Audiobooks: Culture, the Future and Education
Elizabeth Butterfield, Spring 2011
How often do you read? In general, the rate of reading for average Americans has been in decline for the past few decades but due to new advancements in technology, that number is steadily lessening. Technology has made it easier for people to read books more frequently, and more flexibly, and during the times they are available. Audiobooks, the oldest of new technologies that are changing the way people read, make it easier to read books virtually anywhere. They “allow people to read in bed or on the beach, and in other places where reading was previously impossible, like while driving long distances or gardening,” (Peters 18). But the impact of audiobooks is both undervalued and misunderstood. In fact, they are not only enjoyable and easy to digest, but they can also improve reading skills, vocabulary and comprehension in children. They can create a better, more interactive environment to get students previously disinterested in reading to become more involved and excited about it as well. Audiobooks help bridge the gap between physical text reading and listening; this change demands that we redefine what it means to read, and reevaluate literacy as a whole. In this essay, I will discuss the changing definition of literacy to include these new modes of reading, the impact audiobooks have on reading in the classroom, and the future role of other technologies on reading culture.
It is believed that societies only started to really advance once the written word was popularized, via the Guttenberg Bible and the invention of the printing press. Society, however, was able to advance long before this though oral communication and hand printed text. Oral tradition is the oldest form of story telling and transition of culture. Since the invention of the printing press, communication has changed from oral tradition and hand-printed text to the more easily communicated printed word. But before then, oral culture dominated society’s communication, traveling through wars, continents, and cultures, pervading the very life of society, creating progress and history. Once the written word was developed, however, people were afraid that oral culture would die out. Plato worried what written texts and reading would do to intellect (Irwin 367). He believed that if people stopped listening to and memorizing literature, intellectual capacity and comprehension would diminish (Irwin 367). Interestingly as author William Irwin states, “It seems we have come full circle, now worrying that listening to literature will ruin us,” (367). Oral culture created the first legacy of storytelling and the communication of ideas. It is the most natural of the modes of communication, to listen and interpret ideas. This history leads to our discussion on the connection between sound and reading, and then on to the combination of the two, into the invention of audiobooks, an almost contemporary throwback to our traditional roots in oral culture and storytelling.
Sound and reading have always been intrinsically linked. When one reads a story to themselves, they often imagine the voices of the character, or picture themselves actually in the story, with all the sounds, dialogue, and action of the scene around them. These sounds influence the reading of text and are a necessary quality to any good book. They keep the reader involved and make them feel like they are actually in the scene of the story. Sound influences the reading of text, and is created through voice; even though we cannot physically hear sounds when we read text, it is an essential part of reading (Keskinen 5). Author Mikko Keskinen argues that “Literature both reproduces and produces acoustical data, both represents and presents sounds,” (5). This relationship has some interesting consequences when it comes to technology and communication of stories. Keskinen believes that “Reading can, analogously, be thought of as playing back or reproducing the sounds recorded,” (6).
The idea that both sound and literature are linked is fundamental to our discussion of audiobooks in culture. Keskinen believes that there is “an affinity between sound reproduction and literature from the outset; the interface between the two technologies appears to allow for an exchange or reciprocity that may be due to the inscriptive structure they share,” (4). This would imply that it is the fundamental structure of books that make them so adept at communication through sound. This link, and its roots in storytelling, is similar in its idea of communication and also of entertainment through voice, just in the way that people enjoy other modes of entertainment through new technology, like iPods. iPods contribute to our sense of culture by allowing people to develop their own tastes and preferences and share with others; these tastes are more groomed in the digital era of information, making it easier for us to identify ourselves and to create independence. (Wittkower n. pg). iPods are just one device that make it easier to transmit data, and also culture. It is also commonly known that reading and the ideas communicated through text are a huge influence on culture as well. iPods make it easier to transmit culture, just as reading does.
We should expand our ideas of literacy to include new forms of reading to better enhance our culture and to open the doors to new ways of transmitting information, communicating culture and increasing comprehension. If we do not expand our idea of literacy to include new ways to appreciate reading, then reading will further diminish. But there are still ways to bring reading back. Author David Booth argues that we should use new means (such as technology) to re-stimulate literacy. He believes that literacy should be “the process of constructing and interpreting meaning with the text (print or visual) you need or want to experience. Literature is the text you read,” (Booth 34). Another, similar idea is expressed by William Irwin: “Audiobook performances are interpretations the way musical performances are interpretations. We interpret when we read silently, but our silent readings are not themselves interpretations,” (364). In sum, this means we comprehend through interpretation, not through the reading (364). These ideas help us understand reading to be fundamentally about making connections, understanding concepts and forming ideas. Under these concepts, reading should be focused on content, not through medium, if we are simply looking to follow those concepts of what reading is about. If we take away the constructions of only seeing physical text as reading, then we are more likely to accept other modes as reading. We will be further developing reading in our society by opening these doors.
Libraries are few of the first institutions to embrace new forms of reading technology so they can retain their “power base” of readers. By including these modes among their selection, libraries maintain their appeal to a broad audience who prefers variance in their reading material and difference in the ways they read. Author Tom Peters encourages libraries to stay contemporary so they can remain current and influential on the world of reading. “As the nature of reading and the population of readers continue to evolve in this century,” Peters says, “libraries will need to develop, test, and deploy new services… Because readers are the power base of libraries,” (20). Readers are the force behind changes in the way they read, and it is what we desire as readers that will dictate the future of reading.
Technology does not only effect the culture of reading; it also effects education. Technology in the classroom has always been a hotly debated topic, because we still do not fully understand its long-term impact. The use of audiobooks to aid reading in the classroom can be particularly controversial because many people believe audiobooks to not actually qualify as reading. The role that audiobooks have on education can be justified by many personal example and a few studies. When used in the classroom, audiobooks have been found to do everything from engage students more, to helping ESL students or those with dyslexia to advance their skills. They have been able to encourage reading in and out of the classroom and seem to be an incredibly useful tool for education (Beers). Audiobooks began as a useful tool for the blind and dyslexic, but are now mistaken as “refuge for the illiterate and lazy,” (Irwin 361). But in actuality, audiobooks engage readers like other mediums cannot, and “avid readers… not only ‘hear’ the words but they ‘see’ the action as they read the words on a page. Perhaps that ability to ‘hear’ the written word develops not through seeing the word on the page, but through hearing it read off the page,” (Beers 33). In addition to making the reading experience more enjoyable, audiobooks can “improve fluency, expand vocabulary, activate prior knowledge, develop comprehension, and increase motivation to interact with books,” (Woolfson 105). Particular skill sets, like critical listening, vocabulary and comprehension, can be advanced by listening to audiobooks (Woolfson 106). Author Gene Woolfson finds that “Removing the restraints of word recognition and decoding allows a very positive focus on the meaning behind an author’s words. This provides an opportunity for many students, including those with special needs, to experience the same books as the other students,” (105). Audiobooks can be great models for reading aloud, can help teach students both active and critical listening skills, and enhance vocabulary (Brown 54). Author William Irwin’s theory on how reading aloud and audiobooks can aid students’ learning, “is that hearing my reading infused with my comprehension will help students read on their own with more confidence and comprehension. Something similar likely applies to listening to an audio book. What might have seemed odd or difficult if read silently to oneself can become familiar and accessible when listened to.” (Irwin 360)
The connections made through text are already very personal, and audiobooks can engage the reader more so they feel like they are actually in the setting with the characters, leading to a more enjoyable and interactive experience:
“Hearing the words triggers vivid images in my mind’s eye, imagining what characters and places look like, and hearing the performer’s voice all remind me of the riveting power of storytelling…listening evokes many of the same joys for me that reading does.” (Brown 53)
This kind of reading experience is very valuable in education: when students are engaged more with their material, they are more ready to embrace learning. Audiobooks have the ability to engage students like never before, and help to “provide students with a valuable and different type of literary experience, allowing them to hear the evolving of characters, the nuances of the narrator’s voice, and the subtle interaction of characters,” (Brown 53).
The use of audiobooks in education, however, is still engaged in a skeptical and controversial discussion amongst teachers, and so we must remind them, “Audiobooks are not intended to replace the act of reading text, but rather to provide students with another dimension for understanding,” (Woolfson 110). Teachers often times feel that listening to an audiobook is not really reading, which logic only remains true if the reading process is defined as decoding words in a book. (Woolfson 107). The skills utilized during the reading process of physical text and through audiobooks, however, are fundamentally the same. The same comprehension skills and problem solving are used through both mediums. “The only difference,” says author Gene Woolfson, “is that we have substituted the visual understanding of written words with the auditory understanding of written words.” (107). But what about the effort involved in reading? Is it not more challenging to read physical text than to merely listen to a story? The commonly held belief is that “listening is commonly perceived as passive whereas reading is active,” (Irwin 363). Although this idea is somewhat true, it does not wholly represent the reading process. “Good listening is indeed active, and there is no reason to think that listening to an audio book necessarily leads to less active interpretation than silently reading the same book… with less energy expended, audio book listeners may interpret all the more actively.” (Irwin 363) Although reading a book and listening to one are slightly different, the activity is still directed at the same object (Irwin 364).
In a 10-week study investigating the use of audiobooks and their effect on insufficient readers, Gillie Byrom noted that audiobooks were useful as a “scaffolding tool,” to help insufficient readers build to become better readers by first eliminating the “burden of decoding words” so they look more for meaning in the text (3). Byrom believes that the textual problems the reader faces are what causes disinterest or conflict in their ability to connect with the meaning of the text, and therefore, do not get pleasure from the reading experience. The results found were that most students generally improved in their reading skills. Byrom’s study alone, however, is not strong enough to convince all educators that audiobooks are in fact an incredible tool for reading. One of the few major problems to the study of audiobooks is the lack of adequate documented research on the issue. Many people provide testimonies and observe from their students the amazing effect that this technology can have, but without enough scientific data to back them up, these claims waver in the eyes of many professionals. Audiobook research is underrepresented by the academic community in general, and without adequate research and attention, people are bound to develop prejudice and suspicion (Irwin 361). There is a massive information gap between what people think about audiobooks and what the results actually are. We may believe all of these effects happen, and have seen that audiobooks are generally observed to be useful, but there is not nearly enough recorded evidence to prove it to everyone. For educators who endorse them, however:
“It is odd that [colleagues and students] look with mistrust at the audio book, which reconnects us with the long tradition of oral performance in Western literature. But things change and stigmas can be removed… the novel was at first reviled by most educated people as something unworthy or reading– a low form of entertainment. How different things are now- the novel is taken as the paradigm of a book.” (Irwin 359)
Audiobooks are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to interactive technology used in the classroom for reading. Devices like Electronic Talking Books, ETBs, have been used to create more interactive books via the computer. ETBs are digital texts that “feature not only the written word but also multimedia elements such as animations, narrations, music and video,” (Oakley 246). In an Australian study on ETBs, it was found that ETBs generally encouraged reluctant readers to enjoy reading and to read more (Oakley 246). After a 10 week study involving three schools and 41 “reluctant readers,” the study concluded to find that ETBs did make it easier for reluctant readers to get involved in their reading, especially through the use of controlling devices within the program. In general, the authors of the study also found that students involved in the program enjoyed reading with the ETBs and spent more time reading them than they had ever read before. As found by the authors, the likelihood that a child will read depends on the environment of their home and parent’s influence and opinion of the software. A parent’s opinion is the number one factor that determined the students’ likelihood of using the ETBs and the environment in which they live is the number one factor that effected the number of time they read per week:
“[Parents’] conception of what reading is played a key role; parents who included new literacies, such as reading multimedia texts, in their conception of literacy appeared to be more enthusiastic and supportive. Conversely, parents such as the father who though that using ETBs was cheating and not real reading were less likely to provide a supportive environment for reading ETBs.” (251)
Teachers and parents are the ones stopping the use of audiobooks in the classroom and outside, because they are wary that they do not constitute real reading, or are unsure of the outcomes they will have on their children.
CD-ROMs are also being investigated as a new multimedia technology that enhances reading, as studied by the Books Alive! multimedia project conducted in the UK. The primary goal of this study was to identify the effects interactive books had on students. Through the study, the researchers found that the technology we currently use in these interactive books is not being used to its full capability, and that there is much more to be harnessed to better engage the reader than what is currently available. We are not yet reaching our true technological potential with these books, and usage in schools is practically nonexistent due to the level of uncertainty among teachers as to how to properly use these softwares in their curriculum (Wood 92). But audiobooks should be used in the classroom, although they may at first seem strange. They are a proven way to effect attitudes towards reading and improving reading ability and, “If creating lifetime readers is the goal, then every tool is needed; audiobooks are one such powerful tool,” (Beers 35).
Audiobooks have been increasing in popularity for a long time now, but as technology has become more advanced, the industry is able to make them faster and more accessible to avid consumers. Last year, the AAP (Association of American Publishers) found that downloaded audiobooks increased by a whopping 38.4%, with sales of $6.6 million (“Audio Look” 1). Downloaded audiobooks make it phenomenally easy for a consumer to access their reading by taking away the cumbersome load of a bunch of CDs and the extra costs of the books themselves (they sometimes can add up to much more than the price of the text versions). Publishers costs are also lessened by producing downloads instead, and so they are able to produce a wider range of titles and maximize their interest to the market (“Audio Look” 2). Downloads are now the largest segment of this market, and far surpass physical products sales, like CDs and cassettes (“Audio Look” 1). The relative easiness of accessibility to audiobooks via download combined with the starling fact that 72.5 million adults own MP3/digital media devices, make for a booming industry and growing popularity (“Audio Look” 1). In 2010, 8.7 million adults, 3.9% of the adult population, purchased audiobooks (“Audio Look” 2). Audiobooks, in fact, “are now the fastest growing segment of the book industry and are likely to become even more common and popular, perhaps some day eclipsing the sale of conventional books, perhaps some day becoming the normal way of “reading” literature.” (Irwin 359) The audiobook industry is constantly adapting with the development of new technologies, and is trying to take advantage of the massive growing public interest. But still, “the audio book is still a medium coming to know itself, in the infancy of its development despite its long history. With the increased demand for and popularity of audio books we will, no doubt, see great improvements in the medium.” (Irwin 366) Audiobooks let people consume more books, make it easier for them to jump right in where they left off, and still allow them to construct meanings and significance from the stories they hear. How can any of this mean that audiobook reading is making us illiterate? “Audio books will redefine literacy, but they do not signal a coming dark age of illiteracy.” (Irwin 368)
The definition of reading and literacy is changing with the growing use of technology, and we need to expand our ideas about reading so we can better help our students learn today. Although oral culture is still important, it has lessened in popularity and is almost stigmatized in its use through audiobooks today. But through few studies and many observations we find that yes, audiobooks are a good thing for students of all kinds. There are many observed positive effects that audiobooks have on reading, such as enhanced reading comprehension, vocabulary and a growing enjoyment of reading. The information available to us that would further justify their use in the classroom, however, is not researched enough to wholly convince educators and parents, who control their availability to students, and there still seems to be no academic interest and making progress on these ideas. Although other modes like ETBs and CD-ROMS are more controversial than audiobooks, they have still proven to be successful in studies of their own and they give us hope for the future of technology in the classroom.
But it is not just about enhancing reading for students; changing the definition of reading to include more modes will advance reading for all people. Audiobooks do not just get more students to read, but they get adults of all ages more involved too. Changing the definition of reading will also help remove the stigma that other technologies do not “count” as reading, which is not true as we have proven that the mind accesses and learns the same skills through all these methods. People’s stigmatization of audiobooks as unreal reading furthers the regression of reading for our culture, which is bizarre given the origination of communication through oral culture and storytelling. There may be many definitions of “reading” ranging from learning through the seeing of symbols and text to the process of interpretation of meaning and significance, but these definitions are up for interpretation, and are so ambiguous that although they are feasibly broad enough to hold audioreading on their own, too many people choose to ignore their inclusion as reading. Therefore, it is prudent and necessary for a definition to be introduced (and be made popular) that includes reading via audiobooks, CD’s, iPods, magazines, comics, Ereaders, software programs, etc. Ambiguity alone is not enough to convince people that their previous view of reading (most commonly that it is only text) is not justified.
Audiobooks are not the only contemporary medium that will be championed via a new definition of reading. There are many other modes that are still reading because they still require the skills to make connections, draw conclusions, and be mentally active. Changing the definition will be the first step towards changing public opinion. Our goal should be to encourage reading for all people, and keeping stigmas away from new forms of reading will work to encourage it more in our culture. Reading is one of the key ways for us to transmit culture, which is still done through audiobooks and other technologies. We should continue to encourage these to help further reading, education, and information in our culture.
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