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Home » Technologies for Learning

Listen Up!

Submitted by on April 10, 2012 – 11:10 am 4 Comments | 2,685 views

(c) T.J. Lentz

by Michael Canuel

I have a confession to make.  I know that many of you will certainly think less of me once you have finished this article, but I feel the time has come to share my thoughts on a subject about which many of you feel quite passionate.  In fact, if you never speak to me again, I will understand and respect your decisions, but I hope you will at least give my perspective some small consideration.
Let me start by saying that initially I did not feel this way.  It took a while but after living the experience over and over again, I am convinced I am right and justified.

Enough with the temporizing!  Here is my declaration.  I prefer audiobooks to regular paperback or hardcover books .  There!  I have said it.  Out in the open and I can’t take it back.  Now give me the opportunity to explain what happened, and maybe you will have a little sympathy.

The fault lies not with the paper book, dear reader, but with electronic gadgetry and Black Russian Terriers.  Five years ago, I adopted a Black Russian Terrier, and her name is Tess.  When she came to live with my family, she weighed less than ten pounds.  Today at over a hundred pounds she needs to be walked regularly and five minute strolls do not suffice.  Today I walk no less than an hour a day.  I am fit thanks to my dear Tess, but she is partially to blame for my conversion to audiobooks.  The second factor is my iPhone which is loaded to the hilt with audio books.  In fact, in the last three years I have spent an average of $1500 annually on audio- books alone.  I listen to everything.  Fiction.  Non-fiction.  Biographies.  Bestsellers.  Award winners.  Classics.  Pulp.  I am an eclectic listener.  You may decide to categorize me as lacking in taste and judgment.   (I just finished the complete Hunger Games Trilogy after re-visiting William Faulkner’s Light in August).

My rationale was very simple.  If I am walking, or driving (please no lecture on the hazards) I felt this was time I could make useful and productive by listening to books.  Slowly, but surely, I became addicted.  More and more.  I have special status at the iTunes store and with

While you gather your breath and try to assimilate what I have confessed to you, let me tell you that I still do read paper books, and electronic books, and all sorts of printed material.  I even read books off my iPhone just to vary my sources.  In fact, rarely do I have less than three or four books going all at once.  I love reading.  I just have come to love listening to books more than I do reading them.

My background includes a nerdy adolescence where I was a part of rowdy group of guys who formed their own book club and competed at the St. Laurent library.  We would see who could read the most books in a week.  The librarians stamped our cards and we never returned anything late.  That was unthinkable.  We were so nerdy we tested one another to make sure we completed the books we took out.  We read everything from the Hardy Boys to Schopenhauer who quite appropriately said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”  What became self-evident for me was that reading is an unnatural act.  We have to be taught to read, that is, to decipher symbols which form letters, ascribe sounds to these letters, then join the letter sounds together to make word sounds and then ascribe a meaning to the word, then combine the words into sentences which in turn have a collective meaning.  Or something along those lines.  I know that once you are adept, reading stops being anything mechanical and almost a natural act.  But it remains only almost natural.

For most of us, hearing comes naturally, so listening which is focused hearing is easy.  No one taught me to listen to birds singing, or really to identify the different chirping of nuthatches or chickadees.  I heard, and I listened naturally.

At first listening to an audio book required that I stop looking to turn the page, or that I close my eyes to pay attention.  Walking a big dog through the woods with your eyes closed is not a recommended activity.  What did happen is that I started to visualize the characters much the way I do when I read paper books.  I could see and feel and experience everything the way I always had.  But I was walking.  I was outdoors.  Rain, snow, sleet.  Nothing has kept me from walking and walking.  There are times Tess wonders if we are ever going back.  We eventually do as the battery on my iPhone has certain limitations, but once charged, I am ready to start again.

Now I can hear some of your saying you prefer your big leather-bound novel, a cup of tea and a roaring fireplace to my electronic substitute.  I am not saying I am adverse to any of that, but my preference has changed over the years.  I recall how my children loved having their parents read to them.  The sound of the book long before they could read themselves resonated in an indefinable way.  The comfort of the sound.   The escape into the words they heard and the development of imagination.  My wife and I were our children’s first audio books in a very real way.

And here is the relevance to lifelong learning.  Audio books offer an interesting and powerful alternative for those who are challenged in any number of ways.  The number of titles and variety of choices continues to grow at an incredible pace.  The iPhone, or any of its myriad substitutes, makes literature in its countless forms accessible.  Those whose eyes are failing have access to a magnificent library, or those who have never been able to decipher the symbols and letters can come to appreciate everyone from Plato to Plath.  (Okay, Plath is never “enjoyed”, but she is appreciated.)

Before writing this tell-all confession, I did some research to see if I could find anything which would support my point of view.  To my surprise, there is lots of solid research which highlights the value of audiobooks, some dating back to 1995.  One of the interesting points is that listening to a book, one is likely to remember more completely and for a longer period of time than one who reads conventionally.  There is lots of evidence as well regarding the value of listening as a means to learn to read.  Now all of this you may argue, may be simply justification for my switch from reading to listening.  You may argue I am growing old and lazy.  You may be right.  However, as the light fails, and my eyes are no longer able to connect me to regular books, my ears and mind will be tied to the umbilical cord which is my headset and iPhone.

Call me what you want, I have gone over to the dark side.

For more:

Benefits of Audiobooks for All Readers by Denise Johnson

Recorded Books in K-12 Blog –

Learn Out Loud –







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  • Susan van Gelder says:

    I started listening to audio books when I was travelling frequently in my car to Ottawa and back. At first I listened to non-fiction. Brain Rules, A Short History of Nearly Everything are two of the many that joined me on my travels. A real treat was when I discovered Dickens read by fine actors. The text came alive in a way it didn’t when it was just words on the paper.

    For me, too, listening to books is part of my repertoire of reading. As I wrote in a blog post, I have been reading on digital devices more and more, but I have not abandoned books. It is not about how you read, but that you find a way that works for you. I find each medium works for me for different purposes. And yes – a few books on the go is often the case for me, too.

    I still prefer to walk without being plugged in. Those bird sounds you mentioned are also important to me.

    • Mary Stewart says:

      I agree with a lot of what Susan and Michael say. I think it truly is a case of more is more. I still like to read more than listen though. As was suggested today, maybe I need to practise more with listening to audiobooks.

      For some reason, if I am not wearing my glasses when the phone rings I quietly reach for them so that I can hear the conversation better. There may be some neural pathway explanation for this. Who knows. At any rate, glasses or not, I still lean towards the visual or tactile in a lot of cases I notice. To eat breakfast cereal without reading is almost painful.

  • Audrey says:

    Well you have certainly made a strong case for audio books! What I’m wondering is what about the price differential? Are they much more expensive than book-books, or ebooks?

  • Sylwia Bielec says:

    I listen to podcasts (with This American Life and RadioLab being favourites) but rarely to audio books. One of the reasons is that I read a new book quite rapidly the first time and then usually read it again, sometimes immediately. I often find audio books too slow! Another reason for not being particularly drawn to audio books is that I tend to go over bits that I particularly enjoy a few times, relishing the writing.
    However, I am excited about the possibilities for audiobooks in the classroom! If given access to audio versions of textbooks or other written material from the subject areas, struggling readers would no longer suffer the added burden of deciphering text and could focus on the content instead!