Wondering how to stop subvocalizing?
Well, let me ask you this:
What if this rather strange term from the world of speed reading is fraudulent? Or what if reducing subvocalization is tactically a false goal for any serious lifelong learner?
Here’s an even better question:
What if there exist strategic ways to use your “inner voice” to read faster?
You’re in luck.
You see, the Magnetic Memory Method stresses the importance of avoiding energy-draining “tactics” so you can focus on enthusiasm-producing strategies that actually help you learn faster and better.
That’s why on this page, we’re going to explore:
- How this strange term “subvocalization” has been defined and used historically.
- The psychological pain used to exploit people who are desperate to learn (this is probably what allows for the perpetuation of pseudo-scientific fraud in this area).
- Real techniques you can use to improve reading comprehension and speed by using your inner voice.
And hey, if after you discover the truth subvocalization you still want to reduce it, I’ve got something for you. I’ll mention a simple trick from the world of meditation that is more likely to get you there.
It’s perfectly a reasonable exercise. And the best part is that it relates scientifically to the nature of consciousness and studies in other aspects of learning where the eyes are involved.
Let’s get started.
What Is Subvocalization?
First of all, there’s a long history to this term, and “subvocalization” isn’t the only word people have used. As Donald L. Cleland and William C. Davies show in “Silent Speech – History and Current Status,” the term also appears as:
- Silent speech
- Implicit speech
- Lip reading
The first recorded observation of people “speaking silently” to themselves occurred in 1868. Two psychologists focused on human physiology created a device like a telegraph key activated by the tongues of their test subjects. Everything they discovered is premised on the idea that parts of your mouth and throat move while you are reading.
Somehow… for reasons no one seems to know… these movements came to be negatively portrayed as a (gasp!) habit.
What we do know is that people who cite the same research clearly haven’t interpreted it as I have. They clearly missed Ake Edelfelt’s conclusion that subvocalization should not be stopped (more on his research-based assessment below).
Frankly, if my interpretation is correct, and the “speed reader” who says the research calls it a bad habit is correct, then one of us is a horrible reader. Given that no one writing on that site uses a full name or lists any academic credentials… I don’t wish to come across as arrogant, but the bad reader probably isn’t me.
The Historical Devices That Proved Subvocalization Is Normal
Later devices used to study subvocalization included connecting a pneumograph to a kymograph.
Some of these studies may have been mixed up with research into stuttering, which also involved using a pneumograph.
If you read John Madison’s An Experimental Study of Stuttering, for example, he finds that stutters suffer brain fog and poor concentration. But he also finds that the use of a telegraph key for gathering data related to vocalization is highly suspect.
Obviously, early 20th century science was not as sophisticated as what we have today. A lot of different people entered fields of study without necessarily having direct or even indirect credentials.
It is thought, for example, that Rune Elmqvist, inventor of the first pacemaker, may have contributed an early electronically activated writing machine to initial experiments.
It is not that he shouldn’t have, but when you see so many people with so many devices studying phenomena like this, here’s a suggestion. Start thinking “Wild West of Knowledge.” That will be more effective than expecting anything like clear and focused scientific analysis from this historical period.
Indeed, when the first serious publication finally arises in 1960, Ake Edelfelt completely dismisses subvocalizing as a problem:
“Silent speech is universal during silent reading; efforts to eliminate it should be discontinued.”
How To Stop Subvocalizing: Seven Weird, Unproven Tips That Probably Won’t Work
The first thing you need to understand is that it’s more than fraudulent to claim that subvocalization should be stopped. It’s contradicted by almost every speed reading program and book I’ve seen.
For example, in a course called “Kwik Reading” by Jim Kwik, you are given ways to reduce subvocalization.
A few videos later, you are told to ask questions while reading.
Well… which is it? Hear your inner voice or don’t hear your inner voice? How are you supposed to ask questions mentally if you’re trying to be silent?
The lack of clarity and the utterly impossible to ignore contradiction in terms should instantly remind you of Ake Edelfelt’s finding: stop trying to do this.
To persist in forcing yourself to be silence is nonsense. In fact, my research has yet to show exactly how something as normal and natural as subvocalizing came to be called a “habit.” It’s even less clear how the speed reading crowd started heaping so many negative connotations on your natural reading voice.
But wait. There’s more, because the advice only gets worse. For example:
One: Keep Reading
A lot of speed reading training books and programs tell you to stop “backreading” or “regressing.”
This “tactic” is utter nonsense for many reasons.
For example, have you ever read Nietzsche? He causes you to reread things he’s said frequently.
Have a look at this passage from The Gay Science:
Owing to three Errors. Science has been furthered during recent centuries, partly because it was hoped that God’s goodness and wisdom would be best understood therewith and thereby – the principal motive in the soul of great Englishmen (like Newton); partly because the absolute utility of knowledge was believed in, and especially the most intimate connection of morality, knowledge, and happiness – the principal motive in the soul of great Frenchmen (like Voltaire); and partly because it was thought that in science there was something unselfish, harmless, self-sufficing, lovable, and truly innocent to be had, in which the evil human impulses did not at all participate – the principal motive in the soul of Spinoza, who felt himself divine, as a knowing being: – it is consequently owing to three errors that science has been furthered.
Nietzsche says he’s going to talk about three errors at the beginning of the passage. He then doesn’t use the word “error” again until the last sentence. To understand what the errors are, you literally have to go back and reread the passage.
Different ways of referring back to points within entire books or even individual paragraphs is a strategy that good writers use all the time. It’s like a P.S. inside of prose, or a callback to a salient point mentioned earlier in the text. If an author says, “As I mentioned back in chapter one,” there is zero reason why you would not go back to reread the passage if you can’t remember it.
Sure, you might “read” faster by not going back to refresh points an author reiterates, but you’re not guaranteed to understand more just by plowing forward. If anything, your path to meaningful comprehension will be slowed, if not destroyed.
Pro tip: Although I strongly disagree that you should avoid “regressing” backwards by rereading information (in fact, one of my most popular posts teaches a rereading strategy), there is a subtle point to be drawn here.
When you can’t understand something and repeating an idea isn’t making it any clearer, moving forward can be helpful. There are many difficult topics I’ve read where I needed to not only keep reading, but also read outside of the text by using supplement guides and other resources.
I also needed to memorize information I did not understand, which is one of the three corrections I made when correcting these three pieces of bad advice memory experts tend to give.
Two: Use Your Finger Or A Pointer
If running a finger, pencil, chopstick or broken antenna from a transistor radio helps you read better, that’s great. You’ll get no argument from me.
But I think you deserve to know the origin of this tactic, which may have hypnotized people around the world into thinking it has an effect it might not.
According to Marcia Biederman in Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked, the origin story of this technique is beyond belief.
Here’s how it goes:
Let me ask you this:
How do you read a moving sentence on a small object like a book, even with a finger between your eyes and, say 21 words, flying through the air?
Again, I’m not saying that some kind of aid can’t help.
But before you invest a ton of time in it, consider how these tactics come into being in the first place. You could save yourself a lot of time and energy as you use the rule strategies needed for reading faster.
Pro Tip: The rare time I can’t focus, I will use a blank index card to cover up parts of the page I’m not reading. I find this approach useful because it removes the stimulation of all the other words.
However, there is a technique related to this that is worth using in the context of meditation. It appears in Gary Weber’s Happiness Beyond Thought.
This techniques stems from the Zen tradition.
To perform the exercise, count from one to ten and try to suppress the even numbers. It’s kind of like playing a game of, “Don’t think of a red cat,” but I’ve found that I actually can do it (even though it took over a year of trying).
Has this exercise helped me concentrate more while reading while also picking up speed and comprehending more?
Some people can listen to music while reading. When I was younger, I was able to do it all the time. I used to write a lot while listening to music (and sometimes still do).
However, I don’t see how doing this can help reduce your inner voice. This article provides no research to back up the claim and says that “Classical usually music works best.”
Really? Which Classical music? What does “usually” mean?
I don’t know about you, but when I listen to Bach and Beethoven, those masters grab my ears by the throat and don’t let go.
Good music commands our attention, so although I know from personal experience that it’s not impossible, these dubious claims with zero substantial research evidence or even anecdotes make no sense. They only raise questions.
Five: Force Yourself To Read Faster Than Normal
Although there is merit in pushing ourselves for better performance, there’s a potentially huge problem in this suggestion.
For one thing, if you’re pushing yourself to read faster how are you doing it?
Chances are… you’re doing it in thoughts. And that means you’re almost certainly “subvocalizing.”
Plus, speed reading books and courses always advocate defining your “normal” reading speed. They talk about spending a lot of time testing how fast you’re reading and recording the numbers.
I find this practice odd for a few reasons:
- As with the command to read faster, you’re creating mental content that almost certainly places a filter or lens between you and the content you should be focused on.
- Being aware of having a timer on and needing to count words also creates more mental content to think about (and vocalize while reading).
- How many people are actually skilled enough with the numeracy needed to:
- Create and gather accurate data?
- Analyze the data they produce accurately?
- Reasonably and reliably crossindex the speed data against the behaviors of their throats while reading?
By all means, experiment with placing such filters on the reading experience.
As John Graham has shared, adding “obstructions” during memory training helped him win the 2018 USA Memory Competition. But keep in mind that those training efforts were directed at a competition outcome, and there is nothing in particular any memory competitor needs to understand.
When it comes to speed reading competitions, where timing is definitely an issue, I couldn’t find any sample questions to get a sense of how in-depth the comprehension questions go.
That would be interesting to know, as would the specific criteria that apparently satisfied a “group of [unnamed] reporters” that Anne Jones read the final Harry Potter novel in 47 minutes.
I’m seriously suspicious of the intellectual credibility of the questions she was asked, especially when her summary of a novel that was not read in anything like test conditions is that it was “very, very interesting.”
Again, even if we had access to the standard used to question Jones’ comprehension, the larger point is this:
Competition and speed reading demonstration outcomes do not necessarily reflect anything related to the reading comprehension strategies that actually help people get ahead in their lives.
It’s also easy to fake knowledge of fiction, especially pop culture fare, because they are grounded upon well-known principles of narratology, such as the hero’s journey archetype. I’d love to see someone read Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs in the same period of time. That book too is something anyone could call “very, very interesting.”
Six: Train Your Eyes
I’m not sure how running an infinity sign in front of your eyes with your finger is supposed to stop you from reading in your head.
It’s also not clear how any number of arm movements are supposed to help in this regard, though many speed reading books and courses insert what appears to be elements from Qigong and so-called Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) like “tapping.”
Personally, running my eyes around in circles only gives me a headache. I highly recommend you check with a doctor first before engaging in any eye movement exercises. And take other body movement instructions with a grain of salt. There’s no doubt some physical movement can help you read better, but what it has to do with learning how to read without subvocalizing remains a mystery.
Seven: Train with Software
The Internet is awash with software programs purporting to help with different speed reading skills. Most of these softwares show you one word at a time, kind of like certain movie previews flash words on the screen for dramatic effect.
I’m not sure how being shown individual words is going to help, but clearly part of the idea is that you will experience the words so quickly, you won’t have time to sound out the words. I’m not sure if it’s true, but when looking at these softwares, I quickly feel nauseous.
To be fair, I once submitted myself to reading an entire chapter of a Dostoevsky novel using one of these software programs. Sure, it does feel like you’re following along.
But there’s a catch. I can’t remember which novel it was, I don’t remember anything about the chapter, and who knows… maybe it wasn’t even by Dostoevsky.
Worse, the reading experience was far from pleasurable. In fact, the experience was downright painful, and the only time I ever looked at such software again was while preparing this article.
The Real Way To Stop Subvocalizing
I’ve gone through many tough times due to bipolar disorder. During university, my mind sometimes got so loud during episodes where I could not afford to stop studying that I frequently went to the hospital for help.
Do you want to know what helped?
Increasing the sounds of words, not decreasing them.
Back then, books on tape were still quite rare, and even rarer on CD. But whenever possible, I got them and would listen to the books narrated by professional actors while following along with the text in hand.
And listening to the incomparable George Guidall narrate Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is not something I think I’ll ever forget.
When I couldn’t find a book on tape or CD, which was often the case with the dense philosophy I needed to cover… I narrated the books myself. I often used a micro-cassette recorder so I could review the material at 2x speed. It made me sound like Mickey Mouse, but that was okay because it let me use a powerful technique for memorizing textbooks.
When you’re immersed in the reading experience, you know exactly how to eliminate subvocalization. You do it by merging with the text and loving the reading experience, something that can require a bit of mental strength if you don’t know how to deal with boring topics.
Frankly, I can say that I never read in my head. I always strive to “fuse” with the author so I can assemble with their ideas and share as much as possible of their realm of human consciousness.
What Reading In Your Head Really Means
Because here’s the truth:
Humans never read in their own heads.
No individual owns language. And each brain is an information storage and retrieval “device” that relies on trafficking in words that are shared.
Words aren’t really all that important at the end of the day. It’s the ideas words point to that matters. And when the hucksters get away with shilling their garbage about “subvocalization,” it’s because they’re preying on the pain some people feel when they are locked out of the conversation.
So if you want to be included in great conversations, your best bet is to:
- Increase your vocabulary
- Create detailed study missions
- Read more good books, much more often
And to help you with learning more vocabulary so you can read faster as the path to remembering more, make sure you grab my free memory improvement kit. It will give you access to the universal Memory Palace technique every single person can and should learn.
Until next time, never forget:
We read to interact with the “voices” of others. Vocalize or do whatever you need to do to get at the meaning contained by the words and you cannot help but read better and faster.