Speed Reading Tips: 9 Ways to Minimize Subvocalization
Subvocalization (also known as auditory reassurance) is a widespread habit among readers. It involves saying words in your head while reading, and it’s one of the main reasons people read slowly and have trouble improving their reading speed.
Many speed-reading programs tend to exaggerate and will falsely claim that the key to speed reading is to eliminate the habit of subvocalization. However, study after study shows that eliminating this habit completely is not possible.
In this article, we will discuss how you can minimize subvocalization – not eliminate it. Minimizing subvocalization will help you boost your reading speed, and it will also help you improve your comprehension.
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What subvocalization is and why it happens
Subvocalization is “saying” the words you are reading as you read them. This happens when we are trying to associate the sounds of the words with the actual words while reading.
It is something that happens to everyone. It helps our mind access the meanings of the words that are often associated with how they sound. This is used to comprehend what we are reading and store the read words in our short-term memory.
The addition of the read text to our short-term memory reduces our cognitive burden and helps us remain relatively stress-free.
Are You Hearing Voices in Your Head…While Reading?
When you were initially taught to read, you were told to read out loud. Once you were fluent enough, your teacher probably told you to start saying the words in your head. This is how the habit of subvocalization usually originates. Most people continue reading this way for the rest of their lives. But if you want to start reading faster, you need to minimize this habit.
You don’t need to say every word in your head to be able to understand what you are reading. When you were younger, it was absolutely necessary to say each and every single word, but now you can extract the meaning of words by simply seeing them. You don’t need to pronounce them (out loud or in your head) to get that same understanding.
However, there are situations when you read without saying words in your head. For example, think about when you’re driving. When you see a stop sign, do you actually subvocalize the word “STOP” in your head? You may have done so right now while reading the words in the sentence, but when you see a stop sign while driving, you’re unlikely to say the word. You see it and automatically recognize that it’s a stop sign.
If you’re like most readers, you probably subvocalize all or most of the words in your head. But you don’t always subvocalize everything you read.
Here’s another example of this: if you were reading and came across the year “1977,” you probably wouldn’t say in your head “Nineteen Seventy-Seven.” You would be more likely to understand the year by just seeing the number. Or, if you saw the number “3,472,382,977,” you probably wouldn’t subvocalize the words “three billion, four hundred seventy-two million, three hundred eighty-two thousand, nine hundred and seventy-seven.” That’s a mouthful. For a number like that, you see it and know it’s a big one. The understanding comes quickly. You don’t subvocalize it. If you did, you’d be staring at that number for a while without making progress through the sentence.
It Isn’t About Words, It’s About Ideas
Reading isn’t even about words, but rather about extracting ideas, absorbing information, and getting details. Words by themselves don’t mean much unless they’re surrounded by other words. When you read the words “New York City,” do you even think of it as three words? Most people would equate those three words (New York City) to a city. NYC would mean the same thing, right?
Many of the words we see are simply there for grammatical purposes (the, a, an). They don’t provide you with the same meaning as words like “university.” We have to minimize subvocalization in order to boost our reading speed. Why do we have to do this? Because subvocalization limits how fast we can really read.
Think about it this way: if you are saying each word in your head, doesn’t that mean that you can only read as fast as you can talk? If you’re saying every word in your head, your limit will be your talking speed.
Reading Speed = Talking Speed for Most People
The average reading speed is about 150-250 words per minute (wpm). And the average talking speed is exactly the same. Because most people say words in their head while reading (subvocalization), they tend to read at around the same rate as they talk. You can test this out for yourself if you like. Try reading for one minute normally, and then try reading out loud for one minute. If you’re like most people, your reading speed and talking speed will be similar (within 50 words higher or lower).
If your reading speed exceeds your talking speed, that’s a good thing to notice. We don’t want to be limited to our talking speed.
Why do most people read between 150 and 250 wpm and not above 300 wpm? Because it’s hard to talk that fast. Unless you do disclaimers at the end of commercials, it’s difficult to talk over 300 words per minute. So subvocalization must be minimized because you don’t want to get stuck reading as fast as you talk. You’re capable of reading as fast as you can think.
Changing the habit of subvocalization is easier said than done. You can’t just turn this voice in your head off. Instead of eliminating this habit, you want to minimize it. For example, let’s say you’re reading some text that said, “The boy jumped over the fence.” To minimize subvocalization, you might just say in your head, “Boy jumped fence,” three words rather than six words in that sentence. Some people think this means skipping words, but you aren’t actually skipping them. Your eyes still see all the words. You are simply just saying a few of the words. This is how you minimize subvocalization.
Keep in mind that there are a lot of words in sentences and paragraphs that are not essential to the meaning of that paragraph. We are reading for ideas, not words.
Subvocalization and Comprehension
Saying words over in your head when reading something can decrease your reading speed. It adds an extra step that can hinder comprehension.
Comprehension requires us to be adept at understanding the words as we read them. However, most non-natives need to say the words in their head and “hear” them before they can start to make sense of them.
When you are saying words in your head, you focus on “hearing” them instead of understanding them. As a result, you often need to re-read the text to understand it; this could significantly cut down your reading comprehension speed.
Although subvocalization can be helpful at times (and we will talk more about that), it is best to avoid it to increase your reading speed.
How Subvocalization Can Sometimes Be Useful
Reading Technical terminology
Saying words in your head can sometimes be helpful. For example, when you are reading material that has technical terminology or vocabulary that you are not familiar with.
In situations like this, saying words in your head, or even aloud, can be a helpful way to improve and expand your vocabulary.
Memorizing things word-for-word
If you have to memorize something word for word, subvocalizing the words or saying the words out loud would be helpful. How do you think actors and actresses remember their lines?
Reading out loud can help you memorize something word for word, but when you normally read, you rarely need to know something word for word. Most of the time, you are reading to extract information, ideas, and details.
Keeping track of your reading speed
To boost your reading speed, you need to minimize subvocalization by saying only a few words per line. If you say every word, you’ll be limited to your talking speed.
How do you know if this habit is changing? If you start reading over 300 words per minute, you are probably not saying every word in your head (because you can’t talk that fast). If you are going over 400 words a minute, you are definitely making progress and probably just saying some of the words in your head.
9 Ways to Minimize Subvocalization
1. Use Your Hand or a Pointer to Guide Your Eyes While Reading
We keep on emphasizing the importance of using your hand to guide your eyes. It’s a central principle to all speed-reading techniques and something that will help you minimize subvocalization. Using your hand to guide your eyes will also help you grab groups of words while reading, helping you avoid another common reading habit, fixation.
2. Distract Yourself
To minimize subvocalization, try distracting yourself from saying words in your head. How should you distract yourself? There are a couple of ways to do it. One way is chewing or sucking on something.
You can also distract yourself from saying words by occupying that voice in your head with another voice. Try counting from one to three while you are reading the material (example: “one, two three” line-by-line). While you are doing this, try fixating your eyes somewhere at the beginning of the line, somewhere in the middle of the line, and somewhere at the end of the line. While you are looking in those three places, you want to be counting “one, two, three.”
By doing this, you will also be fixating on three groups of words rather than each and every single word. You can count “one, two, three” out loud (maybe whispering) or in your head. Either way, you’ll distract yourself from saying the actual words you are reading. With some practice, you’ll find it easier to avoid saying all the words in your head as you read.
3. Listen to Music While Reading
Listening to music will not only help you minimize subvocalization but also concentrate better. However, keep in mind that not all types of music are going to help you concentrate. You want to avoid listening to music with lyrics or anything with a strong beat because it is going to throw off your concentration. You may also want to avoid listening to songs that remind you of other things (your high school sweetheart, a fight scene from a movie, or anything else that might further distract you).
Listen to something that is instrumental. Classical music usually works best. That will help you improve your concentration and minimize your habit of subvocalization.
4. Use the AccelaReader RSVP Application
AccelaReader uses Rapid Serial Visual Presentation (RSVP) to help you boost your reading speed and minimize subvocalization. The application is simple to use. You simply paste the text you want to read into a textbox. Set your reading speed and press play. The words then blink on the screen at the speed that you set. You can also choose how many words you want to blink at a time.
I recommend setting a speed of at least 300 words per minute. Any speed above 300 wpm will help you avoid subvocalizing all the words. The faster you go, the fewer words you will be able to say in your head. With some practice, you’ll find it easier to minimize this habit of subvocalization.
5. Force Yourself to Read Faster Than You Normally Would
Let’s say you normally read 250 wpm. Try going a little faster (maybe 300 or 350 wpm). If you force yourself to go a little faster than you normally read, you’ll minimize the number of words you say in your head. In addition to minimizing subvocalization, you’ll also improve your focus because you have to pay more attention when you read a little faster. Again, the more you practice pushing yourself faster, the faster you will get.
6. Scan Before Reading
We tend to subvocalize when we run into unfamiliar words. A quick scan, however, can fix that by making sure we don’t get caught off guard by them.
A very easy way to quickly scan the text you are about to read is the “S Technique.” Use your finger to trace an “S” shape across the entire page, going from line to line, left to right, and then right to left on the line below it, and so on. While you are doing that, follow the tip of your finger.
With this scan, you will be able to identify unfamiliar words and phrases, allowing you to subvocalize them already. Subsequently, whenever you encounter one while reading the text, you will not focus too much on it. This would save precious seconds that will add up to a good few minutes on your reading speed.
7. Occupy Your Mouth
When your mouth is occupied, it is less likely to be able to use the tongue and your lips to form different words. Thus, you would be far less likely to be able to go on reciting the words with your mouth as you’re reading them.
To do this, you can try several different methods:
- chewing on a gum
- bitting down on a pencil
- sucking on a hard candy.
8. Discipline Your Eyes
Naturally, we tend to use our eyes in a back-and-forth fashion to repeatedly focus on a single word while reading it. This paves the way for subvocalization to occur by allotting more time to each word. By training our eyes to move smoothly in a single line, we can curb this window for subvocalization.
An easy fix for this problem would be for you to keep gently sliding your finger underneath the text at a constant pace. This will force your eyes to stick to the pointer (your fingertip).
You can, of course, start slow and gradually increase the intensity of your finger-reading speed. Since your eyes can no longer spend too much time on a word, your mind will automatically refrain from subvocalizing.
9. Create a “Reading Window Slit”
After you have completely mastered reading the text using your fingertip, you can try something even more sophisticated. When you are using the tip of your finger, you are still only reading a word at a single point in time.
Cut a slit into a piece of stiff carton. The carton needs to have the same dimensions as the page, while the window you cut should show at least one line of text. You can now try reading entire lines of text, or even more, at once, without subvocalization.
Move this slit gradually down the text and make sure that your eyes are fixated on the window. This way, you will be able to easily read whole lines without having to subvocalize them first.
As I mentioned earlier, many speed-reading programs tend to exaggerate what is possible by falsely claiming that you can eliminate subvocalization. Your goal should be to minimize this habit, not eliminate it.
The nine tips mentioned above will help you minimize the habit of subvocalization so you can start reading at the speed of thought.
Paul is the founder of Iris Reading, the largest provider of speed-reading and memory courses. His workshops have been taught to thousands of students and professionals worldwide at institutions that include: NASA, Google, HSBC and many Fortune 500 companies.