Subvocalization, Speed-reading, and Memorization

(Josh Cohen) #1

I saw a page about speed-reading that talked about subvocalization in speed-reading:

One of the basic goals is the elimination of subvocalization, claimed to be the thing that slows readers down the most. Subvocalization is the imagined pronunciation of every word we read. I do this a lot, and it limits my reading speed to virtually the same as my talking speed. Subvocalization is even accompanied by minute movements of the tongue and throat muscles. Nearly every speed reading class promises the elimination of subvocalization.

Here’s the problem with that. You can’t read without subvocalization. Carver and Rayner have both found that even the fastest readers all subvocalize. Even skimmers subvocalize key words. This is detectable, even among speed readers who think they don’t do it, by the placement of electromagnetic sensors on the throat which pick up the faint nerve impulses sent to the muscles. Our brains just don’t seem to be able to completely divorce reading from speaking. NASA has even built systems to pick up these impulses, using them to browse the web or potentially even control a spacecraft. Chuck Jorgensen, who ran a team at NASA in 2004 developing this system, said:

“Biological signals arise when reading or speaking to oneself with or without actual lip or facial movement. A person using the subvocal system thinks of phrases and talks to himself so quietly, it cannot be heard, but the tongue and vocal chords do receive speech signals from the brain.”

Let me know what you think, especially about subvocalizing during memorization. It would be interesting to wire up some memory athletes to see if they unconsciously subvocalize. :slight_smile:

(Silvio B.) #2

I’ve always struggled with speed reading. When I try to eliminate subvocalization, I tend to forget much more of what I read. That being said, I think it highly depends on the information you’re reading. I only use speed reading for unimportant information that I don’t have to remember for a long time, whereas I do the exact opposite for important information (I consciously subvocalize in my mind in a normal “speaking-speed”).

I can’t really tell if I subvocalize during memorization (like of Memory League etc.), I don’t do it consciously, though. But that information doesn’t have to stick very long, so it’s completely different from memorizing for long term, where I always read it slowly, turn the key words into pictures, instantly review and then move on (a couple of times, then review everything again and move on again etc.).


@Josh an extremely important post. You have saved people a lot of misery. I too spent a long time trying to eliminate sub-vocalization.

I fully agree with the statement you bolded - sub-vocalization is essential for learning. I have found for some types of non-fiction I can skip over sub-vocalizing articles and pronouns and such. For fiction, it is better to slow down, hear everything, and try to even visualize the scene (which helps with memory techniques).

I know memory champion Nelson Dellis sub-vocalizes EVERYTHING when practicing or reviewing memory palaces.


It is not essential but it is also not detrimental. The downside is notably that you would have a bottleneck in speed. There will be added comprehension, most people do not memorise things fast enough to feel that bottleneck occurring, you would feel it more severely if you memorised associations to a video that is perhaps one minute long and suddenly realise that while you can recall the image associations the subvocal associations are failing as the video runs. In short it is useful especially when it is not your bottleneck, it is also not that useful because it won’t make your images in particular stick more, it will make other things stick more like your memory of the part that you are subvocalising.

It is possible not to subvocalise because there was a time before children could read, and for some of those children they could still see text and think of pictures. It is also possible to think in pictures so it is not impossible to read without subvocalising. It is more arguable that reading now is so strongly associated to the subvocal representation that it is far too difficult to simply avoid it.

One thing to realise is that subvocalization is not actually slow but it is far more sounds being re-produced at a time. If you could compare the shortest sound you could make in your mind with visualising a single image that would be a comparison. People who are speed reading are inevitably skipping, ideally the best way to skip is to process the words rather than the components (subvocalization does this) that make up the words or even multiple words at a time , then you wouldn’t be able to remember words or combinations you don’t know. Even then you wouldn’t be able to memorise combinations just because you know the individual words since that uses your subvocal system and you do not know these words visually. You could substitute reading with writing words in your mind or typing them and it would function sufficiently, I wouldn’t say its quicker though.

It might be nice to pronounce combinations of numbers as small sounds and have an association to those sounds as images to see if it gives any superior benefits. Saying “threezerozero” or “threehundred” vs saying "tht"is a very large difference in speed. Similarly if you are unconsciously subvocalising the numbers as you remember them then this is interfering with your recall as they would lag behind perhaps 2-3 image systems. If you somehow still subconsciously subvocalized the numbers in your language of choice it would be interesting to see if learning many verbal representations for numbers would imply better recall by simply glancing over the number. Though i mentioned numbers here this applies equally so to text.

So I would think.

(Josh Cohen) #5

I just noticed a related link from a few years ago: "The harsh truth about speed-reading" (and subvocalization)

Edit: I’ve just grouped a lot of the speed reading posts under a #speed-reading tag so they are easier to find.


I found a very useful article on quick reading.

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(Josh Cohen) #7


The research shows that there is a trade-off between speed and accuracy. It is unlikely that readers will be able to double or triple their reading speeds (e.g., from around 250 to 500–750 words per minute) while still being able to understand the text as well as if they read at normal speed. If a thorough understanding of the text is not the reader’s goal, then speed reading or skimming the text will allow the reader to get through it faster with moderate comprehension. The way to maintain high comprehension and get through text faster is to practice reading and to become a more skilled language user (e.g., through increased vocabulary). This is because language skill is at the heart of reading speed.

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