Speed Reading & Subvocalization

The accompanying article comes from Iris Reading, LLC, an online company which offers classes in speed reading, which they claim helps you ‘read faster, remember more, and boost your overall productivity’. In the article, they claim that the mental process of subvocalization, which was discussed in Chapter One lectures and in the textbook, limits reading speed to an average of 150 to 250 wpm depending on the person by forcing the reader to ‘say’ each word in their head. The key to reading faster is then, according to Iris, suppressing subvocalization, for which they provided five tips.

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Now, before addressing that proposal, it would be good to review the concepts in play. According to the textbook, subvocalization is ‘silent speech’ which can be utilized in the production of a phonological buffer, which is an internal auditory representation of the words on the page. It only lasts for a brief time, but it’s an important part of the working memory system, which in turn will feed into your long-term memory of whatever it is you’re reading.

The concurrent articulation task study we discussed in class becomes relevant at this point. In the experiment, a subject is asked to memorize a sequence of numbers or letters (a span task) while simultaneously repeating a simple sound. It turns out that the subject’s ability to recall longer sequences is negatively impacted when compared to their performance in ordinary silent span tests. This result demonstrates that the mental systems required for overt speech are the same mechanisms behind the phenomenon of subvocalization. Thus, when they are already occupied, the so-called ‘inner voice’ is suppressed, throwing off the brain’s internal rehearsal loop. For our purposes, the other important takeaway is that inhibiting subvocalization, at least in this case, seems to have a significantly detrimental effect on memory, suggesting a potential major drawback for the speed reading tips advocated for by the article.

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So what exactly does the article advise? One of the tips involves a method similar to the conditions of the concurrent articulation task, repeating ‘one, two, three’ repeatedly with the express intention of preventing yourself from saying the words you read in your head. Three more are tips that force you to read faster – by guiding your eyes with your hand, with a rapid presentation reading app, and simply by forcing yourself to take less time on each line – in order to avoid subvocalizing so many of the words. The last tip is to listen to music to help you concentrate, which supposedly helps to minimize the ‘habit’ of subvocalization.

If what we learned about the working memory applies, it would seem that what is really being offered here is training in skimming text, which, while perhaps efficient for quickly gathering key points, is going to minimize actual learning of information in the process. This seems to be backed by recent research on the subject; a 2016 study (https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100615623267) which reviewed the efficacy of speed-reading techniques similar to those listed in the Iris Reading article states that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy such that trying to read much faster than one’s natural pace is likely to prevent desirable comprehension of the text. Instead, Rayner et al. suggests that the best way to increase reading speed without sacrificing understanding is to focus on your linguistic abilities directly, improving things like your vocabulary instead of trying fighting subvocalization, an essential part of reading.