Audiobooks vs. Reading: Is Listening to Books As Useful For Kids?

Here's what parents should know.

by Emily Kelleher
Blonde 4 year old boy in white shirt with orange sleeves smiling and putting earbuds in to listen to...

The rise of audiobooks in recent years has transformed “reading” into something that can be done while commuting, cooking dinner, or drifting off to sleep. The best audiobooks can, at least, keep kids happy during long car rides, and, at best, promote an advanced vocabulary and nurture a love of reading. But is it cheating? Do audiobooks help children learn how to read? Will introducing kids to audiobooks make reading actual books less intruiging?

When it comes to helping children learn to read, experts say the role of audiobooks is twofold: to help children with the process of identifying words by modeling fluent reading and expanding their vocabulary, and to help motivate new or struggling readers by giving them a taste of how fun reading can be.

“If you think about the process of learning to read, what we are actually learning to do is to decode patterns on a page into words into spoken words, but also into worlds, you know, environments, characters, and, and ultimately stories,” says Dr. Michael Rich, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.

When children are first learning to read, they have to decode, or sound out, each word, translating it from a symbol to something with meaning. Because they’re working so hard just to read each word, they can have a hard time retaining the information and following along. This can be a really frustrating experience. Listening to an audiobook does that work for them, allowing them to retain the narrative.

“If you eliminate some of the barriers to having your reading experience flow it’s helpful to get kids to experience the pleasure of reading,” says Regan McMahon, deputy books editor at Common Sense Media.

Some kids may be ready to learn at a level above what they can read, and audiobooks enable them to consume more complex information than they could feasibly read on their own. “That is a way for kids to not be limited to their reading level on the page,” says McMahon. “Audiobooks can introduce kids to the classics. A lot of times they have old-fashioned language, and that kind of stops kids on the page. Whereas if you’re listening to some great actor or author or any kind of a talented narrator, the sophisticated language is not a barrier.”

Motivation is one thing, but when it comes to actually learning to read, there’s also evidence that audio books do help. Of course how they’re used matters.

For audiobooks to be truly useful in helping a child learn to read, Rich feels that they need to be paired with a printed book.

“How the child follows along is really critical,” he says. “If they are leaning on the audiobook to sort of make sense out of the narrative, their eyes leave the page, they’re not actually still trying to decode. It has to be integrated into the process of decoding the words rather than something that will kind of carry them over that difficulty of decoding.”

One of the problems, he says, is that audiobooks are going to move faster than the decoding process. “The audiobook is the easier option,” he says, “And so they’ll go with that.”

One small study of 20 students with reading disabilities found that students who were given audiobooks to listen to while following along with the text saw a greater increase in reading skills after eight weeks compared to those who were just given the text. Researchers measured progress by comparing how many correct words students could read per minute before and after the eight week treatment. While the students who were given only print books could read about four more words per minute than before, students who were given audiobooks in addition to print books saw an increase of 17 words per minute.

For parents interested in using audiobooks as a teaching tool, Rich recommends that parents sit with children while an audio-book plays, and scan their finger across the words as they’re read aloud. When teaching younger kids, Rich recommends that parents give children puppets and have them act out the story, so that they’re more actively engaged and involved.

Because, while audiobooks are a great addition to parents reading aloud to their children, they can’t replace that social-emotional aspect of learning.

“If the parent is modeling enjoying reading and sharing this experience with the child,” he says. “It makes reading something that is thought of and felt positively.”

Parents, Rich adds, shouldn’t worry about limiting audiobooks like other forms of screen time. Children still need time without entertainment to be bored and daydream. But unlike other forms of screen time or even print picture books, audiobooks force children to imagine scenes they’re hearing about, which is a useful skill too. Overall, “never miss an opportunity to read with your child,” Rich says.

To find age appropriate audio books, parents can consult the American Library Association’s list of notable children’s recordings of 2020, all of which “demonstrate respect for young people’s intelligence and imagination; exhibit venturesome creativity; and reflect and encourage the interests of children and young adolescents in exemplary ways.”