Audiobooks, Dyslexia, and the Brain
Some people wonder if audiobooks are a “legit” way for dyslexic students to read? A recent conversation with a frustrated parent led me to look for a way to help. The parent’s question was about the “legitimacy” of using audiobooks for school assignments versus reading the material. Their school district was not supportive. The struggling student’s dyslexia wasn’t diagnosed until fifth grade, so the child’s reading skills are years behind. And while all involved are keen to see the student get caught up to grade level in reading speed and comprehension, few accommodations are being offered.
So it got me thinking: What are the effects of audiobooks on dyslexia and the brain? Are there any studies that compare how the brain works when reading print versus listening to someone read the material? Turns out, there are. The most helpful study was published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2019, entitled, “The Representation of Semantic Information Across Human Cerebral Cortex During Listening Versus Reading Is Invariant to Stimulus Modality.”
What does this mean when translated?
It means that science has confirmed through brain scans that whether someone is reading the printed word or listening to the same word in audio format, the brain areas that “light up” with cognition and emotion are virtually identical.
Scientists at the University of California-Berkely put volunteers into fMRI machines and had them listen to a podcaster reading stories. They then repeated the brain scan while the volunteers read the same stories in printed form. Both scans were time-stamped and aligned so that the researchers could pinpoint specific words from both scans and map the regions of the brain as they responded to specific words like names of animals and even phonemes (individual sounds that make up words).
The maps of the volunteers’ brains were so accurate that researchers could predict which regions would activate based on upcoming words, and those predictions held true whether the words were heard or read.
For the struggling reader, this study has real meaning. Why? Because hearing the words in required reading assignments activates their brain, improves vocabulary, and allows them to connect with the joy of great stories—all of which provide the stimulation and encouragement a struggling reader needs to persevere!
Of course, learning to read print is always the goal. Always. By starting with audiobooks and following along with the print or digital book(s), the student trains their brain while taking the pressure off when reading grade-level material. Less pressure equals a less stressful learning environment, which gives the child’s brain increased bandwidth for catching up on their crucial skills. Articles like this one are a great tool in your advocacy toolbox!
Thanks for reading about audiobooks, dyslexia, and the brain. Here are the links to the research study for you to reference if needed (they both link to the same article):
For a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require. The second edition has the same great content as the first edition but now contains a very helpful bibliography and index and an exciting new cover.
And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may also enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award nominee Faith Borkowsky.
Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.