Does listening to audio books count as reading? Plus my childhood learning struggles & how I mastered A+ studying

Posted by:Lindsay S. Nixon

I fell down a rabbit hole when I started researching the brain science/psychology around listening vs. reading books...

Covered in this post:

  • Does listening to audiobooks count as reading?
  • Is listening to audiobooks “cheating”?
  • The Different Learning Styles (VAK) Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic
  • My early education struggles / learning disabilities
  • How exactly I study and overcame those difficulties
  • The best way to study for a test / final exams
  • Why 50% of law students wash out

Does listening to audio books count as reading?

A few folks left comments on my 100 books in 2017 update that listening to audible doesn’t “count”. That it’s not really reading unless you sit down with the book or kindle.

I wanted to address that, especially since I used to feel that way too.

In fact, I remember this exact conversation with my husband.

(I had muttered something about how he should read more…)

Scott: “I read more books than you”

Me: “You listen to audible, that doesn’t count!”

I realize now I said that out of self-defense. I was trying to make myself feel better by tearing down what Scott was doing. Jealousy much?

Instead of trying to invalidate his accomplishment and belittle his success, I should have looked at him for inspiration or clues.

If someone has what you want, you should copy them.

If someone is doing what you want, you should copy them. Or at least see HOW they are doing it and if any of the ways they are making it work can work for you too.

Of course that means taking action, which is hard.

It is easier to look at someone who is doing what you aren’t (but maybe want to) and find all the ways in which they or their situation is different, and use that as an excuse or explanation or justification for why you can’t or haven’t.

I’m not perfect, I do it too.

I can’t count the times I’ve said things like, “Well it’s easier for so and so because…”

But even if it IS easier, so what? Can’t I still take a page out of their playbook?

There are also pros and cons to EVERY situation.

For example, people often tell me how lucky I am that I do not have children, which gives me more time to read or cook.

It is true that I do not have children, but I do own my own business which is a 65+ hour job. I have employees and customers. I work from 6am to 9pm most days, even weekends and holidays. I never take a vacation without working.

I’m not complaining.

My point is there are always pros and cons to every situation. Some hands in poker are better than others, true, but many professional poker players have said poker is never about the cards. It’s about what you do with them. I like that.

We all have the same 24-hours in the day… but we often allude ourselves to how we really spend those hours.

My friend Kate is a triathlete, for example. She’s also a single mother of 2, a patent lawyer by day, and she cooks nearly all of her food from scratch because her kids are gluten-free and vegan with allergies.

Is she superhuman? Nope. Kate has the same 24 hours as the rest of us. She just doesn’t watch TV or use social media (except for Facebook).

"By Comparison" is never a good standard of measure.

Circling back—does listening to audiobooks count as reading?

I think so.

This debate is one that’s been brewing for years.

A parent blog on the NYT site asked this in 2012: “If a student is required to read “The Hobbit” over the summer, does a student who listens to all 11 hours and 6 minutes of it, unabridged, fulfill the requirement?”

The comments, which you can read here, are interesting, but I feel most of them are biased based on the commenter’s own learning preference. (B&N had a similar “debate” here).

I also love love love what this gal (who is pictured above) says in her video about how audiobooks are just a different reading experience... and for that matter, reading an ebook is a different experience than a paperback... different strokes for different books.

When you listen or read, you learn the same information.

It’s not like you learn less one way or the other.

I was stoked to see NY Mag’s The Science of Us (my favorite column) agreed with me here. As far as your brain is concerned, audiobooks are not cheating.

That’s a really great post, check it out of you want to learn more.

You may personally prefer one way or the other (more on that below!) but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective.

There are some books that are better as audio books.

13 Reasons Why, for example. This book is best as an audio book. Reading it as a paperback would take away most of the magic.

I also can’t help but think of the Harry Potter books. I got so much more out of the audible version than I ever did reading the kindle versions, particularly because the narrator is such a brilliant performer.

Similarly, I think hearing the accent of the narrator in Americanah gave more to the story. I could say that about several audiobooks, actually. That the narrator added another dimension or quality to the book. It made the characters more real for me. Sometimes I will continue to hear that accent or voice in my head when I switched back to the kindle version.

There have also been some particularly dry science books (The China Study *cough cough* How Not to Die *cough cough*) that I couldn’t read without falling asleep or feeling like it was a chore to read it… but then had zero problem listening.

These were books I legitimately wanted to read.

I wanted the information.

I just couldn’t get myself to read the paperbacks without yawning and quitting….

Shouldn’t I do whatever method actually gets that end result? Of course I should!

Memoirs, when read by the author, are also superior in audio format.

I think this can also be said about biographies.

I’ve just started a book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the audiobook version includes historical audio clips which adds so much wonderful context.

I can say this as a lawyer: Reading the transcript isn’t the same as hearing the words spoken by the person, if for no other reason than you are denied the emotional climate.

Isn’t this why we have emojis?

Because black and white text isn’t always enough?

There are some books that are better with an audio companion.

For example, Attached, one of my all-time favorite “self-improvement” / “relationship” books, is one I read AND listened to.

I don’t mean I switched back-and-forth (which I do often with novels whispersync is pretty great!)

I actually “read” it twice (kindle and audio) and I got so much more out of it that way.

I’m reading and listening to a book on stress right now and there have been so many times where I read the chapter, but then listened to that same chapter the next day in the car and went “OH!”

Although I had read it, hearing it made me process the information in a new way.

Oftentimes I find this combination necessary to string ideas together and fully learn.

Speaking of that…


There are three learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic.

One of these styles is your dominant learning style.

But that does not mean it is the best or the ONLY method for learning.

We can (and do) learn from all three styles (great examples below).

Research has also been unable to prove that using one’s preferred learning style provides the best means for learning a task or subject, so much so that some experts believe we should say learning PREFERENCE over learning style. [1]

All the folks who think audiobooks isn’t reading? I bet they’re Visual learners.

Auditory Learning

You may prefer auditory learning if:

  • You talk to yourself
  • Move your lips when you read or read out loud
  • Like summaries or debriefings
  • Are able to “fill in the gaps” (have “Aha! moments”) during brainstorming.
  • Draw information from lectures
  • Like Jeopardy

The socratic method is a great example of auditory learning and teaching.

Looking back, I think this explains why so many A+ college students “wash out” of law school, especially the first year.

It’s almost all socratic method in law school and most college classes don’t employ this method or require students to learn primarily through auditory teaching. Yes college professors lecture, but they are often lecturing the same information the student can read on their own in their text book. I even had a few professors that basically read the textbook to us as a “lecture.”

College professors also tend to have slides and visuals. This is different from law school where you can only learn the information from in-class application, which is all auditory.

I also came across this recommendation for auditory learning and self-high-fived:

“Begin new material with a brief explanation of what is coming. Conclude with a summary of what has been covered.”


Midway through the first season, I found myself saying what I’ll be talking about, teach the science, and then conclude/wrap-up what was covered and how to apply it.

I don’t know what provoked that but I’m definitely going to keep doing it!

Visual Learning

There are two sub-channels for this: Linguistic (learn through language, such as reading and writing) and Spatial (learning through demonstration; visual aides).

You may prefer visual learning if:

  • You remember what you write down
  • Need to write down directions
  • Prefer visual examples such as charts, graphs, illustrations
  • Prefer demonstrations
  • Do best “fill in the blank” study guides or handouts
  • Prefer outlines, agendas, taking notes
  • Want to be told the key points
  • Take notes in margins
  • Like “status progression”

I’ve included bolding and caps in this post to help out my visual peeps!

Kinesthetic Learning

There are two sub-channels for this: Kinesthetic (movement) and Tactile (touch).

You may prefer kinesthetic learning if:

  • You lose concentration if there is little or no external stimulation or movement
  • Take notes simply to move your hands
  • Scan material first, focus on details
  • Start with “big picture” zoom in
  • Use colored highlighters or colored pens
  • Take notes by drawing or doodling
  • Like diagrams
  • Listen to music when learning, working, or studying
  • Need lots of brain breaks (i.e. get up and stretch)
  • Retains information you type

If you’re not sure what you are here’s a quiz.

Now for my personal approach and experiences :) :)

I had difficulty reading and retaining the information I read as a child.

I would read a chapter and remember nothing, no matter how hard I would “try to focus” or “pay attention.” I would sit at my desk with zero distractions and fail.

Yet I could tell you all of the details of bedtime stories my Dad read to me. Thus, I started reading books out loud to myself and started retaining what I read better!

I was also having trouble with spelling.My teacher gave us a list of words on Monday, and then on Friday she would say the words and we would have to spell them on paper.

If she said the words in the order they were on the spelling list, I usually did pretty well. If she changed the order, however, I would barely get 50% right.

This confused my parents and teacher. My Dad later confided in me he had trouble with spelling, but that “when he was young” if you misspelled something you had to write it on the chalkboard 5 times.

I decided to try this.

I would have my Dad give me a fake spelling test Thursday night. I would then write the word I misspelled five times. It worked. I started getting 100’s on every spelling test.

My parents later gave me a dictaphone for Christmas so I could test myself!

The following year I started struggling in math.

My parents spent a lot of money on flashcards, but it didn’t seem to help me.

My Mom didn’t think I was actually using them (I was) so for the next two weeks she made me do the flashcards with her every night.

When I still did poorly on my next test, she said to my teacher, “I don’t understand, Lindsay is so fast with the flashcards!”

That’s because memorization does not equal application.

My teacher gave me a stack of practice tests and that helped.

I basically taught myself math by looking at the answer and reverse engineering it.

I would “figure it out” by writing the steps out backward.

This is how I learned algebra, calculus and even statistics. I would look at the answer in the back of the book, figure it out on paper myself, and after doing that a few times, I could do any other problem that used that equation or had the same theory.

I always love puzzles and once I realized math was a puzzle I fell in love with it.

I feel fortunate I figured this out by the third grade.

And that I had parents who were supportive of learning style and needs. They pinched pennies to buy me a typewriter when I said I thought typing would help me retain information. (It did) They also bought me a dictaphone so I could give myself spelling tests.

Because I sorted out what worked for me early, I was an A+ student.

It’s important to say that while I did figure a lot of this out on my own, I wouldn’t have started that self-exploration if it wasn’t for my parents and teachers telling me I had to.

I was on a course of believing I wasn’t a good student, or I was dumb, or at the very least I was bad at math and a sucky speller, when none of that was true.

The truth is I just didn’t know HOW to study the right way for my learning style.

The highlighter changed my life.

In high school I was introduced to the practice of highlighting. We were told to underline important passages in the text we were reading.

I never really figured out what that meant, or how you could tell an important passage at the time. With novels, for example, you often don’t know it’s an important point when it’s happening, it’s only later on that you realize it was important… but I’ve digressed...

The act of highlighting (or underlining) clicked on some switch in my brain I didn’t know I had. It truly was (is) transformative.

To this day I can’t read a book without highlighting or color-coding.

I have a box of colored pens, highlighters, and sticky tabs on my desk.

I can’t travel without at least 1 highlighter and three different ink pens (black, blue, red). It’s just too stressful for me not to have the ability to notate (even a magazine!) if I need to.

I also discovered with highlighting I didn’t need to read out loud to myself as much, which was great because reading out loud took 3x as long and I had a lot of homework!!

The act of highlighting helped me retain.

It also reduced “remembering” anxiety.

By marking the book I know I will be able to easily find what I’m looking for later.

This happened to me all the time: I would remember something, but only vaguely, and I would waste an hour trying or more trying to find the passage in the book… or even identify which of my books I had read it in… (Being able to search highlights on the Kindle and search text has been a massive game changer for me).


I discovered in Middle School that it’s the act of making a study guide, not “studying” the study guide that works for me.

Reviewing (re-reading) my notes is utterly ineffective for me.

I have to rewrite all my notes out.

I did this on paper until my parents bought me a computer in high school. That’s when I switched to typing (yes, I am that old).

In college and law school I would spend HOURS rewriting, organizing, and re-typing my lecture notes from class.

I found writing outlines and making “study guides” was particularly important for fact-based classes such as American history or anatomy.

Also a bonus: I sold my study guides to most of my friends. I had a legit business there for a while where I sold all my study guides for the bar exams!

To add to this quickly: I keep a notebook handy when I read or listen to jot things down---facts, important points, ideas that come to me.

Flashcards never worked for me, not even for language.

This might be the best testament that audiobooks count: I took four years of language in high school and another two years (4 semesters worth) of language in college.

I could barely string a sentence together.

Later in life I enrolled in a course at a language institute and I didn’t fare much better.

Then I found Michele Thomas who teaches only by audio--you listen to CDs.

Guess what? I finally learned how to speak another language!


Lastly, movement helps me retain information.

I noticed in law school if I listened to taped lectures on my iPod while I was walking to and from school or work, I would retain more information or I would have those “aha” moments where I could see “the big picture” and string everything together.

I find this still applies now.

I will often put an audiobook on and knit, and find I stay focused for longer when I do this.

I regret deeply that I did not think to tape myself reading my study guides or even reading my class lecture notes during school to play back—what a difference that would have made!!

Admittedly, I do find it difficult to listen to books (even novels) in the car when I’m driving, but I think that’s because LA driving is so stop-and-go and I’m a nervous driver.

I think if I was on a long stretch of open highway it would be fine.

I still read paper books and my Kindle exceptionally faster than I can listen, so I don’t rely on audiobooks (and I LOVE to switch between my kindle and listening) but audible does make it easier for me to “consume” more books, and with a list of 324 “to-read’s” and counting, 50 more books a year matters!

Finally, what about people who are blind, dyslexic, etc?

Audiobooks are a godsend to these people.

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