UK’s National Literary Trust Research Finds Benefits of Audiobooks for Kids

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A report commissioned by the Publishers Association says that during the coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown, British children and young readers listened to audiobooks, arguing for ending VAT on the format.

Image – iStockphoto: Sbytova MN

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Boys Surveyed Said Audio Comprehension Was Higher
The United Kingdom’s Publishers Association is pointing out that while the government fast-tracked its plan to remove its 20-percent VAT (value added tax) on ebooks in late April—in light of the country’s lockdowns at the time for the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic—audiobooks were not included in that move.

This week (June 6), the association tells Publishing Perspectives, it’s hoped that the VAT removal will be made to include audiobooks, and they’re arguing for this in part on what a new report from the National Literacy Trust has indicated is benefits to children in audiobook listening.

Written by Emily Best, Christina Clark, and Irene Picton, the report—commissioned by the Publishers Association—“used data from our latest annual literacy survey,” the charity’s team writes, “of 58,346 children and young people, aged 9 to 18.” That data had been gathered between January and March of this year.

The top-line conclusions of the report are that audiobooks can benefit children and young adults by:

  • Improving reading skills and enjoyment of reading
  • Supporting emotional intelligence and well-being
  • Improving reading comprehension
  • Widening access to books

One of the more immediately useful responses to survey questions supports the association’s request that audiobooks’ value during pandemic isolation be considered to be much like that of ebooks.

Some 23.7 percent of children and young people responding said that they had listened to audiobooks more during lockdown than before, while almost the same number, 24.7 percent, said they’d listened the same amount.

Image: National Literacy Trust

An interesting 42.4 percent said, “I didn’t listen to audiobooks before, anyway,” suggesting that some discovery of “audio reading” may have been going on during the confinement. And 69.5 percent, or seven in 10 respondents said that listening to audiobooks had made it easier to understand those books’ content.

Boys, in particular, at 71.7 percent said they’d found there was a boost in comprehension, as did 74 percent of children who receive free meals at school.

Findings: ‘Feeling Better’ During Lockdown

More survey results highlighted by the Publishers Association include:

  • One in three (31.8 percent) children and young people responding said that listening to audiobooks made them feel better during lockdown
  • One in two (52.9 percent) said that listening to audiobooks got them more interested in reading
  • Two in five (42.6 percent) said that listening to audiobooks made them more interested in writing

Many in the world industry have been watching various research exercises for signals that male readers are especially responsive to audiobooks, because in many if not most markets, women are usually  seen to be bigger readers than men.

“As our research reports on reading and writing will show,” the Literacy Trust team writes, “listening is the only format in which boys report higher levels of engagement and enjoyment during lockdown compared with girls.” Boys responding also said that listening to audiobooks increased their interest in writing and “makes me feel better.”

Image: National Literacy Trust

The main reason that children and young adults surveyed gave for listening more to audiobooks, the Trust team says, was “having extra time” in the lockdown scenario and finding that audiobook listening relaxed them.

The respondents’ perceptions of what audiobooks did for them is of interest, too, with “I use my imagination more” being the very gratifying top answer.

Image: National Literacy Trust

In sum, the Trust’s team writes, “The initial findings from our January survey coupled with the responses to our more recent lockdown survey show a really encouraging level of enthusiasm for audiobooks. In particular, seeing a rise in interest from older children and young people, and increased interest from boys—who tend to be less engaged in reading and writing—is hugely positive and suggests that school closures and lockdown have not dampened children’s and young people’s appetite for stories and learning, even if the formats have had to change somewhat.

“It’s also interesting,” they write, “to see that there’s a lack of differentiation between children in receipt of free school meals and those who are not, which suggests that economic disadvantage might be less of a barrier to accessing stories than we may have thought. Comments from children and young people themselves suggest that access to various library and commercial services help facilitate this.”

Lotinga: ‘Our Archaic Taxation of Digital Books’

Cressida Cowell

And in positioning the National Literacy Trust report with the effort to have VAT lifted from audiobooks, the Publishers Association has provided a comment from children’s author Cressida Cowell, who says, “The chancellor’s removal of the tax on ebooks was a fantastic way to champion kids’ reading, especially during lockdown, and a massive step forward to make books available to every child.

“Audiobooks are another crucial part of the effort to ensure every child can discover the book that makes them a reader. We know that children who read are happier and healthier: every child needs to be able to read books in a format they find accessible.”

The Trust’s CEO, Jonathan Douglas, says, “It’s incredibly encouraging to see that so many children have been actively choosing to spend their extra free time in lockdown listening to stories. It shows the value of stories to children’s lives and the comfort and entertainment they can offer—particularly in times of uncertainty.

“In addition to this, our research shows that audiobooks have the potential to improve learning outcomes for children who are traditionally the least engaged with literacy, such as boys and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. For these children, audiobooks could prove vital in closing the literacy attainment gap that is set to widen significantly as a result of six months of disruption to children’s education.”

Stephen Lotinga

And the Publishers Association’s Stephen Lotinga is quoted, saying, “The growing popularity of audiobooks—fueled by the podcast boom and use of digital devices—means that more people than ever before are accessing stories and information in audio format. Audiobooks have been a lifeline to many during lockdown and the government now has an opportunity to ensure that the next generation of readers don’t lose out just because they need or prefer to listen to books.

“The chancellor has already acknowledged that digital books should not be taxed and the removal of VAT on audiobooks would be the final step in bringing our archaic taxation of digital books into the 21st century.”

There’s a link to the National Literacy Trust report, 18 pages in PDF, on this page at the association’s site.

At this writing, the 7:33 a.m. ET update (1133 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center shows the UK with 286,932 cases and 44,305 deaths, making the market the world’s third for deaths and seventh in caseload.

The government opened pubs over the weekend, prompting Pan Pylas to write for the Associated Press, “For the most part, people appeared to abide by the rules and rejoiced at the chance Saturday to lift a pint in the company of their mates. but in some places large crowds raised concerns that the deadliest outbreak in Europe may find fresh legs.”


More from Publishing Perspectives on audiobooks is here, and more from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.

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