Are Audiobooks “Cheating”?

by | Oct 1, 2018


I’ve “read” 53 books so far in 2018 (find them here: 2018 – books I’m reading). Forty-one of those books I’ve actually read and 12 I’ve listened to as an audiobook. Do the 12 audiobooks count as my actually having “read” the book? Until I researched it, I kinda felt like listening to a book didn’t count.

The short answer is “no” – listening to a book is not cheating. A fantastic explanation of why an audiobook is not cheating comes from Dr. Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia who has written a book on the science of reading.

According to Dr. Willingham, there are two main processes that occur when we read printed works: (a) “decoding” and (b) “language processing.”

“Decoding” obviously refers to figuring out words from print. “Language processing” refers to the same mental processes you use for oral language. Reading, as an evolutionary late-comer, must piggy-back on mental processes that already existed, and spoken communication does much of the lending.  So, . . . listening to an audio book is exactly like reading print, except that the latter requires decoding and the former doesn’t.

Experiments have found that for adults fluent in decoding, comprehension is about the same whether they read or listen to the text. This does not mean that reading and listening is the same thing. A poor narration of a book can make it worse. A great narration can lead to better comprehension as the narrator’s emphasis and inflection can enhance meaning. For example, I listened to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, and I thought that his narration of the book really enhanced it; his emphasis and insertion of accent was brilliant. I read part of Born a Crime  in print and it didn’t have the same life as it did when narrated by Trevor himself.

Of course, for children or those who are still developing their decoding skills, listening to a book should not be the sole source of book “reading.” Decoding is a skill that has to be developed and maintained.

I only started listening to audiobooks about six months ago and have really enjoyed them. I listen while walking my dog, doing PT, running, driving and working out. Related IFODs on reading:

Fiction or Nonfiction – Which is Better?

Books and Educational Attainment

How Many People Finish Books

Read Books – Live Longer

Some of the Best Opening Lines of Books


  1. Bruce Springsteen reads his memoir, Born to Run. Also an excellent listening experience!

  2. Good on JJ. After “reading” this IFOD I wonder, how long before we will be able to listen to the writer of tge IFOD himself?
    That would be cool…to hear your own presentation and inflections on your words. Or you could have guest readers…like a slow reader, that way a short piece can seem longer.
    Or for a segment on Halloween based findings you could get Count Floyd from the old SCTV program….now that’s “SCCCAAAARRRRYYYYY!”.
    The possibilities are endless.


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