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Listening to the library: Research about preadolescent readers listening to audiobooks

Sue Toms, EdD, Secondary Teacher Librarian, East Campus
8 March 2019

Headphones and phone photo from

It was one of those magical moments in a teacher librarian’s life that is not easy to forget. I was a year into collecting data from interviews for my doctoral research and Mark, one of my preadolescent participants (pseudonyms used for all students), yelled out to me as I entered his classroom, “I just LOVE listening to audiobooks!” Not only was I delighted that a preadolescent boy would say this out loud in front of his peers, but his enthusiasm was so genuine that it made me determined to try to source more audiobooks for our school library. However, my research also found that not everyone appreciated audiobooks as much as Mark and including them in the library collection posed multiple challenges. This article presents selected results from my narrative inquiry research. My complete doctoral dissertation is available for download.

Audiobooks have long been viewed as either remedial or for those who are learning English. In contrast, my research participants (students primarily in Grades 4 and 5) were all fluent readers and writers with no identified learning difficulties. I chose preadolescents for this study as this is the age range where reading and listening comprehension are usually comparable (Diakidoy, et al. 2005). Unfortunately, there is very little research about the use of audiobooks by fluent preadolescent students and I have summarised the dissertation literature review here at this blog post. What student participants taught me about their audiobook listening both surprised and delighted me.

Model of verbal fluency

I was interested to learn from participants what their parents thought of them listening to audiobooks. When I asked John if his parents had said anything about his audiobook listening he responded, “Yes, before my friends were always saying, ‘like ... like ... like’ but my Mum says not to do it anymore, plus when I listen to audiobooks [the narrator] doesn’t do it and I feel more confident to not [say] ‘like ... like.’” Vera agreed that listening to audiobooks has helped her use less filler words when she is speaking in public. Professionally narrated audiobooks provide a model of verbal fluency and it seems that listening to them might have a very good effect on us. John said that when he reads text silently he tries to make it sound like an audiobook is playing in his head. He said that listening to audiobooks had helped him feel more comfortable presenting to his class and explained, “I have good articulation and I speak loud so everyone can hear and I don’t go ‘ah, um.’”

Source of story ideas

Participants said they also gain creative story writing ideas from listening to audiobooks in their leisure time. John told me that, “Before [listening extensively to audiobooks in his free time] it would take me a while, but now it is just so quick, like that,” and he clicked his fingers, “and I know what story I should write.” Vera described it as, “I kind of hear an audiobook [in my head]” when writing a story in class.

Vocabulary acquisition in context

The complexity of the language of audiobooks aids acquiring vocabulary in context. Beth explained, “there were some words you don’t hear everyday and then your teacher says a word no one knows, and you say, ‘I know that word’” from listening to an audiobook. Mark also said, “If I don’t understand a word [when reading text] then I will read and stop in the middle of the sentence and then start over again and soon as I go on after a little while I find out what it means, but the person who is reading [the audiobook] they don’t keep stopping, so I don’t have to wait so long.” Interestingly, tests involving fMRI of the brain found that the “increase in activation with increasing sentence complexity was similar regardless of the modality of the input,” and the authors deduced that the brain works harder to comprehend complexity, whether it is encountered through listening or reading (Michael et al. 2001, 251).

Preference for audiobook version

Asked to compare different modes of a story, John said he likes to watch the movie version of an audiobook to which he has listened and he explained, “the only difference between a movie and an audiobook, I find, is that there is a narrator, he says what’s happening. With a movie you see what is happening, you don’t hear the narrator’s voice, you hear the actor.” Mark said the audiobook version of a story gives more detail. “I prefer to listen to the audiobook, that’s my first choice. If you watch the movie I don’t like it when it’s straight away given to you. It kind of takes the fun out of it.”

‘Reading’ an audiobook

Interestingly, John, Lewis and Vera referred to listening to an audiobook as ‘reading’ an audiobook. Lewis showed that he is equally comfortable with audiobooks or text, “Listen or read ... it depends on the type of book.” John said it depends on his mood whether he chooses to listen or read and that he understands the same whether he is listening or reading. John said he can discuss books with other people, whether he has listened to the audio version or read the text; “If I’m listening to the book that they are reading, I know what is going on.”

Self-motivated to listen to audiobooks in leisure time

Mark said he wanted to have a balance of reading text and listening to audiobooks and explained, “I sort of agree with [his parents and his teacher] that it’s still good to be reading rather than just listening but I don’t think that I should listen less, if anything I should listen more, but just read more too.” Frank explained that it is sometimes hard for him to stop listening and he wanted to listen “all the time.” Lewis said that when he listened to audiobooks on the bus to school it made him want to keep listening and not get off the bus.

Not for everyone

But audiobooks are not for everyone. Vera, Beth and Lewis, learned through this study that they preferred to read text rather than listen to audiobooks. Beth explained, “I still prefer to read the actual book, because you can feel what you’re reading. It’s just different when you listen… I discovered that I need the book in my hands.” Mark thought that not everyone would love listening to audiobooks but, like him, “A few people think they are very amazing.”

Multitasking while listening to audiobooks

Multitasking while listening to audiobooks was mentioned by all participants. The most popular tasks were travelling, resting in bed and while playing games on the device on which they were listening. Mark explained that listening to audiobooks at bedtime helped him to sleep “because they get rid of all my other thoughts.” John described a similar routine, “Every night I bring out my iPad and then I put on my portable speakers and I listen” and this “makes me sleepy and then I fall asleep, then the next day I remember what happened.” However, not everyone can fall asleep while listening to an audiobook. Frank told me that he does not listen when it is bedtime, or he would never get to sleep if the story was too exciting. Later he told me that he did like listening to audiobooks when he was sick and that it was, “so nice to lie in bed with my eyes closed” and listen to audiobooks while recovering. Both Simon and John mentioned playing games on their iPad while listening to audiobooks on the same device. Frank said that sometimes he liked to play Minecraft when listening and create the ‘world’ in Minecraft that matches the story.

Access challenges

Some school libraries don’t include audiobooks in their collections because of a “lack of interest from students” (Brock 2013, 145). However, I found that if accessing audiobooks is too difficult for students they don’t show an interest. At times understanding the varying format restrictions and the process of loading his listening device with the files was overwhelming to Lewis and sometimes he chose to read books rather than sort out the difficulties. Other device restrictions that participants encountered included lack of storage space on their listening device, lost device or charger cable, or a listening device not working. Sometimes it was just easier to just read a paper book.

‘Out of sight, out of mind’

Also, if students don’t see audiobooks advertised like a physical book, they often do not ask for them. I discovered that it was best for our school library to have the paper version of every audiobook to which we had access and advertise the two formats together as alternatives. Also, before I introduced audiobooks into the school library, many students did not know what they were. John explained that he thought some of his friends do not know what audiobooks are and he thought that as a teacher librarian I should be telling people about them. Beth said that she had not heard of audiobooks before she tried them during this study. Participants’ suggestions resulted in more signage and advertising in our library.

Further research about students’ listening to audiobooks in their leisure time could support librarians offering them as an alternative form of literature. To share research, read the full dissertation and connect with the author please visit

Works Cited:

Brock, R. M. Audiobooks and attitudes: An examination of school librarians’ perspectives. UMI Microform 3598459, ProQuest LLC, 2013.

Diakidoy, I.N., Stylianou, P., Karefillidou, C. & Papageorgiou, P. “The relationship between listening and reading comprehension of different types of text at increasing grade levels.” Reading Psychology 26, no. 1 (2005): 55-80.

Michael, E. B., Keller, T. A., Carpenter, P. A. & Just, M. A. “fMRI Investigation of Sentence Comprehension by Eye and Ear: Modality Fingerprints on Cognitive Processes.” Human Brain Mapping 13, no. 4 (2001): 239–252.