In recent years, many readers have come to appreciate audiobooks as a way to fit more reading time into their days. In addition to helping us read more, frequent audiobook listening can also help us read better. Adding audiobooks into your reading rotation can improve vocabulary, increase fluency, and heighten an awareness of writing devices like tone, mood, and imagery. And if improving analysis and interpretation abilities is your goal, there are also listening strategies you can implement to actively boost your reading skills while enjoying your next audiobook.
Here are three methods avid bibliophiles can use to become better, more critical readers with audiobooks:
1. Listen with a friend.
Do you have a road trip planned with friends or family this summer? Listening to an audiobook together is the perfect way to pass the time while deepening your reading. Because audiobooks let you experience a book in sync with another reader, they’re a fantastic opportunity to discuss your interpretations and analysis of that book in real time. Many of us have had experiences when discussing a recent read at book club has enhanced our appreciation and understanding of a book, but being able to talk with another reader about how you’re interpreting a book while you’re reading it is an even better way to dig into a text. Listening with a buddy and then pausing to discuss not only lets you verbalize your thinking about a book but also allows you to hear how another reader is processing the same writing.
You can try this with any genre of book that appeals to you. Choose a mystery like Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie and pause to discuss possible clues and red herrings. Ask each other why a particular description felt relevant to the case. Did your listening buddy catch the same puzzle pieces you did?
Or maybe choose a literary fiction title that you know will be filled with symbolic meaning. Something deep and dense like The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates will provide ample opportunity for discussion with your reading buddy as you attempt to analyze the novel’s imagery. Just make sure your reading partner is up for frequent pausing and conversation!
By Agatha Christie • Narrated by Dan Stevens
By Ta-Nehisi Coates • Narrated by Joe Morton
Because audiobooks let you experience a book in sync with another reader, they’re a fantastic opportunity to discuss your interpretations and analysis of that book in real time.
2. Reread a favorite on audio.
There’s no better way to deepen your understanding of any book than to read it again. Still, as readers, we feel constant pressure to pick up new books to make a dent in our to-be-read piles. Audiobooks are always a great option for fitting in rereads, and approaching a book you’re familiar with in a new format is also an effective and fun strategy for improving critical reading. Anytime you read a book for the second (or third…or fourth…) time, you notice something new: a piece of foreshadowing you can spot now that you know the ending, a moment of characterization that feels particularly poignant, a recurring image that is imbued with additional meaning. Revisiting an old favorite on audio makes the rereading experience even more revolutionary because your ear may notice details that your eye overlooks.
There’s no right answer when it comes to choosing a book to reread via audio, but if your goal is to practice critical reading with your listen, there are a few categories of books I’d recommend in particular. One option is to revisit a classic you read and enjoyed in school. Listening to The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston on audio will be much more enjoyable than annotating it for your high school English teacher, but having some preexisting knowledge about the symbols and themes in the book will help you pay more attention to exactly how the author is using those critical elements as your reread.
It can also be interesting to listen to a book you’ve read before, but found somewhat challenging. Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff and Beloved by Toni Morrison include complicated maneuvers of time and perspective. While I loved both on the page, returning to them as audiobooks helped me make sense not only of what these authors were doing, but how these choices added to the novels’ overall meanings.
By F. Scott Fitzgerald • Narrated by Frank Muller
By Zora Neale Hurston • Narrated by Ruby Dee
By Lauren Groff • Narrated by Will Damron & Julia Whelan
By Toni Morrison • Narrated by Toni Morrison
Revisiting an old favorite on audio makes the rereading experience even more revolutionary because your ear may notice details that your eye overlooks.
3. Read a book in tandem—on audio and on the page.
Sometimes when I’m struggling to get into or make sense of a book, I download the audio version as a supplement to my reading. Some readers enjoy following along on the page as they listen to the audiobook play—there’s a reason we all spent so much time in school following along in our books as our teachers read aloud. This is an effective (and enjoyable!) strategy for improving vital critical reading skills like recognizing tone and appreciating literary devices such as imagery and characterization. Reading while listening can also help build vocabulary because hearing words pronounced while seeing them visually cements the terminology in your memory. All of this is just as true for adult readers as it is for kids.
There have been many times—including listening to Members Only by Sameer Pandya and The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris—that an audiobook has helped me realize that a passage in a book was sarcastic, not serious. I’ve also had moments when listening to an audiobook helped me correct a long overdue mispronunciation or misuse of a word.
If you don’t enjoy the experience of following along on the page while listening, going back and forth between the audio and physical versions is another option. When you listen, the narrator will help you settle into the tone of the book and better understand the characters. This makes reading your physical copy all the easier and more enjoyable the next time you pick it up. This tandem method is helpful for reading modern classics like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy where a physical copy is useful to understand some of the wordplay and stylistic choices, but listening to the audio allows you to think critically about the bigger picture elements such as setting and point of view.
If this type of reading sounds appealing to you, but you don’t want to double-purchase a book (totally reasonable!) I recommend downloading your audio version on the Libro.fm app and then checking out a paper or digital copy from your local library. As an added bonus, you’ll get through a book twice as fast all while building reading skills that you can transfer to any and all future listening!
By Sameer Pandya • Narrated by Sunil Malhotra
By Zakiya Dalila Harris • Narrated by Aja Naomi King, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Heather Alicia Simms & Bahni Turpin
By Arundhati Roy
Some readers enjoy following along on the page as they listen to the audiobook play—there’s a reason we all spent so much time in school following along in our books as our teachers read aloud.
Want to learn more about increasing literacy with audiobooks?
11 Ways Audiobooks Boost Literacy in Young Readers
5 Ways to Use Audiobooks in the Classroom