Not Just A Habit
Why do we sub-vocalize when we read? It’s important to understand the reason, if we want to learn to stop. It’s a habit, right? One we picked up when we first learned to read, and so we are almost helpless to stop. Now we have to either mumble quietly, silently move our lips, or at least say the words in your head when we read.
Everyone tells us that vocalizing is just a bad habit, and one we can break if we try hard enough. Maybe we should hold a pencil between our teeth, or hum a song, or count numbers out loud while we read. But these tricks don’t work, and the reason they don’t is because they either ignore, or are unaware of, the actual benefit we get from vocalizing.
Vocalizing is not just a habit. Vocalizing actually helps your reading comprehension, and that is why it’s so hard to stop. In order to stop vocalizing, you first need to know how vocalizing is helping your comprehension, and then learn how to replace this help.
Why Readers Vocalize
When we read, we don’t wait until the very end of each sentence before we start to understand it. Actually, we continuously process the sentence as we read along.
For example, if we read, “The big black dog chased the cat up a tree.”, we don’t read all ten words of the sentence, having no ideas about what we are reading, until we come to the period at the end. No, once we’ve read as far as, “The big black dog”, we’ve already formed an idea of what the sentence is about. And then when we come to, “chased the cat”, we continue to flesh out a larger meaning. By the time we get to, “up a tree”, we understand completely what’s going up a tree and why. We actually read by phrases, and each phrase in a sentence is an understandable element of thought on its own.
Sentences are usually made of multiple phrases, consisting of ‘though-units’ — which form parts of the larger whole. When we listen or speak, subtle intonations of the voice are used to indicate the beginning of each phrase. This is done so naturally, that we are not even consciously aware of it, but it does make the sentence clearer. There doesn’t even need to be a pause between the phrases — a slightly lower tone alone, is all that is needed indicate to the listener that the next thought is coming.
Listen carefully – to the first word – of each phrase.
You should notice that if you speak the sentence, the first word of each phrase is spoken in a slightly lower tone, to indicate the beginning of each phrase or thought. These audio clues are very helpful for understanding while listening to someone speak, but they are obviously missing in written text. Therefore we have a tendency to recite the sentence to ourselves, so that we can listen for where these cues would be.
For some reason, it’s just easier for us to identify the thoughts in sentences when we listen to them. This possibly has something to do with the fact that humans have been speaking for hundreds of thousands of years longer than they’ve been reading, and sub-vocalizing is a way of translating this new ‘written’ language into the verbal language which our brains are much more used to.
So the reason we vocalize is to make understanding easier; vocalizing is actually more of a crutch than a habit.
The way to stop sub-vocalizing is to learn to recognize the thought-units while you are reading. Then you wouldn’t need to listen for them. By reading thought-units, you would be replacing the vocalizing habit, rather than trying to suppress it. And it’s always easier to replace a habit with another, since it is difficult and often counter-productive to concentrate on NOT doing something.
Reading thought-units will do more than end your vocalizing habit — it will also increase your comprehension, your retention and your reading speed, because you will be concentrating on whole ideas rather than individual words. In fact learning to read thought-units and reading groups-of-words at-a-time, is the foundation of most speed reading courses.
Vocalizing is a habit, but you can replace it with a better one. In fact when you read by thought-units, you will find you no longer even feel like vocalizing. You will grasp the meaning of each phrase at a single glance, and you will find it easier to understand what you read. You will be thinking of the meaning of what you read, rather than the sound of the words.