Audio books and podcasts: Listen to the words

With the rise in popularity of podcasts and audio books, how do they fare when compared with the printed medium?

January 04, 2020 12:36 pm | Updated January 06, 2020 09:34 am IST

Concept of audiobook. Books on the table with headphones put on them.

Concept of audiobook. Books on the table with headphones put on them.

Gargi has to endure a two-hour commute to college each way. As she has to board a bus, the metro and then walk for 15 minutes each way, she prefers to listen to audio books instead of reading them. This way, her hands are free and she can even listen while standing in an overcrowded bus. She is grateful she is majoring in English because most of the books on her reading list are easily available in the audio format unlike textbooks in other subjects. Moreover, she is really pleased that she saves time.

With audio books and podcasts gaining popularity vis-à-vis printed or e-books, students may benefit from understanding the pros and cons of each medium. In an article in The New York Times , cognitive psychologist, Daniel Willingham compares the two media and concludes that each has its own pluses. Knowing how the two formats stack up against each other in different contexts can help readers or listeners pick the one that best meets their needs.

Audio scores over the print format when it comes to prosodic cues, that includes pitch, tone and tempo. Statements like “I simply love it here” can be interpreted as a genuine praise or as mockery depending on the tone employed. While tone can be conveyed auditorily, it’s harder in print and the reader usually relies on contextual cues. So, do audio books aid comprehension as compared to print?

Put to test

The answer is not so straightforward. In one study, researchers compared performance of students on a science quiz. Half the participants heard the material on a podcast while the other half read a printed version. Even though both groups spent the same amount of time with the study material, the print group outperformed the audio group.

Willingham points out that the content was fairly dense and hard to grasp. What do we readers typically do when we encounter difficult subject matter? Typically, we pause and slow down our reading and may even re-read bits to clarify our understanding. While going back and forth is easy to do with print, the audio format doesn’t easily lend itself to this type of comprehension monitoring.

Additionally, in print, the text can be divided with headings and subheadings and keywords and concepts may be bolded to highlight them. These organisational markers are not available in the auditory format. However, Willingham wagers that as people get more used to audio books, their comprehension in this format may increase with practice.

When we listen to audio books, we may engage in other tasks like driving or cooking. However, umpteen studies have pointed out that humans are poor multitaskers. When our attention is thus fragmented, our comprehension is likely to be compromised. Willlingham says that you will get the “gist, not subtleties.” So, while audio books may entertain us on long commutes, they may not replace reading in the conventional sense just yet.

Thus, based on your purpose and what you wish to derive from your reading experience, choose your medium wisely.

The writer is Director, PRAYATNA.

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