental sense out of a story line and sequence of events. In his words: “As you’re reading a narrative, the sequence of events is important, and knowing where you are in a book helps you build that arc of narrative.”


So reading is better than listening for those of us who need to picture information in a visual structure. This idea sat well with me, because I’ve always struggled with e-readers like Kindles. While my friends and co-workers couldn’t stop talking about what a game changer they were, I still always preferred reading physical books. And not for any ideological reason either. I generally like technology. I actually just found it difficult to concentrate and remember information from an e-book.


Willingham’s explanation makes sense to me. Spatial orientation is important in general for helping us know where we are and where we’re going. And just like some of us need a bit more help navigating the physical world - any fellow klutzes here? - the same applies to learning. A physical book is better than an e-book when you have trouble with too much abstraction, it helps to be able to physically trace your steps back when you get lost. But that’s e-books, not audio books. It still doesn’t answer the question, is reading better than listening?

Do the navigation issues with ebooks apply to audio books as well? With audio, we also can’t keep track of where we are the same way we can with a printed book. So, is that an argument that reading is better than listening?

So what’s interesting here is that it really depends on the audio that you’re listening to. Reading is probably better than listening when you’re listening to something that’s designed to be read. But what about a narration that’s designed for audio? Which is created with the spatial challenges in mind. Which makes sure that users don’t get lost along the way, and that they can always find their way back if there’s something that they need to review.

Because that’s exactly how Alpe Audio courses were designed. We write lessons for learners who are on the go. We know that keeping track of information without seeing it in front of you can be challenging, so we specifically design our courses to compensate for the lack of structure.

How do we do it? How does it work? Well, I won’t spill all our secrets but here are two techniques we like to use:

Audio Teaching Technique #1: Creating a clear audio structure

Check out this example from our course on Pricing Strategy:


So if it cost Bob $1 to make a loaf of bread, he should never sell his bread for less than $1. Makes sense, right? Why would you sell something at a loss? As in, where you lose money in the process. The catch is that it’s hard to measure exactly how much something costs to produce because companies have expenses beyond their raw materials. What about the ovens Bob has to maintain, the staff he hires to help him out, and the rent he pays on his store? Running a business incurs all sorts of costs! Which ones must we take into account when determining our floor for minimum price? In order to answer that, we must divide costs into two main categories. Fixed costs and variable costs. These two categories will help us identify what types of costs a product’s price must cover. We’ll start with fixed costs. Bob the baker’s fixed costs are [...]

This lesson was written with our on-the-go learners in mind. Because keeping track of information over audio can be so challenging, we make sure to be constantly communicating where we are in a lesson and where we are going. We’re constantly reminding our listeners what they’ve learned, what they still don’t know, and what they’re about to learn.


And that’s a formula you’ll get very used to if you listen to enough of our lessons. Because we’re aware that reading is better than listening in terms of being able to hold a clear structure in your head and therefore we are doing everything we can to create a system that helps with that.

Audio Teaching Technique #2: Chapters

However, the reality is that we can signpost until we are blue in the face (and we do, trust me) but there will still be things that a listener will still miss.

And reading is better than listening in allowing learners to backtrack and review something they missed. Or need to review.

And that’s where Alpe’s Chapter features comes in. With this feature, listeners can go back to specific topics they missed or want to review.

Chapters help audio learning
Chapters help audio learning

Reading is better than listening because you can highlight important points

Another reason reading is better than listening is that a physical book allows you to highlight and mark important passages. The act of highlighting can be helpful while learning and is also helpful for when you want to go back and review something. Heid writes:

[...] there may also be some “structural hurdles'' that impede learning from audio material, Daniels says. For one thing, you can’t underline or highlight something you hear. And many of the “This is important!” cues that show up in text books—things like bolded words or boxed bits of critical info—aren’t easily emphasized in audio-based media.

So reading is better than listening because you can emphasize important points. And that’s also why every Alpe Audio comes with written summaries.

Summaries help audio learning
Summaries help audio learning

These summaries highlight the important parts of the lesson, the things you would have highlighted if you had been reading a physical book.

And in some ways, listening is actually better than reading!


So far, in this article, we’ve spoken about ways that reading is better than listening. However, we’ve pointed out that the convenience of audio, the way it suits the on-the-go learner makes it a very real option. We’ve also spoken about all the ways Alpe Audio compensates for the areas in which reading is better than listening. But what is also true is that audio has a rich history in its own right.


Heid writes:

But audiobooks also have some strengths. Human beings have been sharing information orally for tens of thousands of years, Willingham says, while the printed word is a much more recent invention. “When we’re reading, we’re using parts of the brain that evolved for other purposes, and we’re MacGyvering them so they can be applied to the cognitive task of reading,” he explains. Listeners, on the other hand, can derive a lot of information from a speaker’s inflections or intonations. Sarcasm is much more easily communicated via audio than printed text. And people who hear Shakespeare spoken out loud tend to glean a lot of meaning from the actor’s delivery, he adds.

Is reading better than listening for learning?

So, is reading better than listening? Yes, but. It’s true that reading might be better in some situations. However, audio is also a force of learning not to be taken lightly. It’s how we’ve been sharing information for many thousands of years. We can take it with us, as we drive to work, walk the dog, or wash our dishes. And when we use learning apps like Alpe, we can work around the challenges of learning on-the-go and truly make the most of every moment.


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