How audiobooks can sharpen your hearing

By | May 10, 2021

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he imagined recordings of entire novels. Today, there are more than 400,000 audiobooks you can download onto your phone, tablet or other device.  

I never considered audiobooks because I think of hearing as my weakness—why do something hard for fun? I was born with hearing loss and muddled along without hearing aids until my thirties—the written word was my friend. I avoided depending on my ears. But practice is better than avoidance.

A woman listens to an audiobook at home.
Using headphones or by streaming sound
directly to your hearing aids, you can listen
to audiobooks and hone your hearing and
listening skills.

Auditory training programs offer exercises designed to improve your hearing skills. You may be a candidate for auditory training if you’re getting a hearing aid for the first time or have trouble understanding speech despite normal hearing, a condition called “hidden hearing loss.” Specialized programs and smartphone apps have been designed with the feel of a video game. But if you like stories and dramatic voices, consider audiobooks as well. They are a unique way to enjoy literature and you can sharpen your hearing comprehension at the same time.

Hearing isn’t just about recognizing sounds. We need to interpret them. Audiobooks can help us exercise “those linguistic areas of your brain that are crucial for comprehension” explains Nancy Tye-Murray, AuD, and professor at Washington University School of Medicine. You can also use them to practice listening to foreign accents or multiple voices while you’re not under social pressure—with the magical power to rewind anytime!  

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Download them free from your local library and listen on your phone while you’re walking, driving, riding on public transportation, or doing chores at home like washing dishes or folding laundry. Depending on the technology level of your hearing aid, you can even stream them directly into your hearing aids via Bluetooth.

If you have a cochlear implant and are working with a rehab audiologist or speech therapist, ask about training with audiobooks. There are ways to approach this for people at all listening levels.

How to get started

Even when I didn’t consider audiobooks, I liked listening to popular songs and following the lyrics by reading them online at the same time. I’m also a fan of subtitles while watching television or movies. If you’re the same way, you might get an audiobook of a paper book you’ve read before and own. See how it feels to read and listen simultaneously—without also tracking all the visual information in a movie.

It’s best to start in a quiet room with a book narrated by a male voice, says Tye-Murray, who has created an online auditory training program Amptify. Lower pitches are usually easier to hear. An accomplished actor is your best bet. Find a voice you enjoy—you have lots of options! 

Play your first audiobook at a slower than normal speed, if that helps you, while following the text. Over time you can change the speed to the normal setting.

Next, she advises, try listening without reading along at the slower speed “until you’re comfortable with changing to normal speed.”

“Start really paying attention to how much you comprehend,” she said. “After you finish listening to a chapter, you might jot down a few sentences that capture the essence of the chapter (for example, ‘Janey Smith caught the bus and ended up sitting next to a tall, dark stranger.’)” This will reinforce your brain’s comprehension muscles.

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You might also go back and read each chapter and keep records on how much you understood while listening.  

For your second book, you might choose one narrated by a woman and repeat the steps above.

You might want to listen only for 20 minutes to a half hour at first. Listening can be tiring. Also, remember that if you lose your place you can always rewind. I tend to fall asleep when I read in the evening, and for me, audiobooks are a good way to stay awake.

Top audiobooks for auditory rehab

For beginners, Lynn A. Wood, an audiologist in Wheaton, Illinois recommends the children’s book, Oh the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss, read by actor John Lithgow.

For a step up in difficulty, try a young-adult story about a girl and her beloved dog, Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, read by Cherry Jones, who you might recognize from “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Eventually you’ll be ready to practice listening to people with different accents. If you’re planning a trip to London, try listening to a British novel read by Juliet Stevenson, a British actress you might have seen in “One of Us.” If you’d prefer a classic, consider Little Dorrit, her Dickens collection. She also narrates much-beloved books by Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. For a recent book with a bit of a meta-fiction twist, try Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan.

You can catch up on classics with sentences and paragraphs that might seem too long on the page. BBC offers 20 unabridged classics online, including Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte, and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. 

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New audiobooks draw top talent–you can hear Meryl Streep narrating Charlotte’s Web or Michelle Obama reading all 19 hours of her own memoir, Becoming.

Listening to authors narrate their own books can be especially intimate, Jennifer Reese, who reviews audiobooks for The New York Times, told me. She has listened to Patti Smith’s memoirs “multiple times,” she said, “I particularly love her narration of M train.”

If you’re feeling really ambitious

Try George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo (it made me cry at the end), with 166 narrators. Another book with multiple narrators is The Only Plane in The Sky, Garrett Graff’s oral history of 9/11. You’ll hear raw audio footage from that day and some of the real people who describe their experiences.

A few books have special effects. The Lost Words, a collection of poems about words that have disappeared from dictionaries, includes a soundtrack drawn from the British countryside beneath each poem. Poetry should always be read out loud, though I need a written version in front of me as well. 

Make this project a way to enjoy books you’ve had on your list but didn’t get to, books that feel like guilty pleasures, and books that pleasurably stretch your listening skills.

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