Giving kids books as presents always feels good. It might not elicit the joy that a new gadget might, but there is comfort to knowing that what you are giving is unambiguously good for them and not potentially addling their brains.
What about audiobooks? Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of the 2015 Raising Kids Who Read, says audiobooks are a wonderful way to fill time that might otherwise not have been filled. “Print may be best for lingering over words or ideas, but audiobooks add literacy to moments where there would otherwise be none,” he wrote recently in the New York Times.
In a series of videos on Willingham’s blog, he goes into more detail about how listening and reading complement each other. Evolutionarily speaking, reading is quite new (dating back 6,000 years or so). We don’t know what mental processes support reading, because there’s no part of the brain assigned to reading comprehension. We do know, though that the brain evolved to make sense of oral language. “Reading comprehension is like vision, it’s not specialized, it’s piggy backing on oral language comprehension,” Willingham says.
That means if you boost listening comprehension skills, you are also boosting reading skills. That’s why it is so important to read to children before they can read to themselves, and to continue reading to them after they can read on their own. Listening is another way to stimulate the brain to make more meaning of what is heard.
“Anytime the child is listening to listening to someone speak, there’s an opportunity there for a little bit of challenge,” Willingham says in a video. “To stretch the child a little bit, to stretch their vocabulary, to stretch the complexity of the syntax they are hearing, to stretch the knowledge that’s required to put together sentences and clauses and figure out what’s being said.”
Enter the audiobook.
Willingham stresses that context matters. Stories are easier to understand in audio, he explains, because they take more standard formats (hero, villain, quest). Expository writing can be harder to decipher. He cites research showing students retained more information from a printed article than a 22-minute podcast about a scientific subject. Trying to learn something specific may require re-reading and going slow, which is hard listening to a podcast.
In other words, both audiobooks and printed books make great gifts, for different reasons. If the choice this holiday season is another game for the Xbox or 30 downloaded books (here’s a cheap MP3 player not connected to the internet), my vote is for the latter.