Subvocalization (also known as auditory reassurance) is a very common habit among readers. It involves saying words in your head while reading and it’s one of the main reasons why 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 the habit completely is not possible.
In this article I will discuss how you can minimize subvocalization, instead of eliminating it. Minimizing subvocalization will help you boost your reading speed and it will also help you improve your comprehension.
Are You Hearing Voices in Your Head?
If you’re hearing voices in your head while reading, don’t be alarmed. You aren’t crazy. This is how most people were taught to read; to say the word silently in their head.
When you were initially taught to read, you are taught to read out loud. Once you were fluent enough, your teacher probably told you to start vocalizing 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 change this habit of subvocalization.
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.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Think about when you are driving. When you see a stop sign, do you actually vocalize 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 recognize that it’s a stop sign automatically.
If you’re like most readers, you probably subvocalize all, or almost all, the words in your head. But you don’t always vocalize everything you read. Here’s another example of what I mean. If you were reading and came across the year “1977″ you probably wouldn’t vocalize in your head “Nineteen Seventy Seven.” You would probably see the number and understand the year. Or if you saw the number “3,472,382,977″ you probably wouldn’t vocalize 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, reading is about is 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? If you’re like most people you would equate those three words (New York City) to a city. NYC would mean the same thing right?
So we have to change this habit of subvocalization in order to boost our reading speed. Why do we have to do this? Because it limits how fast we can actually read. Think about it this way. If you are saying every word in your head, doesn’t that mean that you can only read as fast as you can talk? If you’re saying every single word in your head, your limit is going to be your talking speed.
Reading Speed = Talking Speed for Most People
The average reading speed is about 150-250 words per minute (wpm). The average talking speed is exactly the same. Beause most people say words in their head while reading (subvoclization), they tend to read around 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).
Why do most people read between 150 and 250 wpm and not above 300 wpm? Because it’s hard to talk that fast. So we need to change this habit of subvocalization. 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, if you are reading a text that said, “The boy jumped over the fence.” That sentence has a number of words in it. 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 are not actually skipping them. Your eyes still see all the other 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. Remember, we are reading for ideas, not words.
How Subvocalization Can Sometimes Be Useful
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. In situations like this, saying words in your head, or even out loud, can be a useful way to improve and expand your vocabulary.
Here’s another way subvocalization can be useful. 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 noramlly read, you very rarely need to know something word for word. Most of the time you are reading to extraction information, ideas and details.
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 you are changing this habit? 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.
5 Ways To Minimize Subvocalization:
1. Use Your Hand 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 it’s 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 try to chew gum while you read. If you chew gum while reading it will distract you from saying the words in your head.
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
This will not only help you minimize subvocalization, but listening to music may also help you 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 to improve your concentration and it will also help you to 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. Anything higher than that will help you avoid subvocalizing all the words. The faster you go, the less 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 amount of words you say in your head. In addition to minimizing subvocalization, you’ll also improve your focus because you have to pay attention more when you read a little faster. Again, the more you practice pushing yourself faster, the faster you will get.
As I mentioned earlier, many speed-reading programs tend to exaaggerate what is possible by falsely claiming that you can eliminate subvocalization. Your goal should be to minimize this habit, not eliminate it. The five tips mentioned above will help you minimize the habit of subvocalization so you can start reading at the speed of thought.
About the Author: Paul Nowak is the founder of Iris Reading, the largest provider of speed-reading courses in North America. His workshops have been taught to thousands of students and business professionals in major cities across the U.S. He has been a guest speaker at numerous institutions, some of which include Harvard, Stanford and the University of Chicago. He has also trained employees at NASA, Google, Groupon and a number of Fortune 500 companies.
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