Definition and Examples of Subvocalizing

Woman reading a book aloud
Hero Images

Though subvocalizing, the act of saying words silently to oneself while reading, tends to limit how fast we can read, it isn't necessarily an undesirable habit. As Emerald Dechant observes, "It seems likely that speech traces are a part of all, or nearly all, thinking and probably even 'silent' reading. . . . That speech aids thinking was recognized by early philosophers and psychologists" (Understanding and Teaching Reading).

Examples of Subvocalizing

"A powerful but woefully under-discussed influence on readers is the sound of your written words, which they hear inside their heads as they subvocalize--going through the mental processes of generating speech, but not actually triggering speech muscles or uttering sounds. As the piece unfolds, readers listen to this mental speech as if it were spoken aloud. What they 'hear' is, in fact, their own voices saying your words, but saying them silently.

"Here is a fairly typical sentence. Try reading it silently and then out loud.

It was the Boston Public Library, opened in 1852, that founded the American tradition of free public libraries open to all citizens.

As you read the sentence you should notice a pause in the flow of words after 'Library' and '1852' . . .. Breath units divide the information in the sentence into segments that readers subvocalize separately."
(Joe Glaser, Understanding Style: Practical Ways to Improve Your Writing. Oxford Univ. Press, 1999)

Subvocalizing and Reading Speed

"Most of us read by subvocalizing (saying to ourselves) the words in the text. Although subvocalizing can help us remember what we read, it limits how fast we can read. Because covert speech is not much faster than overt speech, subvocalization limits reading speed to the rate of speaking; we could read faster if we didn't translate printed words into speech-based code."
(Stephen K. Reed, Cognition: Theories and Applications, 9th ed. Cengage, 2012)

"[R]eading theorists such as Gough (1972) believe that in high-speed fluent reading, subvocalizing does not actually happen because the speed of silent reading is faster than what would occur if readers said each word silently to themselves as they read. The silent reading speed for 12th graders when reading for meaning is 250 words per minute, whereas the speed for oral reading is only 150 words per minute (Carver, 1990). However, in beginning reading, when the word-recognition process is far slower than in skilled fluent reading, subvocalization . . . may be taking place because the reading speed is so much slower."
(S. Jay Samuels "Toward a Model of Reading Fluency." What Research Has to Say About Fluency Instruction, eds. S.J. Samuels and A.E. Farstrup. International Reading Assoc., 2006)

Subvocalizing and Reading Comprehension

"[R]eading is message reconstruction (like reading a map), and for the most part comprehension of meaning depends on using all the cues available. Readers will be better decoders of meaning is they understand sentence structures and if they concentrate most of their processing ability on the extraction of meanings using both semantic and syntactic context in reading. Readers must check the validity of their predictions in reading by seeing whether they produced language structures as they know them and whether they make sense. . . .

"In summary, an adequate response in reading thus demands much more than the mere identification and recognition of the configuration of the written word."
(Emerald Dechant, Understanding and Teaching Reading: An Interactive Model. Routledge, 1991)

"Subvocalization (or reading silently to oneself) can't in itself contribute to meaning or understanding any more than reading aloud can. Indeed, like reading aloud, subvocalization can only be accomplished with anything like normal speed and intonation if it is preceded by comprehension. We don't listen to ourselves mumbling parts of words or fragments of phrases and then comprehend. If anything, subvocalization slows readers down and interferes with comprehension. The habit of subvocalization can be broken without loss of comprehension (Hardyck & Petrinovich, 1970)."
(Frank Smith, Understanding Reading, 6th ed. Routledge, 2011)

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Subvocalizing." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of Subvocalizing. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Subvocalizing." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 23, 2023).