What Is Subvocalization in Reading? (Explained!)
Subvocalization is a form of silent speech. It is a subconscious trait that occurs when someone makes an internal speech to translate printed words by sound. It helps the mind to access meanings and remember the terms in a text.
Many people aren’t aware that they subvocalize while reading. However, the impact of this habit is more significant than you think.
If you want to increase your reading speed and cover all materials that your job or school demands on time, it’s essential to understand the role of subvocalization. This will help you work your way around it and read more efficiently.
So, in this post, we will discuss what subvocalization is, how it affects your reading comprehension, and how it impacts speed reading.
What is subvocalization, and why does it happen?
Subvocalization is the process of internally pronouncing the words in a text while engaging in silent reading. It happens because most people were taught to read by harnessing the mental connection between speech and reading.
Subvocalization is a natural form of speech-based code. We associate the meaning of words with how they sound.
This aids comprehension as the brain stores what we read in short-term memory and makes it easy to recall for understanding.
Many of us were taught to read by speaking words aloud and pronouncing them multiple times to absorb their meaning.
This teaching method is highly effective, as it utilizes the natural mental connection between speech and words. However, as we start to read silently, the habit remains, but the pattern changes.
You will start to employ your inner voice without engaging your vocal cords. While some people do it by moving their lips while reading a text silently, most have more subtle muscle movements.
During subvocalization, all the muscles engaged in articulating speech sounds respond. The eyes, larynx, lips, tongues, vocal cords, and throat all work together.
It creates a phonological loop. This phonological loop maps out patterns for easy recall when next you pronounce a word silently. This is similar to muscle memory.
For this reason, subvocal speech is a great way for an average reader to improve comprehension.
NASA conducted research to make AI understand us without explicit commands. In the process, they discovered that even proficient readers with undetectable subvocalization still subvocalize.
The movements can usually be detectable by electromagnetic sensors.
Is subvocalization similar to hearing voices in your head?
Subvocalization is similar to hearing voices in your head. As you read, you may start to notice a silent speech, whereby you pronounce each word on the page while processing the sentence as a whole.
You’ll notice that you have a habit of internally fixating on each word for short seconds, and you hear yourself saying it out loud. However, you may not ordinarily make out this voice.
But it is usually more prominent whenever you’re struggling with grasping the true meaning of a sentence or noticing a new word in a passage.
In this case, you’ll distinctly be able to make out your inner speech as your brain attempts to use sound to access meanings.
Research on schizophrenic patients who hear voices in their heads showed a clear connection between subvocalization and the voices they hear.
Usually, they subvocalize louder than most people while thinking and fixate on all the words they hear. This creates the panic that they can hear voices in their heads.
What are the findings of subvocalization research?
Research findings prove that subvocalization is a habit that’s common to everyone. We all rely on muscle memory to retain words. It’s innate, so a compulsive or forceful effort to eradicate it may interfere with an average reader’s comprehension.
The first documentation on subvocalization was in 1868, and scientists coined the term ‘subdued speech.’
However, it was L. Curtis in 1899 who coined the term ‘inner voice’ and explained that reading causes the same movement in the speech organs as speaking.
In the study, he noted that subvocalization is the only mental activity that engages all speech muscles.
With the emergence of electromyography in 1950, researchers were able to record and confirm the physical movement of the speech organs during silent reading.
The research finalized that subvocalization is a way of reinforcing learning, and one may be unable to eliminate it.
Deaf people do not subvocalize as they are usually taught to read in a completely different manner.
However, research shows that they still do some form of sub-gesturing/ sub-imaging by using their fingers and forearms to make small movements when reading.
This is because they are taught to read in sign language.
How does subvocalization affect your reading comprehension?
Subvocalization is good for comprehension as it helps you retain words in your short-term memory long enough to decode the meaning. However, subvocalization also triggers hyper-fixation, which can be bad for comprehension.
Subvocalization helps to reduce cognitive load. This frees up the mind to allow you to better access the meaning of words and comprehend the general idea. But this isn’t the whole truth.
Comprehension is about using all the available cues to decode meaning. You’ll only comprehend complex sentences or passages better if you focus on processing meanings using the semantic and syntactic context of words.
As you move from one word or paragraph to another, you’ll mentally confirm the validity of your predicted meanings using the language structures you already know or whether that meaning falls in place and makes sense.
Subvocalizing doesn’t necessarily help with this. All it does is allow you to recognize, remember, and configure individual words.
Reading out a complex sentence won’t necessarily make it clearer unless you combine it with active concentration and mental processing.
If anything, subvocalization may slow you down and interfere with comprehension.
If you keep fixating on each word, you may find it challenging to retain the collective meaning the words convey at once. This will make you reread texts constantly.
There’s some evidence to show that you can break away from subvocalizing, or at least minimize it sufficiently, without losing comprehension. Still, subvocalization can be pretty helpful in the following areas:
When you are reading, you don’t need to know things word for word; you only need to extract the general idea of the texts. However, it’s different when memorizing. You may need to repeat words aloud, as repetition can improve memory.
Subvocalizing is excellent for memorization. By repeating words aloud or in your mind, you’ll retain each word for a long time and be able to recall it at will. The point is that you need the words more than the general idea.
However, this can be hard for some too. Memorization is needed to pass some courses or even remember some details during a professional presentation.
Yet, it’s not just about subvocalizing; it’s also a skill that requires some training.
You can check out our maximizing memory course here. This course helps you improve your memory with practical and well-researched techniques.
Not only is this good for recollecting words, but it will also sharpen your ability to recollect answers when needed.
For reading technical jargon
When reading technical terms that are entirely unfamiliar, you should fixate and focus on putting a sound to the terms. This process alone will not help you understand the word, but it’s a valuable part of the process.
Your brain will usually have to combine this with other techniques to boost your understanding of the textual context.
For detecting errors
Subvocalization allows you to catch errors in an essay or presentation. Since you are reading the words out loud, you’ll immediately notice missing words, wrong tenses, and structural errors.
Reading aloud or consciously subvocalizing is a great way to edit or proofread. It also helps you ensure your piece is written in an active voice.
How does subvocalization affect your reading speed?
Subvocalization makes you read at the speed of speech. The pace of saying the words and reading them is likely the same. This means that since the average speaking speed is 200-240 words per minute, the average reading speed is 200-250 words per minute or as low as 150 for those who hyper-fixate.
What this means is that subvocalization limits reading speed. Essentially, you can beat the average speed if you resist translating all the printed words to speech sounds before validating it: the more vocal cords you use, the lower your reading speed.
People who make visible lip movements are likely to read at a slower rate than those with undetectable activity.
Also, those who read aloud are likely to read slower than those with only lip movements.
For example, the average silent reading speed for 12th graders’ reading comprehension is usually 250 words per minute.
However, oral reading speed among the same students was 150WPM. This shows how speed reading may be holding you back from reaching your full-speed reading potential.
Fixation is also a crucial factor here. When we subvocalize, we fixate on words and gaze at the particular word in context.
However, this is highly inefficient. Efficient reading allows you to sweep your eyes over the page and take in significant words.
This way, you won’t have to spend time rereading to grasp the whole sentence. It is an essential piece of the puzzle to gain speed reading skills.
Can you master speed reading despite subvocalization?
Subvocalization is wrapped in controversy, with many saying it’s a way to provide auditory reassurance to aid comprehensive reading.
But it’s also been shown to slow down reading. So, to increase your reading speed, you’ll need some techniques to work around this habit.
You can’t successfully eliminate subvocalization because it’s innate, but you can reduce the back and forth of the eyes while reading a text to help you pick words in a sweep and increase your speed.
How to stop subvocalization for faster reading?
Minimizing subvocalization will improve your reading speed and your comprehension.
Here are six habits that will help you achieve that
Set a goal before reading
Knowing why you are reading a text can help you decide how to read it and alert your brain on what cluster of words carries vital information. This will help you read faster.
So, if you are reading through your emails and researching for a presentation, the way you read in these two scenarios will be different. Also, reading for leisure means getting the main idea alone is generally okay.
An end goal also makes you less distracted. This makes it easier to stay on track with what you are reading since it’s directly connected with a meaningful result.
Distract the speech organs
Keeping your speech organs busy can help improve speed reading. For example, you can either chew gum or hard candy. This allows you not to fixate on the process of subvocalizing itself, which can increase speed.
The logic is that you’ll focus better and spend more time getting through the meaning of the text than listening to your inner speech.
Listen to music
Listening to music helps you minimize the power of your inner voice when reading. It can also improve concentration, which will help you get through a text faster.
However, this only works for some types of music.
People have different concentration abilities with music. While some people can listen to lyrical music, it is often distracting. You may focus on the lyrics instead of reading.
So, it’s best to opt for classical and instrumental sounds. Avoid sounds that remind you of other things, and keep the volume moderate.
Use a pointer
The eyes are constantly in motion and go back and forth over a page, which reduces reading speed. Using a pointer helps keep the eyes and brain movement coordinated to increase your reading speed.
You can use your hand, a pen, or an actual pointer. What’s important is that you let the movement guide the direction of your eyes.
You can easily increase the rate as you move from one word to another and use this to measure your reading speed.
You can guide yourself toward your desired reading speed by increasing the pace with time.
AccelaReader is a smart tool for speed reading to help you read faster. You can copy any text of your choice into the speed reader, and the system flashes words one at a time for you to read. You can adjust the pace and the number of words flashed on a screen.
This tool is great because you can record progress within a short time. You can set the chunk size to 2-3 words and try to read at a low speed.
Then slowly increase the speed and see if you can still catch up. You can also increase the chunk size as you improve.
This tool is free and accessible, and it sharpens your speed reading skills within a few days of practice.
Scan before reading
We tend to subvocalize more when a text has unfamiliar words. Scanning before reading allows you to become familiar with the text to minimize word fixation. This will help you read faster.
Scanning allows you to do all the subvocalization necessary before actually reading the text. All you have to do is run your eyes keenly over the page.
Scanning can also help you determine if a material is important enough and whether it requires skimming or speed reading.
Do I have to stop subvocalization for faster reading?
Contrary to what you may think, speed reading is not just a talent but can be learned. However, the real question is whether you need to stop subvocalizing to achieve your desired speed.
You do not have to stop subvocalization completely to read faster. Instead, what you need to do is minimize the occurrence of subvocalization to a level where you do not fixate on words or how they sound.
Subvocalization has its uses. However, when you focus on a word, you can only get a trim and detailed vision of a small text region.
This is often called foveal vision. When this happens, your ear also sharpens and picks up sounds from the immediate environment.
The sound includes both your inner voice and external cues. This can limit your ability to concentrate and slow you down. But instead of stopping subvocalization, try to depend on it less.
You may think that subvocalization always happens, but this isn’t true. For example, when reading a stop sign, reading signs on the road, and subtitles in movies or numbers, you’ll notice that you understand the general concept at a glance.
Similarly, the trick to subvocalizing less is to overlook certain words that form part of a sentence, especially when they only serve a structural purpose and don’t contribute to the general meaning.
For example, ‘the large ginger cat is sitting on the table’ has several words you can dispose of without losing meaning. You can easily read ‘large ginger cat on the table’ instead.
Learning to overlook words like this is a simple technique for reading faster.
Still, if your end goal with speed reading is to cut back time and improve your general productivity, you need more than minimizing subvocalization alone.
Productivity is a different concept; you’ll need to understand its techniques.
If this is your goal, you can check out our personal productivity course here. You will learn how to manage the demands of daily life with work or schooling, which will increase your efficiency by miles.
Is subvocalization a bad reading habit?
Subvocalization is a bad reading habit for those primarily concerned with reading faster. If your goal is to run through more materials within a short period, subvocalization interferes with your speed and makes you read only slightly faster than you speak.
Subvocalization is not inherently wrong, especially since it’s the main reason why many people can read in the first place. It’s good for memory retention and can help with comprehension.
However, subvocalization is a bad reading habit when you read by pronouncing and visualizing each word in your mind before moving on to the next. When you focus on one word at once, you’ll spend seconds pondering it.
By the time you move on to the following words of the sentence, you may lose the general concept of that sentence, which will cause you to reread.
This can hinder people who have to read faster to get through each day at work or who need speed reading skills for an IELTS exam. You’ll notice that you are less productive than you wish to be.
So, you can practice reading words in chunks instead of picking one word at a time.
Word chunks allow you to read two to three words at once and go at a faster pace. You can improve within hours, and a few days can boost your word-per-minute rate by 50-100 words.
Here are some speed reading techniques and tips to help you beat the disadvantages of subvocalizing:
- Use meta-cognitive reading techniques: Remember to consciously hold onto the key point of the text as you move from line to line.
- Improve your vocabulary by reading different types of texts: The fewer unfamiliar words you see, the lower the probability of your brain fixating on specific points when reading.
- Expand your eye vision: Train yourself to read words using the center or peripheral vision instead of the typical slow left-to-right movement.
- Introduce time blocks: Reading in spurts of fifteen to twenty minutes and taking a short break helps increase focus and reduce fatigue.
- Practice often: The only way to improve is to practice reading as often as possible.
- Take speed reading courses: Speed reading courses can help you improve within a short time frame.
After every silent reading session, ask yourself questions about the general idea after each paragraph. This gives you confidence that you are picking up the points without fixating on words.
Takeaway: Minimize subvocalization and read faster!
Subvocalization means employing an inner voice to read the words of a text when reading silently. It’s a general trait that’s good for accessing meanings. However, it interferes with your reading process when done poorly.
When you subvocalize, you increase the tendency to get stuck on words and reread. This naturally makes you read slower, regardless of the language of the text you are reading.
You can minimize subvocalization with well-proven methods, but you may not be able to eradicate it. Instead, you can sharpen what’s left of it so that it works towards helping you read faster.
At Iris Reading, we offer a speed reading mastery course. This comprehensive course is excellent if you want to achieve high-speed fluent reading, increased comprehension, and processing rate. This will help you in your academic and professional journey.
I can read very very fast, but the faster I go, sometimes the less I remember what I read. So I am excited to try the mega cognitive reading techniques to see if that helps!