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How we learned to read

Why do we actually read word-for-word or with small fixations?

The habit to read each individual word slowly and thoroughly is a holdover from our primary school days when we first learned to read. Back then, it was a useful thing to concentrate on each word individually, as we had to decode them separately. Starting with the letters as symbols to which a certain sound is assigned, the combination of sounds resulted in words that had a certain meaning for us. Little by little, we were able to read the words to ourselves because we converted the sounds into a word meaning. This process of letting the inner voice read along is called subvocalization.

Subvocalisation, the inner voice

This method is helpful to learn the basics, but the limitations of this technique need to be overcome. The small field of vision on individual words, the many reading fixations and the inner voice reading along prevent us from reading faster and more efficiently.

By now we have done a lot of reading and know many words, so we no longer have to decode each of them aurally. Instead, we are able to recognise their meaning and significance purely visually. We have built up a kind of inner dictionary, a graphemic lexicon, over time that we can rely on. This way, words and groups of words can be grasped before we convert them into a sound.

Visual reading, word acquisition


Yet we habitually hold on to the word-for-word fixation, as well as subvocalisation, our inner voice. It is a conditioning towards phonetic word processing that we once needed because we did not yet know words.

These developmental stages of reading have conditioned us to "speech reading". However, because we can think much faster than we can speak, we limit ourselves significantly.


After all, there are two ways of reading. On one hand, there is the auditory (phonological) way, in which we have to speak out words internally. On the other hand, there is the visual (lexical) way, in which we grasp the meaning of words purely visually by referring back to words we already know. Using this path, more units of meaning can be grasped at once, which increases semantic understanding.

Trained readers use both ways of text acquisition to absorb information more quickly. Using the visual pathway, our brain can process several words at the same time, so we can set more efficient reading fixations and require less of them per line of text. We just need to increase the input via the eyes to the brain. It is worth learning to read all over again.

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