Listening to Unabridged Audiobooks while Reading the Original on Paper

Andrew Obermeier, Kyoto University of Education

A straightforward and convenient way for intermediate and upper-intermediate students to progress toward advanced-level proficiency is to listen to unabridged audiobooks while reading the original book on paper. Learners can either alternate listening and reading or do them simultaneously. Combining these two sources of input provides valuable contextual learning opportunities as learners can take advantage of the different benefits of text and audio input. At first, listening to an unabridged audiobook will be daunting for language learners. Nevertheless, Moodle tools enable teachers to provide extensive support to help learners apply this strategy. This article will explain how Moodle can be used to deepen comprehension and foster contextual vocabulary learning by using an unabridged audiobook and its original paper book as the course text.


Corpus Analysis for Audiobook Selection

A corpus analysis was conducted to confirm that the students would have 98% vocabulary coverage within the book and audiobook. This analysis helped to ensure that they would not encounter too many unknown words. At 98% coverage, learners can adequately comprehend and learn from contextual clues (Nation, 2006). Japanese students at upper-level universities have a mean vocabulary size of 4,903 words (McLean et al., 2014). However, research has confirmed that a vocabulary size of 8,000 to 9,000 words is necessary for understanding a wide variety of texts without unknown vocabulary being a problem (Schmitt, 2008). The widespread acceptance and use of the JACET 8000 in Japan is testimony to the importance of this vocabulary learning goal (Mochizuki, 2016). Using a well-chosen unabridged audiobook and its source text, students can learn vocabulary from context and make progress toward becoming comfortable with reading and listening at the 8,000-word frequency level. The techniques explained herein aim to train students to use this strategy that they can apply to other unabridged audiobooks and their sourcebooks.

A corpus analysis can reveal the lexical coverage required for texts and be conducted quickly using Vocabprofile at Figure 1 shows selected output from the corpus profile of the text for the course explained in this article, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (Covey, 2020). Crucially, if learners’ lexical knowledge is estimated to be around 5,000 words, they will have coverage of 97.91% of the words they encounter. Furthermore, adding the counts of the mid-frequency 4,000- to 8,000-word frequency bands (rows k-04 to k-08 in Figure 1) shows that learners will meet 2,982 token words in this range. Importantly, learners’ vocabulary size estimates are based on their visual knowledge, which in Japan tends to be higher than their aural knowledge. An essential benefit of this strategy is that learners use their visual knowledge to help strengthen their aural ability. In sum, the corpus profile shows that learners will have ample opportunities for contextual vocabulary learning and not be overburdened with unfamiliar words.


Encouraging Learners to Listen Extensively

Although it is assuring that learners will have adequate vocabulary coverage for text comprehension, they will nonetheless encounter low-frequency words they do not know. Such words give little value for the effort expended learning them, so it is important to teach learners to resist the temptation to spend too much time on them. They should notice unknown words and perhaps highlight, underline, or note them in their paper texts, but they are guided to work quickly through the whole text and focus on grasping the main ideas. To this end, Moodle has visually appealing course formats that enable teachers to provide a broad overview and show how learning activities connect to the text and course contents. Figure 2 shows Moodle’s Topics format. Clicking the bullet point beside each topic expands it to reveal activities and learning resources. Students are frequently told that the purpose of the course is to help them understand the main ideas, engage with them briefly, and move on. I explain that much contextual learning will take care of itself as they engage with the text and encourage them to view the course as an extensive warm-up; that is, they can relisten and reread materials autonomously and repeatedly throughout their lives.

Another essential criterion for text selection is for the unabridged audiobook to have a strong narration. Audiobooks are available at many sites, but is the most advanced, providing listener-based narrator ratings and sample audio. Furthermore, Audible’s app provides useful bookmarking and notetaking features, which can be helpful for both learners and teachers. Covey (2020) has an average 4.9 out of 5-star rating from 1,309 reviewers. The 15-hour unabridged audio is passionately read aloud by the author, and his son provides valuable insights that he has gained over many years of applying and teaching the ideas. Their strong desire to teach results in vibrant intonation, providing learners ample opportunities to practice listening to natural spoken English. In addition, the 440-page paper text has many helpful explanatory diagrams and is logically organized.


Balancing Learning Modes

After selecting a text that matches learners’ vocabulary size and has a good audiobook, learning activities should be balanced to help learners acquire strong and deep knowledge of the words they learn (Schmitt, 2008). Research indicates that developing vocabulary knowledge depth entails balancing complementary explicit and implicit vocabulary learning modes (Hunt & Beglar, 2005). Another framework balances four strands of meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, language-focused learning, and fluency development (Nation, 2007). Similarly, when designing activities for developing listening skills, the teacher should balance learning activities across a range of types to ensure a variety of ways to cognitively engage with the material. The modes of listening recommended by Rost (2011, p. 183) for promoting such a variety are as follows.

  • Intensive (pay close attention to what is actually said)
  • Selective (extract key information to use in a meaningful way)
  • Interactive (interact verbally with others to clarify and apply meaning)
  • Extensive (focus on listening continuously, managing large amounts of listening input)
  • Responsive (focus on response to listening input)
  • Autonomous (select one’s own listening tasks and monitor progress)
  • Figure 3 shows how Moodle activities are integrated to balance learning and listening modes in this course, to foster vocabulary learning, and to deepen listening and text comprehension.

Moodle’s Quiz, Forum, and h5p Interactive Video are used to administer the activities shown in Figure 3. Paper comprehension guides are given to accompany listening homework assignments, followed by open-note, in-class quizzes to monitor comprehension and encourage extensive listening. Gapfill handouts are distributed to focus learners on key 10- to 15-minute listening passages from each chapter to promote intensive listening. These are also followed by in-class paired reading aloud (one learner reads the side with blanks aloud, and the other supports them by silently reading the side with words filled in and giving hints as needed). These are also followed by in-class gapfill quizzes. To summarize each chapter, h5p Interactive Videos are created by combining a simple 10- to 15-minute PowerPoint presentation exported to video to accompany the audio with helpful visual cues to guide comprehension. The diagram in Figure 4 depicts the display, which is shown for about seven minutes while the audio plays.

The audio stops and learners are asked questions to consolidate each section at essential points. Figure 5 shows an example of a question in the h5p gapfill format. As shown in the figure, learners can click on the link in each blank to get hints.


Final Considerations

I have found the audiobook explained in this article useful for teaching upper-intermediate communicative English classes because its topic (effective everyday living) provides abundant opportunities for students to talk about how the ideas apply to themselves. Nevertheless, other teachers may find other audiobooks more relevant for their students and teaching contexts.



Covey, S. (2020). The 7 habits of highly effective people (30th anniversary ed). Simon & Schuster.

Hunt, A., & Beglar, D. (2005). A framework for developing EFL reading vocabulary. Reading in a Foreign Language, 17(1), 23–59.

Nation, I. (2006). How large a vocabulary is needed for reading and listening? Canadian Modern Language Review, 63(1), 59–82.

Nation, P. (2007). The four strands. Innovation in Language Learning & Teaching, 1(1), 2–13.

McLean, S., Hogg, N., & Kramer, B. (2014). Estimations of Japanese university learners’ English vocabulary sizes using the vocabulary size test. Vocabulary Learning and Instruction, 3(2), 47–55.

Mochizuki, M. (2016). JACET 8000: The new JACET list of 8000 basic words. Kirihara.

Rost, M. (2011). Teaching and researching listening. Pearson.

Schmitt, N. (2008). Review article: Instructed second language vocabulary learning. Language Teaching Research, 12(3), 329–363.