Reading vs. Listening – Which is More Effective for Learning and Remembering

Would you prefer to read a book or listen to the audio version? Your answer may depend on several variables, such as convenience or availability. The debate about the differences between reading and listening comprehension has taken center stage once again. 

print vs e books vs audio books

Besides a preference for one over the other, the most crucial question is; which of the two helps us retain vital information, improve our comprehension, and make us more efficient?

Well, it depends. 

There are numerous studies and articles on the topic, most of which evaluate both methods’ effectiveness. Individual preferences and even learning disabilities can play a role. 

However, there are differences in comprehension, depending on how we consume information. One example is transcribers. They must develop excellent listening skills to transfer audio conversations into a text format. Poor listening habits won’t help someone transcribe a significant legal deposition or law enforcement interview efficiently.

It’s also important to point out that there are differences between reading or listening for pleasure versus learning. Below are some examples:

Audiobooks vs. Physical Books

Do we comprehend more information if we physically read a book compared to listening to the same material?

Remember when audiobooks hit the market years ago? Futurist suggested listening would eclipse reading as our preferred learning method. It looks like books are still with us and will be for the foreseeable future.

Having access to one version gives us options when the other isn’t convenient or available. Reading a book or magazine while walking in the park or on a treadmill is often challenging. That’s when using our earbuds to listen to audiobooks or podcasts is a better method.  

One distinction between listening to an audiobook and reading the same material is how our brains process the information. 

Both activate different parts of the brain. However, University of California psychology professor Matthew Traxler found that the “mental machinery” required to understand and retain information remains the same, irrespective of whether we heard or read the material. 

Another study assigned adult volunteers to one of three groups. The first listened to excerpts of a story from World War II. A second group read the same material on an e-reader, while the third group simultaneously employed both methods. The results showed little difference in the test scores regardless of the method used. 

Both experts agreed that either listening or reading is acceptable for lighter topics typically found in entertainment or news magazines and websites. We retain more information for more complex subjects if we put more effort into the process, such as reading weighty topics. 

Reading vs. Listening: The Science

reading versus listening

There are some differences in how our brain processes information gathered through visual or auditory methods. Scientists and educators have been grappling with whether individuals develop a learning preference at an early age. If so, does being exposed to another way impede their ability to learn? 

Recent studies show that while individuals may develop a preference for reading or hearing material, most can learn by either method. An academic study published in 2018 states that students are capable of learning through both reading and listening. Indiana University Professor Polly Husmann debunks the issue that students primarily learn by the time they enter college by only one method. 

Husmann and her team developed a questionnaire designed to reveal a student’s preference for learning. What they also uncovered is the method a student used for learning is often not their preferred method. When a student did incorporate another way, there was little to no difference in test scores.  

How Does Listening & Reading Impact Brain Activity

University of California at Berkeley neuroscientists studied MRI brain scans of individuals and confirmed that the human brain is equally stimulated by both reading and listening.

Participants read scripts from a podcast episode and were shown one word at a time to duplicate how the brain absorbs auditory material. Using previous research, they were able to code each word and the brain’s areas impacted. Researchers then created maps to evaluate which parts of the brain are stimulated by certain words. The results showed no notable differences between listening and reading. 

What About Those Darn Distractions?

Evaluating both learning methods under ideal conditions is intriguing, but what about all the distractions humans encounter daily? 

Most of us will agree that humans can be easily distracted. With all the options available that allow for the immediate flow of information, we can lose concentration or our train of thought. We often hear someone across the table or on the phone, but our listening skills determine the level of comprehension. 

If an individual is distracted, chances are they will not understand the concept of a subject. Many times speaking is linear. There may be no way for the listener to “rewind” the speaker and go over the idea again. 

However, if an individual gets distracted while reading, they can reread the words as often as necessary to understand the subject. In this respect, reading is better for retention and comprehension.

Listening is also challenging for humans because it requires them to use real-time comprehension skills, meaning the individual must listen, interpret, and understand almost instantaneously to understand what a person is saying. This complex process expands when the individual is taking notes.

Since Spring, 2020 coronavirus pandemic concerns in the U.S. have limited school attendance. Colleges and even some high school classes that once met in a classroom setting are now virtual. Although the concept of online learning is used extensively by many schools, there are advantages over physically sitting in a classroom, such as being able to interact with the instructor and fellow students. There’s also the opportunity for distractions if a student finds a classmate more interesting than the lecture.

Students that meet in a traditional classroom setting must rely on their listening and note-taking ability, assuming reviewing the lecture by video isn’t available. Virtual classes allow students to log into the courses through a browser and listen to the lecture. In most cases, students can ask questions and participate in real-time. Recording and transcribing virtual classes makes it possible to read and listen to the lectures as often as necessary until they understand a concept. This allows students to comprehend information at their own speed.

Does Reading Improve Listening Skills?

Many experts believe that reading helps us improve our listening skills. One is Steve Kaufmann, an expert on learning languages. 

One of Kaufmann’s recommendations to improve listening skills is also to read the same content. He also suggests listening to new material in a relaxed environment helps us comprehend complex or new material more efficiently.

Writing for Brainscape, Andrew Cohen suggests that when initially learning a foreign language, reading is best. He also believes that seeing the text of a word helps reinforce our ability to remember the word and its use.

More importantly, Cohen believes reading along with an audiobook is the most effective method when learning languages or something new.

Which is Faster, Reading or Listening?

There is one final and essential element to this debate that has been definitively proven: reading is faster than listening

According to various sources, the average adult reads text around 250 to 300 words per minute. The recommended talking speed for high comprehension is 150 to 160 words per minute. By comparison, auctioneers speak at 250 words per minute, the same rate as reading. 

Who wants to talk as fast as an auctioneer? Not many, however, our transcribers can take an auctioneer’s audio and turn them into files that are easy to read and review any time. 

Transcription services are beneficial for universities and businesses to help their employees and students increase their retention, comprehension, and efficiency. 

The bottom line is that there are many different ways individuals learn and understand a concept. They don’t all rely on their listening skills alone. Transcription services assist many sectors, such as forums, student lectures, business meetings, conference calls, and peer group discussions. Transcription works for anything recorded via audio or video. 

Give your students or employees the tools to do the outstanding job you know that can do. Individuals that prefer to read will appreciate the option of receiving a professionally prepared transcript.

Transcription Outsourcing, LLC is a Denver, Colorado-based transcription company that provides fast, accurate and reliable transcription services for individuals and companies of all sizes. Call 720-287-3710 today for a free quote, and ask about our free trial.