Bimodal Reading, Memory, and Comprehension

Recently, Amazon announced some new Kindles and some new cool features that integrate audiobooks with old-fashioned texts. Immersion Reading synchronizes the audio and the text. WhisperSync for Voice allows the reader to seamlessly switch from text to audio and from audio to text. During the announcement, Jeff Bezos said:

People are going to love this. Bimodal reading improves retention and understanding.

I haven’t seen any attempt to factcheck Bezos. So I did. In short, Bezos spoke the truth — but the bimodal reading claim only applies to Immersion Reading and not WhisperSync for Voice (contrary to some sloppy reporting).

A helpful summary of the literature is provided in the 1996 Journal of Learning Disabilities article “Bimodal Reading: Benefits of a Talking Computer for Average and Less Skilled Readers” by Julie Montali and Lawrence Lewandowski (free access at the time of this writing):

In addition to the RSE for detection and lexical decision tasks, enhanced recall due to bimodal redundancy has been documented in various research paradigms. Penney (1989) reviewed studies dating back as far as the 1950s that showed evidence of a bimodal memory advantage compared to recall of information in single-mode presentations (e.g., Broadbent, 1956). Since then, others have shown that short term retention is improved when an item (e.g., word or digit string) is presented to visual and auditory channels simultaneously (Frick, 1984; Hede, 1980; Martin, 1980). […] Collectively, these studies suggest that individuals remember more of what is presented when information is delivered bimodally.

In addition to facilitating connections between letters and sounds, bimodal reading may increase higher level processes, such as comprehension. […] Bimodal instruction could facilitate comprehension by providing the reader with exposure to unknown sight words and at the same time modeling the correct pronunciation of words.

There is thus strong evidence that bimodal reading is indeed helpful for memory and comprehension — for both average and less skilled readers. But note that the evidence only applies to Kindle’s Immersion Reading feature, since that is the one that employs both auditory and visual modalities. WhisperSync for Voice might be nice for other reasons, but Bezos did not mean to claim any memory or comprehension advantage for using that feature.

Feel free to talk to me on Twitter: @RagingTBolt.

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