How Audiobooks Can Make People More Literate

How Audiobooks Can Make People More Literate

Educators and cognitive scientists recognize that “reading” is a very broad term. In the audiobook community, we already know that “reading” can and does mean critical listening as well as visual understanding of printed text. Pushback still comes from some who believe that“to read” is to decode visually. I like to call them reading “print-bound purists.” As most long-established “eye-readers” know, assumptions about characters, plot direction, and capacity to grasp how facts in chapter one will be required in chapter seven, can and do miss the mark on any first complete reading of a book. How many of these print-bound purists re-read texts — silently, of course, as 20th century pedagogy taught many of us to be a requirement of “skillful” reading?

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The true worth of literacy is a cluster of skills that allow us to understand expressed communication. Whether we use our literacy skills for information gathering or entertainment, we need to be able to understand how signs, sounds, punctuation, and such linguistic spices as idiomatic expressions are used to communicate to us a full and coherent message. If we limit our reading to single passes with our eyes over text — how many still consider the way to exercise literacy — here are some problems we create for our understanding, each readily mended through audiobook reading:

· What do I need to know about this character’s motivation? We didn’t understand that the mother speaking in the opening section was angry because the author didn’t come right out and tell us, and we didn’t have any previous understanding of this character on which to build — and then we’re confused about a minor character, distracting us from the meat of the plot as it unfolds

· How can I make sense of all these technical explanations when I’m not even sure which clause is important? We neglected to piece our way through that dense paragraph in the middle of the discussion of gamma rays because we just couldn’t be bothered — until we got to a follow up discussion that required us to have an acquaintance with the information that past paragraph imparted in order to get on with this current one

· Who’s who when I see names that seem to use similar letters to spell them? We can’t keep these people — whether fictional or historical — straight as we come across quotes from them because their names may blend together visually while offering us no easy handle by which to recognize them from passage to passage; our eyes just won’t suss out the difference unless we slow to a veritable crawl whenever a speaker’s name is noted

Professional audiobook narrators, in fact, are the people who do that essential pre-reading for us before we sit down to acquire the author’s work by listening to interpretive choices that make sense the first time around as listening readers. Professional narrators, having familiarized themselves thoroughly with the book before the recording session begins, know and impart appropriate pacing and alterations in inflections that we can have from the get-go when we hear their reading. Passages dense with significant and complex information are delivered in a manner that allows us to concentrate point by point instead of rushing by without collecting what we need for understanding the next stage of the work. And when personal names may be too close for eye comfort, narrators introduce specific tones — if not outright voices — that allow us to distinguish between speakers readily.

Unlike the pure visual reader, then, “ear readers” have the benefit of apprehending a new text as it was meant to be unspooled. Reading by ear puts listeners up there with the very few eye readers who habitually re-read every text in its entirety before announcing themselves as having read it at all.

Try these audiobooks as examples of how reading comprehension can receive significant boosts from hearing skilled narrators:

What do I need to understand about this character? The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, read by Jane Entwistle

How can I make sense of all these technical explanations when I’m not even sure which clause is important? Death by Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, read by Dion Graham

Who’s who when I see a cavalcade of character names that I can’t distinguish among quickly? Death Notice, by Zhou Haohui, translated by Zac Haluza, read by Joel de la Fuente

Audiobooks can make you more literate because they give you the reflective space and energy to get beyond working through technical hurdles a first sight reading of a text presents.