Can't Comprehend Without Subvocalization? Here's What to Do! | Iris Reading
Can’t Comprehend Without Subvocalization?

Can’t Comprehend Without Subvocalization? Here’s What to Do!

Can’t Comprehend Without Subvocalization?

Reading has a lot of benefits. It improves your knowledge, memory, communication skills, etc. However, getting the enriching benefits of reading depends on how well you comprehend what you read.

Reading without comprehension is a complete waste of time. It’s equivalent to the proverbial “pouring water into a basket.”

To aid comprehension, most people practice subvocalization by internally pronouncing the words of a text as they read. However, subvocalization does more harm than good for the reading experience, as it triggers hyper-fixation and reduces reading speed.

Thus, comprehending without subvocalization offers a better reading experience.

If you cannot comprehend without subvocalization, employ techniques like improving your vocabulary, scanning before reading, using context clues, determining the main idea in a text, and using visualizations.

This article will dive deeper into these reading techniques that can help you comprehend without subvocalization. At the end of this article, you’ll know what to do to cover all your reading materials on time while comprehending all you read.

Let’s start the discussion with an in-depth look at subvocalization.


What is subvocalization?

Subvocalization means internally pronouncing the words of a text when you read silently to yourself. It is a form of silent speech because you say the words in your head as you read silently.

Research shows that subvocalization involves the movement of the larynx and other muscles involved in speech articulation. These movements are minuscule and usually undetected by the person reading and subvocalizing. However, the movements can be detected by the use of machines.

Subvocalization as silent speech

Consideration of subvocalization as “silent speech” started in 1868. But it wasn’t until 1899 that the theory was backed by experimentation.

L Curtis bandaged a tambour over the larynx to check for movement when reading silently. The experiment found that “silent reading” is the only mental activity that produces considerable movement in the larynx.

The emergence of electromyography (EMG) in 1950 settled the discussion. EMG is a technique that uses a machine to record the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles when they are electrically or neurologically activated.

EMG clearly shows electrical activity in the articulatory muscles during silent reading. It also shows the extent to which one is subvocalizing. This is because the more significant the electrical activity, the more a silent reader uses subvocalization.

So, subvocalization involves pronouncing each word silently in your head as you process the sentence you are reading. Subvocalization makes you fixate on words. This is because you first associate each word you meet with its sound. Then you sound it internally before continuing to the next.

During subvocalization, you employ your inner voice without engaging your vocal cords. So, though you sound the words internally, you do not say them out loud.

Some people have very subtle muscle movement during subvocalization. But others have more pronounced muscle movement, which includes moving their lips.

Subvocalization is more pronounced when you meet an unfamiliar word in a passage or when trying to grasp the meaning of a sentence. In such cases, you’ll distinctly make out your inner speech as you sound the words internally.

Why do we use subvocalization when reading silently?

When reading silently, subvocalization is natural to many people because that is how we were taught to read. We were taught to read by speaking words aloud and pronouncing them multiple times until we grasped their meaning. 

This teaching method uses the natural mental connection between speech and words.

Just like muscle memory, the habit carries over to reading silently. When we meet a word while reading silently, we say the word in our head. We engage our inner voice but stop short of engaging our vocal cords. So, while the voice is loud in our heads, it does not come out as sound.

Virtually every hearing person subvocalizes, but deaf people do not. This is because deaf people cannot associate words with sounds. However, because they communicate using sign language, many tap/ move their fingers when reading silently.

Does subvocalization affect reading comprehension?

Subvocalization is bad for comprehension because it causes you to focus on words. However, comprehension takes place only when entire sentences are understood in context.

There is no general agreement on whether subvocalization is good or bad for comprehension. However, there is evidence that subvocalization is a bad reading habit that interferes with comprehension. 

You comprehend a text when you use all available cues to decode meaning. That is, when you read a sentence in a written text, you immediately focus on processing its meaning using the semantic and syntactic context of words. 

As you progress in the text (moving from one sentence to another and from one paragraph to another), you use the language structures you already know and link to past knowledge to mentally confirm the validity of the meaning you got.

This means that comprehension only comes from active concentration and mental processing. Thus, vocalizing or subvocalizing itself does not necessarily lead to understanding.

Subvocalization will help you to recognize, remember, and configure individual words. However, without the mental processing that precedes understanding, subvocalization is powerless in aiding comprehension.

Subvocalization can be considered bad for comprehension because it interferes with the mental processing that leads to comprehension.

Pronouncing words in your head when you read silently causes you to focus on one word at a time rather than the entire concepts expressed in a group of words.

The fixation on each word often makes it challenging to grasp the meaning in a group of words. This will make you go back to reread the text constantly. 

How to understand what you read without subvocalization

Most often than not, the goal of reading is to obtain meaning. So, reading is a waste of time without comprehension.

To understand what you read without subvocalizing, implement the following techniques.

  • Improve your vocabulary
  • Quickly scan a text before reading
  • Use context clues
  • Look for the main idea
  • Visualize what you read

Let’s explain them further:

Improve your vocabulary

Improving your vocabulary means you’re more likely to know the meaning of the words you’ll meet in a text. Knowing the meaning of the words in a text helps you understand what you read.

Your vocabulary refers to the words of a particular language you are familiar with. Improving your vocabulary helps you know the meaning of more words.

Know that most texts use a collection of words to convey a set of meanings. Knowing the meaning of the individual words in a text will make it easier to determine the meaning the group of words is trying to convey.

For this reason, when we meet unfamiliar words in a text, we do one of two things. The first is to look up the word’s meaning in a dictionary. The second is to decipher the word’s meaning from the context.

Even the fastest readers slow down upon meeting unfamiliar words. Pausing temporarily to know what an unknown word means helps you understand what you read. Thus, improving vocabulary is key to reading comprehension.

Improving your vocabulary equips you with the meaning of more words. Thus, when reading a text, you’ll be more familiar with the words making up the text. This makes it easier to understand the concepts the body of words conveys.

There are many ways to improve your vocabulary. These include:

  • Listen to podcasts and read extensively.
  • Make a list of unfamiliar words you hear or see and look up their meaning in a dictionary.
  • Use flashcards to quiz yourself on newly learned words.
  • Endeavor to use newly learned words in communication (both oral and written communication).

Scan before reading

Scanning before reading familiarizes you with the text. This helps you identify unfamiliar words to tackle before reading. It also helps you identify the text’s main point, revealing where to concentrate for better understanding.

Scanning a text before reading it is an essential first step of comprehension. Scanning means rapidly glancing through a text to search for specific information. 

Scanning helps you become familiar with the text, and this aids comprehension in two ways:

  • It helps gives you an overview of the text: This can make it easier to critically read the text, as you’ll know where to concentrate and where to breeze over. 
  • It helps you identify unfamiliar words: Unfamiliar words hurt reading comprehension. Scanning before reading helps you identify unfamiliar words, so you can look them up and know their meaning. That way, you’ll understand the text better when you begin reading.

It is simple to scan a text before reading. All you have to do is run your eyes over the page. 

You need not go line by line. Instead, use your finger to draw “S” shapes across and down the page. Then follow your finger’s movement with your eyes.

Use context clues

Using context clues helps you understand a text even if you are unfamiliar with some of the words used. Context clues are hints in the reading material that you can use to decode the meaning of an unfamiliar word or group of words. 

Context clues are found in the words and sentences surrounding the unfamiliar word.

Meeting unfamiliar words in a text prevents understanding. Looking up the meaning of the words helps, but that will disrupt your rhythm and slow down reading.

Scanning before reading prevents unfamiliar words from disrupting your rhythm. But that increases your overall reading time.

Interestingly, using context clues helps you decipher the meaning of unfamiliar words and understand what you are reading without disrupting your rhythm or reducing your reading speed.

So, instead of fixating on the words and pronouncing them in your head, continue reading and watch out for clues that help you understand the word and passage. 

There are four common reading skills for using context clues to understand what you are reading. 

Look for definition/ explanation clues

Unknown words may be followed by sentences that explain them. For example, consider the sentence: 

“He couldn’t do anything because he had a migraine, an intense pounding headache.”

 If you didn’t know what a migraine is, you wouldn’t need to look it up to know it means “an intense pounding headache.”

Look for restatement/ synonym clues

Words you do not know may often be restated in simpler terms. For example, consider the sentence: 

“The food was bland. I couldn’t believe such tasteless food would be served at a party.” 

If you didn’t know what “bland” means, the second sentence helps you out by telling you that bland means “tasteless.”

Look for contrast/ antonym clues

Sometimes, simpler opposite words may be used to clarify words you may not know. For example, consider the sentence: 

“While Cindy is boisterous, her twin sister is calm and quiet.”

If you didn’t know what “boisterous” means, the words that follow it tell you that it is “the opposite of being calm and quiet.”

Use inference or general knowledge

Sometimes, a word is not explained, restated in simpler terms, or put in contrast with other terms. You’ll have to infer the meaning from the context of the passage and general knowledge.

For example, consider the passage: 

“Peter couldn’t believe he fell for advance fee fraud. But he did. After negotiating with the supposed supplier, he made a part payment. The agreement was for him to make the final payment after receiving the goods. But the goods never came. Now the supposed supplier cannot be reached.”

If you didn’t know the meaning of “advance fee fraud,” the passage makes it clear (that it is a type of fraud in which an individual is required to pay a fee before receiving the promised goods). 

Look for the main idea

Identifying the main idea of a text is another way to understand what you are reading without subvocalizing. This is because the main idea is the central thought that a text wants to communicate.   

Every passage is made up of the main idea and supporting details. However, until you find the main idea, all parts of the text may seem equally important, making comprehension difficult.

But when you identify the main idea, you get the central point the text is conveying, and the details make sense.

Some techniques to identify the main idea for better understanding are:

Find the topic

When reading a text, find the topic and ask yourself what the written text is about. For example, a 5-page text titled “solar panels” may be about “solar panels.” Seeing the topic may give you an idea of what the text is about. 

Summarize the topic in one sentence

After getting what the topic is about, ask yourself what the author wants you to know about the topic. For example, could the text be about the “benefits of solar panels” or “types of solar panels”?

Isolate the main idea

After determining what the author wants you to know about the topic, it is easy to isolate the text’s main idea. For example, if you identify that the text is about the benefits of solar panels, then you can easily isolate these benefits as the text describes them.

Visualize what you read

Another way to improve comprehension without subvocalizing is to visualize what you are reading.

Visualizing a passage means picturing what you are reading in your mind.

Remember the saying: a picture is worth a thousand words? It means that a picture conveys ideas more effectively than words.

The passage is more vivid when you form images of what you are reading in your mind. This helps you understand it better and remember it longer. This technique works best when reading fiction. 

Can you master speed reading despite subvocalization?

Subvocalization makes you read only as fast as you can talk. So, except you are a speed talker, you ordinarily cannot speed-read when subvocalization. However, you can significantly reduce subvocalization to master speed reading. 

There have been many studies on subvocalization. The studies often conflict regarding whether subvocalization is good or bad for comprehension. However, all the studies agree on two points.

  • Subvocalization limits reading speed to talking speed.
  • Subvocalization cannot be eliminated. It can only be reduced.

Subvocalization limits reading speed to talking speed

All the studies agree that subvocalization limits reading speed to the speed of speech. Since subvocalization engages all the muscles involved in speech, it is essentially “talking without making a sound.”

Thus, when reading silently and subvocalizing, how fast you read will equal how fast you can talk. The implication is that you ordinarily cannot speed-read when reading silently and pronouncing the words in your head.

The average speaking speed is 200 – 240 words per minute. So, when reading silently and subvocalizing, the reading speed is 200 – 250 words per minute. People with serious subvocalization hyper-fixate when reading silently and can have reading speeds as slow as 150 words per minute.

However, speed reading involves reading as fast as 400 – 700 words per minute without sacrificing comprehension. Some speed reading experts even read as much as 1,000 words per minute.

You can reduce subvocalization to master speed reading

The degree of subvocalization differs significantly between people. In some people, it is very minimal. However, it is so great in other people that they may even move their lips.

Generally, the more articulatory muscles are engaged when subvocalizing, the slower the reading rate. This is why people who read aloud read slower than those who read silently but move their lips. Also, silent readers with lip movement read slower than those who do not move their lips.

Fixation is the main reason subvocalization reduces reading speed. When subvocalizing, we fixate on each word, gazing at it until we translate it into speech sound.

Translating each word to speech sound before validating it takes time. The fixations add up to slow your reading.  

However, efficient reading does not look at words singly. Instead, it requires sweeping your eyes over a line and taking in many words at the same time. That way, you grasp the meaning that a collection of words tries to convey instead of worrying about single words.

While subvocalization cannot be eliminated, it can be reduced. Thus, improving your silent reading speed depends on how well you can reduce subvocalization.

How to reduce subvocalization and master speed-reading

It is almost impossible to eliminate subvocalization. However, you can significantly reduce sub-vocalization and become a speed reader. 

Some speed reading techniques that can help you significantly minimize subvocalization include:

  • Use meta guiding
  • Expand eye vision
  • Use a reading window slit 
  • Practice with a rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) reading tool
  • Listen to music when reading
  • Increase your vocabulary
  • Skip nonessential words when reading
  • Take a speed-reading course

Use meta-guiding

Meta-guiding means visually guiding your eyes using a pointer so that it moves faster along a line of text. Meta-guiding helps you break the shackles that limit your silent reading speed to your talking speed

 It involves running a pen or your finger under the line of text so your eyes can follow along.

When you read silently, subvocalization forces you to read only as fast as you can speak. But when you guide your eyes by running a finger underneath the words you are reading, your eyes will follow at the speed of the pointer.

To use meta guiding to minimize subvocalization and master speed reading, move the pointer at a speed faster than you’ll normally read. 

If your pointer moves faster than you normally read, your eyes will be forced to follow, and you’ll read faster. You’ll significantly reduce sounding out every word internally as you move speedily along the line of text.

Expand your eye vision

Expanding your eye vision means using your peripheral vision to catch words you are not directly looking at. This prevents fixation on each word, helping you reduce subvocalization and master speed reading.

The peripheral vision is also called indirect vision. It is the ability to see things around the point of focus.

Can’t Comprehend Without Subvocalization? Here’s What to Do!

Subvocalization requires fixating on every single word in a line of text as you read from left to right. Expanding your eye vision by using your peripheral vision helps you break the fixation on every word.

When using your peripheral vision, you can focus on a word in a line of text and catch the words before and after the fixation point. Thus, peripheral vision helps you read multiple words at a time instead of reading words singly. This helps you reduce subvocalization and make you read faster.

Use the following steps to expand your peripheral vision:

  • Start by looking at the space between two words, and try reading the two words without directly looking at them.
  • Try reading the two words before and after the fixation point.
  • Then try reading the three words before and after the fixation point. 

With practice, you’ll be able to use only two or three fixations to read a line of text.

Know that some peripheral vision experts can use one fixation to read a line of text. They focus on the middle of the line and can read the words before and after the fixation point. Then they move downward along the page.

Use a “reading window slit”

A reading window slit sharpens your peripheral vision to help you read whole lines of text at once instead of fixating on individual words and pronouncing them in your head.

A “reading window slit” is simply an opening in a piece of a stiff carton. When the carton covers the text, the opening should show at least one line of text.

When using the reading window, you gradually move the carton down the text, revealing succeeding lines.

The goal is to read each line of text with as few fixation points as possible along the line. Experts would read each line at once (with only one fixation point).

By breaking word-for-word fixation and reading entire lines quickly, you’ll beat subvocalization and be able to speed read.

Practice with a rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) reading tool

A rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP) reading tool is a program that helps you break subvocalization and read faster by flashing words at you at a set speed.

RSVP tools like AccelaReader are very easy to use. You simply paste the text you want to read into a textbox, set your reading speed, and click “begin.”

Simply set the tool to flash the words faster than your normal reading speed, then try to read the words flashed. With the words flashing faster than you normally read, you will reduce pronouncing them in your head as you read.

By default, the program will flash the words one at a time at your set speed. Many RSVP programs, including AccelaReader, lets you choose how many words you would like to be flashed at a time. 

You may start with a few words (say two or three). You can then slowly increase how many words you can take in at once. This helps you read multiple words at once instead of reading them singly.

Listen to music when reading

Listening to music when reading helps drown out the inner voice of subvocalization. Subvocalization is internal speech.

When subvocalizing, you’ll hear the little voice in your head loudly and clearly. You can replace the “distracting inner voice” with soothing music.

When rhythmic music plays in the background, your hearing is kept busy. So, you’ll reduce translating the words you’re reading to speech sounds before you validate them.

However, some music can be distracting and become counterproductive in helping you read faster. Music with lyrics or strong beats can throw off your concentration. Instead, go for instrumentals, especially classical music.

Increase your vocabulary

Increasing your vocabulary not only helps comprehension but also reduces subvocalization toward mastering speed reading. This is because it reduces your fixation on words when reading.

Meeting an unfamiliar word in a text makes you stop in your track as you try to decipher the meaning of the word.

When you meet an unfamiliar word in a text, you fixate on the word, pronouncing it in your head as you try to decode it. Thus, unfamiliar words increase the tendency to subvocalize.

Improving your vocabulary means fewer unfamiliar words in texts. In turn, you reduce subvocalization and improve your reading speed.

Skip nonessential words when reading

When reading silently, skipping words that do not have meaning helps you minimize subvocalization. This is because it ensures you do not fixate on every word.

Most of the words in sentences are not essential to the meaning of the sentences. That is, readers would still get the meaning of the sentences if most words were omitted. 

Of course, omitting those words will make the sentences grammatically incorrect. But the sentences will not lose their meaning.

For example, consider the sentence: a daring small man stood up and challenged the menacing giant. You’ll still get the sentence’s meaning by using just four words: small man challenged giant.

Thus, do not say each of the eleven words in the sentence. Instead, skip words irrelevant to the sentence’s meaning, and say only the essential words.

Note that you aren’t actually skipping the “nonessential” words. Your eyes see all the words. However, it is only the “essential” words you say in your mind.

As you sweep through the line, you breeze past the “nonessential words” without actually saying them in your mind. By reducing how many words you say in your mind, you reduce subvocalization and can read faster.

Nonessential words that you can breeze past in sentences without internally saying include:

  • Words that are simply in sentences for grammatical purposes. These include a, an, the, etc.
  • Adjectives that describe a noun.

Take a speed reading course

Taking a speed reading course is the best way to get expert advice that helps you reduce subvocalization and master speed reading within the shortest possible time.

You can employ speed-reading techniques yourself to become a faster and more efficient reader. However, getting trainings from a speed-reading expert will reduce the learning curve. 

These experts are practically brain coaches with a wealth of knowledge about the workings of the human brain. They pack this knowledge into special online courses designed to help people speed-read, improve comprehension, and improve memory.

An online course like Speed Reading Foundation Course will equip you with many speed-reading skills you cannot get from DIY training. 

For example, you may know that using an RSVP tool helps in speed-reading training. But the Foundation Course includes lessons on optimizing the tool’s settings for better results.

Also, a course like Speed Reading Mastery Course will share secrets beyond basic speed-reading techniques. The course will take you from an average reader and make you an expert capable of speed-reading technical materials without loss in comprehension.

Takeaway: Minimize subvocalization, read faster, and comprehend more

Subvocalization is the practice of saying words in your head when reading silently. When subvocalizing, you first translate written words to speech sounds before validating the words.

Subvocalization is widespread because that is how we were taught to read. However, subvocalization interferes with the mental processes that lead to comprehension. This is because it makes you focus on single words instead of the concept expressed in a group of words.

It also reduces reading speed because it makes you read only as fast as you can talk. Thankfully, there are ways to understand what you read without subvocalization. 

These include improving your vocabulary, scanning before reading, using context clues, determining the main idea, and using visualizations.

While you cannot stop subvocalizing, you can significantly reduce it to master speed reading.

Techniques to reduce subvocalization include meta guiding, expanding eye vision, using a reading window slit, using an RSVP tool, listening to music, skipping nonessential words, and taking speed reading courses.

Talking of speed-reading courses. Not just any online course will do. Rather, seek courses from reputable speed-reading and memory experts.

Iris Reading ticks that box. We are the largest provider of speed reading training in the world. 

Our programs have helped students, professionals, and lifelong learners increase their reading speed, improve comprehension, and recall what they read for longer.

See what the buzz is about. Register for the Advanced Comprehension and Memory Course, and see how it’ll boost your comprehension.

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  • Eric Folmsbee

    What does a person with aphantasia need to do in lieu of visualization to boost their speed further?

    • Elizabeth

      That’s a great question! Our speed reading and memory courses break down three other techniques that can help for memorization in lieu of visualization.