Audiobooks and literacy research

Emily Best audiobook researcher

As it’s #LoveAudio week we caught up with Emily Best from the National Literacy Trust, to discuss audiobooks and literacy.

Hi Emily! Can you tell us a bit about your role at the National Literacy Trust and your research outside of this too?

I am the Knowledge and Research Manager at the National Literacy Trust. I lead any research to do with audio, including audiobooks and podcasts. My work involves carrying out a range of research – from exploring reports and existing research to designing and analysing surveys for children and young people, parents, and teachers – in partnership with the rest of the research team.

Alongside this, I am studying part-time for a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, on the role of the listener in radio drama.

How did you get into this kind of work?

I started out in bookselling as an account manager for schools. I would often meet classes of children choosing books for their school libraries and over time two things became clear: first, that your identity as a reader links to your enjoyment and experience of reading, and second, that access to these opportunities so often depends on economic background. Many of these children came from schools with high levels of deprivation, but in central London, and I was shocked to discover how many had never been to a bookshop. For these children, picking a book was a challenge, not because they had too many to choose from but because they didn’t know what they liked, or they did not enjoy reading, or because they didn’t identify themselves as readers. Discovering this and getting to know these children and their teachers would ultimately lead me to the National Literacy Trust

Why have you chosen to specialise in audio?

I’ve always loved hearing stories – as a child I would constantly ask for books to be read to me. I’ve also always loved hearing different voices, whether that’s different accents telling stories, the feeling of ‘listening in’ you get from a radio play or documentary, or going to sleep to the shipping forecast. Once smartphones came along, you would pretty much always find me plugged into my headphones listening to audiobooks and podcasts, whether walking, cooking, or just sitting.
With reading for enjoyment being such a crucial part of the National Literacy Trust’s work, it became clear to us that audiobooks play a really important role, as a way into reading but also in promoting stories in all their forms. Audiobooks have, of course, been around for decades in all sorts of formats, but the advent of digital technology has made them so widely accessible and the range of possibilities so limitless, it was the right time to be building this into our work

What would your advice be to someone who wanted to work in literacy research?

There are all sorts of ways into working in literacy and I would say that an interest in language and communication in some form or another is crucial. At the National Literacy Trust, we are all also very passionate about social justice, equality and diversity, and all the work we do is geared towards addressing those concerns. So passion is very important! In terms of research, some transferrable skills in data analysis are important, as is an ability to communicate your findings in an accessible way, but the most important thing is an enquiring and open mind.

Isn’t it better for people to read a print book than listen to an audiobook?

They say the best workout is the one you do – I’d say the best book format is the one you read – and by read I include listening. If someone who dislikes reading finds themselves enjoying an audiobook, and that means they’re more likely to listen more often, then they are still getting so many of the benefits of reading – wellbeing, empathy, increased vocabulary and countless others. If down the line that leads them to pick up a print book, then that’s a great result, but even if that never happens, audiobooks can be a really positive alternative for reluctant readers.

Of course, there are elements of reading, such as decoding, that can only be done by reading physical books and so particularly for children who are still learning, reading print books is important. But, there are more benefits to listening than we might think. In fact, a 2019 study found that our brains respond to auditory stimuli in the same way as visual – that is, if you hear the word ‘dog’ your brain will respond in the same way as if you read it. So it really isn’t cheating!

Is there anything in your research which has surprised you?

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but we were absolutely thrilled by the results of our survey on children’s engagement with audiobooks during lockdown, which proved that they were a real lifeline. What was particularly interesting was the links with reading and writing: 1 in 2 (52.9%) children and young people say that listening to audiobooks has increased their interest in reading, and 2 in 5 (42.6%) say that it has made them more interested in writing. Many also said that audiobooks helped them feel better during lockdown and were a welcome distraction from the events of the pandemic. For us, this really demonstrated the power of audio in so many ways and to hear it confirmed by children themselves was just fantastic.

Do you have a favourite audiobook? Why?

Back in the 80s, Ladybird did a series of books with cassettes, and I remember listening to Rupert and the Frog Song by Paul McCartney like it was yesterday. I remember sharing Rupert’s excitement as he happened upon the frogs in the forest, the sound of the waterfall he hid behind, but the song above all! I think technically the book was an adaptation of the film but the story was so vivid, I would frequently just sit in bed with eyes shut tight, imagining all these frogs singing together, the cats meowing along in the background. It was absolutely magical.

More recently, I absolutely loved listening to Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. There is a big campaign at the moment for people to be able to use their own voice to tell their stories, and given the focus of Eddo-Lodge’s book on her experiences of prejudice, hearing her tell it felt not just powerful but essential. Also, I used to live in Tottenham, North London, and when Eddo-Lodge began talking about divisions and tensions in the area relating to racial prejudice, varying from the Broadwater Farm riot to the recent housing developments in parts of the area, I was literally walking those streets and having their history narrated to me. That’s the power of audio.