Subvocalization and Greek Speed Reading

Abram K-J asks a question concerning my previous post, which mentioned the key role of subvocalization in reading. Subvocalization is “saying” the words silently in your mind as you read them. When you do this, you “hear” the words and your mind is able to comprehend them. In this sense, I said, reading is hearing. When you do a brain scan of a person who is reading, it’s the auditory centers of the brain that light up.

Abram asks how this works with speed reading. Speed reading courses typically teach the student that avoiding subvocalization is crucial to becoming a very fast reader.

Where’s the Evidence?
Here’s the thing, though. Call me a bit of a speed reading skeptic. I’ve done speed reading courses and found some helpful techniques, but those primarily had to do with speed-scanning or -skimming a page, not what I would call reading. Further, from my (limited) research, scientists who have run tests on speed readers are generally unimpressed by the results. In fact, there is good reason to think that the eye itself limits the speed at which we can read, as it’s unable to focus on more than a little text at a time.

Slate magazine has a good write-up here that deals with the major issues.  Note that speed reading tests always use very simple writing, like the kind you’d find in Reader’s Digest; so anyone who claims they’re speed reading Barth is really full of it.

Reading Like Rain Man
Now, there is at least one scientifically documented speed reader: Kim Peek, the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. But, please note that Peek lacked a corpus callosum, which links the two hemispheres of the brain. The very trait that allowed him to speed read had him counting down minutes to Wapner and kept him from learning how to button his shirt.

So, the research currently shows that subvocalization of some form is unavoidable. Tests using very sensitive machines find muscle movement in the vocal chords of readers that is undetectable even to the readers themselves. Even deaf people subvocalize (or the muscular equivalent) when they read! So, the point still stands: reading is hearing, and if we want to get better at reading Greek or any second language, we must develop automaticity through hearing and speaking that language.


About Daniel R. Streett

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Houston Baptist University
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7 Responses to Subvocalization and Greek Speed Reading

  1. abramkj says:

    This is great, and makes me really wish I knew more about reading theory! Interesting Slate article. I definitely agree that to improve at reading Greek (or anything else), “we must develop automaticity through hearing and speaking that language.” Randall Buth’s method, for example, looks more and more appealing to me the more I read about it. I guess I’m just not 100% convinced that hearing has to also happen in the same moment that reading does.

    I’d be curious to learn more about the research you’re mentioning, or that the Slate article noted. I believe it, though I have had some success in not subvocalizing English, reading faster as a result, and still retaining a chunk of what I’ve read. Of course, I couldn’t do that with Barth, but I have been able to do it with a book of theology around a subject with which I’m familiar (so that I didn’t have to pause over unfamiliar terms, etc.). But to your point–maybe my vocal chords were actually moving at the time (when I thought I wasn’t subvocalizing) and I just didn’t know?

    So would it make sense, then, to talk about degrees of subvocalization? And to say that if it’s inevitable, still trying to subvocalize less is “better” for reading faster?

    • Thanks for the comment, Abram. To respond to your idea of degrees of subvocalization, the research seems to be saying that this is, in effect, the same as degrees of reading or skimming. The fewer words you subvocalize, the more you are skimming. What they are claiming is that subvocalization is essential to “processing” the words and meanings in the texts. Comprehension only comes through this (sub)auditory mechanism. When you skim–and I have had the same experience as you with skimming works on subjects I am very familiar with–you are simply subvocalizing a phrase or sentence there, a phrase or sentence here. Your knowledge of the subject fills in the gaps. But this does not rise to the level of “reading” as psycholinguistics defines it.

  2. mvpcworshipblog says:

    It seems to me (those 4 dangerous words) that the Internet encourages people to skim. Unless we are self-conscious about actually reading we can bring skimming over into works that need to be pondered and digested.

  3. Pingback: Around the Web: Christian Blogs and Web Links and Quotes | Scripture Zealot

  4. Randall Buth says:

    I left a comment on the previous article (Need to Speak…) that relates to this. The ‘subvocalization’ that psycholinguistics is talking about is not conscious but preconscious. It is the process through which the brain converts image to meaning. The images are first connected to sound and then the sound is run through the language inventory to match with words and meaning units until a concept or meaning is attained. That is where a person becomes conscious of the process or the meaning of the message and the sound of the message. If they “hear” that message, it is an echo of the original process of the phonological loop.

  5. Tomas says:

    I’d like to challenge the claim that there is “at least one scientifically documented speed reader” in Kim Peek. I’ve done a search of the scientific literature and can find no evidence that Kim Peek’s speed reading abilities have been rigorously tested by scientists. All the claims of exceptional speed reading abilities of Kim Peek that I can find trace back to less reliable sources, such as the claims of Kim Peek’s father, or journalists, rather than actual scientific tests.

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