Recently, I was asked by a student about which techniques are most useful for silent reading, and how one might acquire this skill. This is a great question that I felt needed a post to answer all the parts. Here is our conversation. Ellery Garrison, Reading Specialist, Baker Web Academy
Student: I have a question about how one should read when they are reading silently. I was recently talking to a friend who is a very good reader. He told me that when he reads, his eyes see the words and the words "click" (or rather the meaning of the words "click") in his brain and he understands them. He told me that when he sees numbers, they slow him down because he has to actually say them in his head.
EG: There are two methods of reading silently: subvocalization (saying the words inside your head), and non-subvocalization in which you are not saying the words but instead thinking about the meanings of the words.
Student: It is interesting that numbers slow him down; however, if they are in the numerical form rather than the written word I can see that connection.
EG: That is likely due to the area of the brain that does mathematical functions as opposed to the portion of the brain he uses to "define" the words inside his head.
Student: I realized that when I am reading, I actually say every single word in my head as if someone was reading it aloud to me.
EG: I often do this as well. I found that I had to practice reading in a faster manner (regardless of clarity) a few times to make my brain more comfortable with the feel. This 'forced speed reading' does help you train your mind to gloss over words and interpret meaning rather than saying these words subvocally. It is something you really have to work at, but can be done.
Student: So I have a few questions about this. First, which method is more efficient: actually saying every word in one's head, or being able to look at the word and instantly understand its meaning?
EG: This is actually a trick question because BOTH methods are effective for different purposes:
- Subvocalization (or saying the words inside your head as you read) is very effective for memorization, focused comprehension, learning, and intense focus. It is bad for reading quickly, as you will never read faster than you talk at about a rate of 150 words per minute.
- No Subvocalization is great for reading at a very rapid pace, and is good for total comprehension of the entire written work.
Student: How does one acquire this skill [of reading without saying the words in your head]?
EG: You must work at it. The reason you are using subvocalization is because you were taught that way! As a child you began by reciting letter sounds of words aloud and then you would transfer this skill inside your head.
I suggest that students take time each day to read by speed reading the passage as fast as possible first, regardless of accuracy. Then go back and try it a little bit slower. It is important to try and think about the 'meanings' of the words and NOT the words themselves. Of course, this is very difficult. With practice, you will begin to improve, and your speed and accuracy will pick up.
Just like how you learned to read as a child...this is a process! It has to be worked on over and over to achieve mastery, but it is a very great skill to have. If you find that you are stopping more than 5 times in a 100-word passage (this is known as the 5-finger rule) the context of the passage is above your reading level (ie: your vocabulary is not high enough to achieve mastery). Having a high vocabulary is absolutely a key to learning to read quickly. My suggestion to increase accuracy: crossword puzzles, scrabble, online word games with definitions.
Student: Here is one more, slightly off-topic question. Is it possible to learn to read multiple words at once? Is it possible to learn to see and understand say 2, 3 or even four words at once, so when you are reading you are able to read by moving your eyes less and less sideways and thus you can read much faster? If yes, how might one acquire this?
EG: Many speed-reading programs would say yes. I have heard that it is possible to train your brain to read multiple words at once and comprehend them; however, I admit I have not experienced this myself. I find that as I read quickly that I will "flash" my eyes across a line and pick up many (but not all) of the words at once. When I think about it now (since I obviously don't as I am reading), my brain can very often fill in the blanks when it comes to conjunctions (and, for, or, so, etc), and other high-frequency words. Therefore, it appears that I am reading multiple words at once, but in actuality, I am reading portions of phrases.
I really hope that I was able to answer all of your questions and that you have a good place of where to start to acquire this skill!