Reading while listening to an audiobook?

RwL as an excellent language learning technique? The experts definitely seem to think so!

The best reading and listening comprehension activities when applying foreign language learning strategies are those that can stimulate several parts of the minds at once. Language experts have been studying Reading while Listening for a while now, and the findings have been incredibly positive. So much, in fact, that it provides plenty of evidence that this may just be the technique used in coming decades by millions of students to improve language immersion at home.

For example, a study in 1995 (Blum et al.) demonstrated that between two groups of linguistic students that were taught a language through home-based repeated reading (group 1) and reading while listening (group 2), the second group managed to develop a much greater level of fluency than their group 1 counterparts, and found significant benefits from learning the language this way.

Another study, in 2008 (Brown et al.), compared vocabulary among Japanese students using three different language learning methods – reading only, listening only and reading while listening – revealing something astounding. The group applying the reading while listening techniques were superior to their peers in learning vocabulary and understanding the educational material they had been provided. Finally, in 2013, a linguistic expert by the name of Chang showed improvements in fluency of students who practiced reading in a foreign language while listening.

Fluency has been associated with the ability of the student to summon the words needed when reading, speaking or writing, and the ease in which said student can concentrate mainly on the meaning of the message and not have to worry about the individual identification of words. This, of course, enhances language studying and vastly accelerates learning.


2. Exercising

Lots of people listen to audiobooks when they do yoga, bike, walk, etc. If you enjoy running, audiobooks can make a long run pass by quickly.

Runner Lucy Ward listens to audiobooks on her cold runs in Moscow. When the scenery and activity start to feel boring, she turns to an entertaining story in an audiobook to keep her going.

“Far from wanting to “listen to our breathing” to achieve an optimum split time, we’d rather drown it out with something more interesting that will distract our minds from the miles of unrun road ahead.” — Lucy Ward, The Guardian

Listen and then read

Listening to the audio first helps you to gain understanding without seeing the written word. As listening is often more difficult than reading, this method is good to help you train your ear and test your understanding. Reading after you’ve listened to the audio allows you to see how much you understood from the listening, and to practice mimicking what you’ve heard. Remember that you should read aloud to improve your pronunciation.

3. Increased motivation

The aforementioned studies which have taken place in recent decades have definitely shone a positive light on this language-learning method. Children in Taiwan were subjected to a study for 26 weeks, in which two groups were taught English were different methods – one with RWL and the other without (Chang, C-S. (2011). The effect of reading while listening to audiobooks: Listening fluency and vocabulary gain. Asian Journal of English Language Teaching, 21, 43-64). The results said it all: the RWL group greatly outscored their non-RWL counterparts, and their motivation to learn future lessons grew further than the other group's.

How to Listen to an Audiobook?

Here are some tips to help you get the most from reading an Audiobook:

4 tips on how to listen to an audiobook effectivel
4 tips on how to listen to an audiobook effectively.

1. Be ‘Sage’ When Multitasking

Of course, most of us want to multitask while reading an audiobook, but you have to choose the other multitasking basket wisely. I don’t think driving is anywhere among my list of best ways to make use of audiobooks because I don’t want to take my mind off the road—the book might get too exciting and I might forget I’m on the wheel.

Jogging in a place where there are no vehicles or motorbikes—like in a park—is a better option. The key is maximizing both activities.

2. Deciding on the types of books to listen to

Some books sound better than others. You can actually guess which audiobook is going to be lively or not. Works of fiction tend to lean toward the entertainment end of the bar and they are, usually, easier to listen to as audiobooks.

So, you have to choose an audiobook that will not distract from whatever you’re going to be doing at the time of reading the book.

Or… choose a book that complements that task.

3. Practice self-narration or journaling

When you’re reading technical stuff, it is beneficial to summarize the portion you’re reading before moving to the next. The best way of doing this is by summarizing that part to yourself or a willing friend. Pause the audiobook after a section or two and summarize the content you’ve read either by telling yourself/someone else or journaling it in a notebook.

4. Adjust the speed to your preference

I did an article on Audible vs. Kindle Unlimited, and I mentioned that Audible has a feature that lets you tweak the pace of the narration. To suit your reading preferences, you can either speed up or slow down the speed of the narration and help you stay engaged with the content.

Is it safe to listen to books while driving?

Mary's habit of listening to audiobooks while driving in the country is a great way to stay awake, says Paul Roberts, deputy director of the University of Western Australia's Centre for Road Safety Research.

"Whenever we do any kind of skilled task or cognitive task, we want our brain to be engaged to an optimal level but not overloaded," he says.

"In country environments, on monotonous roads, everybody's aware that we can suffer from this phenomenon we sometimes call passive fatigue, where we're not actually tired, but we're under-engaged and so we feel sleepy."

Depending the environment, driving while listening to books can be energising or distracting.(Unsplash: Takahiro Taguchi)

However Dr Roberts cautions that listening to audiobooks in urban driving situations could present problems by consuming too much of the driver's attention and slowing down their reaction times.

He refers to a 2018 Canadian study where participants were asked to drive in a simulator while listening to audiobooks. Their reactions differed depending on the driving conditions.

"In a complex environment, people actually reacted more slowly to hazards, and in a more simple environment, they reacted more quickly while listening to audiobooks," he says.

"The critical thing is to engage people to a level that keeps them at that optimal level of cognitive arousal, but that doesn't present too much of a cognitive challenge, where they don't have enough capacity left over to deal with unexpected events while they're driving."

The Not-so Scientific

One of the main arguments against audiobooks as a legitimate form of reading is that by having someone else read you the book, you may be influenced or guided into certain assumptions based on their tone or expression.

In other words, the narrator interprets the text and passes these impressions onto the reader, thus excluding the reader from ever needing to form their own impressions.

While this definitely takes away an important element of the reading process, in some cases, this may actually enhance the reader’s enjoyment and understanding.

(Personally, I would have loved this when I was reading The Sound and The Fury – maybe then I would have understood what on earth was going on.)

As mentioned previously, another significant issue that gets raised is the fact that people find it hard to focus when they are listening to a book – they feel they are much more easily distracted than they would be if they were reading a physical book.

While this is a legitimate concern, it isn’t a valid argument in the current debate. People’s personal preferences and/or abilities are just that, they’re personal, and are not legitimate reasons to exclude an entire method from the reading umbrella.

The most obvious argument in favour of audiobooks’ legitimacy is that the content is exactly the same regardless of whether the words are being listened to or read.

A listener experiences the same story as a reader, they should be just as able to contribute to a discussion about the book, and have as much of a legitimate claim to having read it.

6. Cleaning or doing chores

If you need to do your laundry or make your bed anyway, why not listen to an audiobook to make the work more fun. Lots of people find that you are more willing to work and find the work more enjoyable when you can listen to an audiobook. This popular method is how many get the bulk of their audiobook listening in. Most of the work is hands-on, such as washing the counter or putting away dishes.

The physical nature of the work means that your brain is not doing a lot of in-depth problem-solving or mind-wandering that would ordinarily distract you from the book. Obviously, vacuuming at the same time may not be possible because of the noise, but a lot of other tasks around the house can be done alongside an audiobook. You may find they go faster when you get to listen to a story too.

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