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How to Improve Reading Speed by Eliminating Subvocalization

In the next few posts we will take closer look at each bad reading habit, starting with subvocalization, which is by far the worst of the reading habits.

Do you know what subvocalization means?

Subvocalization sounds a little scary, but it really isn’t.  It’s simply a term that’s used to describe the habit of reading with your larynx.  Your larynx is the structure inside your throat that holds your vocal cords.  When I say you read with your larynx, all it really means is that you “say” the words as you read them.  People who move their lips while they read are doing what’s called “voicing” the words as they read them.

Not every reader says the words they read out loud or moves their lips while they read.  Some are more subtle.  These readers “hear” the words in their heads as they read.  What they hear is more like a whisper that moves along as their eyes continue reading.

The reason people subvocalize can definitely be traced back to the days when they first learned to read.  Chances are, when you were back in grade school or whenever you first learned to read, you were taught to read phonetically.

When you’re taught to read phonetically, you’re first taught the individual sounds associated with each letter of the alphabet.  Then you’re taught the sounds that different combinations of letters make.  Finally you’re taught to string all those sounds together into simple words, and viola, you can read!

If you have young children, you’re probably familiar with phonetics since it’s very popular and still used in schools today.

Not only does learning to read phonetically involve several steps, it also involves several body parts.

Using your eyes, you first need to see a word on a page.  Once you see it, you then have to say the sounds the letters make using your mouth.  Your grade school teacher probably made you say these sounds out loud in front of the class.  For a lot of kids, this was embarrassing, because there was always the risk of making a mistake.  But your teacher made you do this so she could be sure you were making the sounds correctly.  She wasn’t being mean; she was just doing her job.

Anyway, as you grew older and your teacher wasn’t around anymore, you probably started whispering these sounds and words in your mind instead of saying them out loud.  Or you started moving your lips so that anyone around you couldn’t hear you.  Seeing words and saying them was necessary to the brain’s ability to learn the words and develop associations with those words.

Right now maybe you’re wondering how such an effective teaching method could be so bad?

Well, here’s the answer.

Subvocalization worked very well when you were a kid and it still works very well for anyone learning to read for the first time.  Known also as auditory reassurance, the process of saying or hearing the words as you read them is a good way to reassure yourself that you’re saying them correctly.

However, now that you’re all grown up and you have accumulated years and years of reading experience, it’s no longer necessary to voice your words as you read them in order to understand them.  That’s because your brain already knows a lot of the words.  You’re older, you’ve been exposed to a lot more, and you already know what many words mean just by looking at them.

What I’m trying to say is that instead of involving the brain, the eyes, the ears, and the mouth, your eyes and your brain are quite capable of reading and comprehending all by themselves.  They don’t need any extra help from your other body parts.  All your ears and your mouth do now is get in the way.

So why do you still do it?

The reason you still say your words as you read them is because you’re in the habit of doing this.  It’s true.  You think that the only way to really understand what you’re reading is by saying the words too.  But it’s not necessary.  You don’t say “go” every time you come to a green light, do you?  You don’t because you already know that green mean go.  The same is true with a lot of things in your life.  You’ve built associations with words, and don’t need to repeat them word for word in order to understand them.

Like any habit, subvocalization is a hard habit to break.  But it might be easier to break if you realize how much this one single habit slows your reading speed.  That’s what I’m going to tell you next and I guarantee you’ll be shocked.

Are you ready?

When you voice your words as you read them as you do when you subvocalize, it means that you can only read as fast as you can talk out loud.  For most readers, that’s only about 150 words per minute; a reading rate that puts you in the category of a slow reader.  Slow readers are considered “talkers” meaning that they sound words out by moving their lips or they hear internally their own voice as they read word-for-word.

I know some of you out there are thinking, well I’m a fast talker, so that must mean I’m a fast reader.  And to a certain extent, you’re right.  But being a slow reader means you have a reading speed of between 100 and 200 words per minute.  So even if you’re a fast talker, there’s still a pretty good chance you’re considered a slow reader.  Even if you could read a little faster, between 200 and 300 words per minute, you’d still only be considered an average reader.  So there’s definitely room to improve.

Right now though, reading speed isn’t the issue.  The point to be made is that as long as you continue the habit of subvocalization, you will never achieve reading speeds associated with excellent readers which are 700 or more words per minute.

Do you say words in your head as you read them?

If you’re unsure whether you’re guilty of the subvocalization habit, try this.  Next time you read, pay closer attention.  If you notice your lips moving, even just slightly, or you hear yourself saying the words you read to yourself while you read, or you voice your words as you read, you’re guilty.

But that’s not the worst of it.  If you also hear yourself pronouncing every syllable of every word as you read, you are slowing your reading rate even further!  Believe it or not, a lot of readers actually take time to carefully pronounce the words they read rather than just mumbling them to themselves!

Here’s something else that’s going to surprise you.

A slower reading rate isn’t the only problem associated with subvocalization.  When you subvocalize, you’re more likely to get bored.  You might have thought the material you were reading was causing your boredom.  But in fact, what’s boring you could be the sound of your own voice!

When you subvocalize, you’re probably doing so in a monotone, expressionless manner so the sound inside your heads drones on and on and on.  And before you know it, you’re feeling tired, uninterested, and perhaps starting to daydream.

What do you think about that?

Again, don’t worry.  For right now, just be aware what subvocalization is and that it exists.  Later on, I’ll teach you how to break the subvocalization habit

I know I may have presented subvocalization in a less than brilliant light, but there are times when this reading habit comes in handy.

Here are some times when you may want to slow your reading speed and intentionally subvocalize:

  • When reading a really important document like a contract, especially if you don’t have a legal background
  • When reading material that’s very challenging
  • When trying to memorize something or when studying
  • When reading dialogue, plays, or religious texts
  • When you’re in a loud distracting environment and you are having trouble concentrating on what you’re reading.

Okay, that’s enough about subvocalization for now.

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