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  • Writer's pictureRon Jaworski

How audio plays an important role in learning and comprehension

Is listening better than reading for retaining and understanding information?

A lot of it depends on context, individual preferences, as well as learning affinities and disabilities.

The way our brains process information means that the “mental machinery” required to grasp and preserve knowledge remains largely the same, regardless of whether we read or hear something or both.

As a species, we are predominantly visual learners as it’s mostly the only method known to some of us. At least, the one that most aligns with our brain patterns.

Yet, audio can and is of big help to people who want to learn and understand a concept - although underused.

The science behind the auditory content intake

There are numerous studies and articles on this particular subject, most of which evaluate the effectiveness of both reading and listening.

There are interesting processes that happen when we start comprehending information. During reading, we go into two modes: decoding and language processing. The former is figuring out words from a combination of letters, while the latter is understanding those words.

One study shows that audio content removes the decoding element of reading. In a nutshell, if you're listening to a story, you're obtaining the same understanding of it as if you're reading it, with an added bonus of changes in pacing, pitch, and rhythm of speech that add more feel to it. In conclusion, there is a common core of comprehension processes that drive both listening and skilled reading.

Further research suggests that audio can automatize the decoding process while providing reinforcement when reading. Meaning, hearing a text read aloud while simultaneously following its printed version benefits people who are either reluctant to read or have a low rate of fluency. As such, audio acts as a positive fluency model for the reader to link word recognition and comprehension.

On a similar note that I’m not 100% positive applies all the way, I do the exact thing with English subtitles when watching a movie or a show. It helps me better absorb what’s happening.

Now, it’s important to bear in mind that context matters a lot here.

Most of the studies that focus on aural comprehension use non-fiction material that is more narrative in style. It means it isn’t the best representation of the typical learning materials such as textbooks which regularly feature factual information and complex or technical concepts. So, if the goal is learning and retaining such information, there will likely be different results compared to non-fiction literature.

Still, the fact remains that different mediums will be better suited to different genres for some as people have preferred intake styles and preferences in how they consume information.

The scientific approach to comprehension mandates that working memory capacity is consistent with all of the individual’s characteristics when it comes to how the brain processes information. The cognitive load increases when the process becomes complex for the person.

In terms of content consumption, this means that the preferred intake style can optimize consumption and make it easier for people to understand the content. Seeing as listening habits are becoming more prevalent and diverse, it’s clear that audio has an important role here.

How audio impacts millions

All of this may not seem like a big deal at first until you realize that not everyone is a skilled reader or has the same, even basic comprehension skills. For some, it takes far too much effort.

In fact, there are two huge areas where audio directly impacts learning and comprehension levels:

  • Accessibility

  • Literacy

Did you know that every fourth person in the world suffers from some form of vision impairment? The forecast isn’t overly optimistic things will get better any time soon as persistent population growth and aging are expected to increase the risk of more people getting vision impairment.

This disability acutely affects the quality of life of every demographic. With regard to learning and comprehension, young children are of particular concern. There is a high probability of delayed motor, language, emotional, social, and cognitive development, which can lead to lifelong consequences.

On the adult side, the effects include lower rates of workforce participation and productivity, while many also simultaneously display higher rates of depression, anxiety, and social isolation.

Then, some people are either illiterate or have low reading skills and learning disabilities.

For this group, it takes a long time to get from the decoding to the comprehension stage. This turns every piece of written content into hard work and also sucks out the will to learn.

With listening, both comprehension and cognition are going simultaneously, thus reducing the gap between lower-level reading processes on one side and comprehension and content mastery on the other.

In that sense, audio is an excellent bridge for struggling readers. Simply put, some things are more easily communicated via audio than text.

Plus, audio is the most immersive media that triggers memorability and connection. Audio content triggers audiences’ brain activity and draws them into an experience, emotionally connecting with them and capturing their attention.

Final thoughts

For decades, listening has been an under-emphasized skill in terms of learning, frequently neglected due to the typically examination-oriented education system.

Unfortunately, too many people find reading not only a difficult activity but entirely impossible. Hence, leveraging any form of audio to convert or augment textual content helps reduce these effects to a point where any content in question is available and readily usable.

If you want another perspective, consider offering a listening experience as a way to maximize your content strategy. Every written word of your content has to come from somewhere, right? It’s a result of a specific amount of time and resources spent on it, so not have it available in a form that is far more convenient for people and situations where reading isn’t an option?

There’s nothing to lose and so much to gain.

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