The Origins of Silent Reading and its Impact on Education

It is hard to think of a world where silent reading did not exist, at least in a westernized world.  To the literate person silent reading happens naturally; however, there was time when reading was only done orally.  Silent reading began with the standardization of writing techniques and the advent of the printing press.  Over time, as literacy became more widespread and books easier to own privately, reading habits changed from communal group readings to a private, silent activity.  This also shifted scholarship from a communal, public, and sometimes censored act to individual, private and sometimes controversial study.  Today’s educational systems still emphasize silent reading and critical thinking, but they are shifting once again to include teamwork and collaboration as essential competencies.

The History of Oral Reading, Text Standardization and the Printing Press

Before the Roman alphabet and widespread literacy reading was conducted orally.  Ong (2002) maintains that primary oral cultures used formulas, redundancy and mnemonics to recall history, heritage and culture orally to new generations.  As literacy began to spread, these tendencies did not vanish automatically.  Early writings are reflective of a still very oral culture.  Erudite philologists proved the patterns in the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero’s letters where comparable to the meter in public orations; therefore suggesting texts for private readings were meant to be read orally and reading silently was for concealment only (Saenger, 1982, p. 370).  Furthermore, “written texts often continued the oral mnemonic patterning that made for ready recall” (Ong, 2002, p. 117).  It would take years before this cycle would be broken.

A scan of ancient texts illustrates why reading aloud was prevalent. Ancient writing had no punctuation, upper or lower case or word separation (Manguel, 1996; Saenger, 1982).  Saenger (1982) claims oral reading helped hold the syllable in the short-term memory while words, phrases, and sentences were decoded. Similarly, struggling readers improve their understanding by reading out loud, thereby aiding connections “between spellings, pronunciations, and meanings in memory compared to silent reading of new words” (Rosenthal & Ehri, 2010, p. 921).  As reading and writing evolved so did stabilization of technique.

It was the standardization of text that began the shift to silent reading.  Saenger (1997) maintains two aspects determine the cognitive and physiological processes needed for reading: (1) the structure of the language and (2) the transcription of the language.  Transcription is most related to the propensity for silent reading.  Transcriptions using an ambiguous system will require oral manipulation and memorization, and graphic systems, such as English, facilitate early adoption of silent reading. Furthermore, use of space and abbreviations allow pattern recognition.  This is due to our brain’s ability to recognize and remember in chunks (Saenger, 1982).  Morris, Bloodgood, Lomax and Perney’s (2003) research suggest there is “an interactive relationship between beginning readers’ concept of word in text and phoneme awareness” (p. 322).  Standardization of writing techniques allowed for this chunking to happen.

Silent reading began on a larger scale in the Middle Ages with Celtic priests transcribing with little knowledge of Latin.  They had to separate words in order to decode them, which led to scribes copying silently and silent reading (Manguel, 1996; Saenger, 1982).  But writing was still very communal—compositions were still dictated to secretaries, who expanded on their notes.  (Saenger, 1982, p. 382).  This ended in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when writers began to think of themselves as writers, and addressing themselves to the reader not the listener (Saenger, 1982).   At first the increase of silent reading was contained to those who could already read and write, but this would change.

Literacy and silent reading were further impacted by the prolific nature of the printing press.  Widespread printing began around 1450-1480 and was well established by the end of the fifteenth century (Chappell, 1970).   Desiderius Erasmus’s book on grammar, dictionary, Greek and Latin, and letter writing and other dictionaries and grammars had large circulation, providing a basis for literacy (Chappell, 1970).  McLuhan (1962) believes the printing press shifted oral culture to visual culture: “men exchanged ideas through the private silent reading of printed books” (p. 367).  The printing press would slowly erode barriers, such as cost and inconvenience, to allow for the prevalence of silent reading.

A Change in Perception and its Impact on Society and Education

As alluded to above, silent reading requires a different cognitive process than oral reading.  McLuhan (1962) stresses “phonetic writing split[s] apart thought and action” (p. 22) and readers need to recall by the eye rather than by sound.  Ong (2002) argues the redundant patterns of oral storytelling became unnecessary when print stores ideas for easy recall.  Instead literate cultures use list, graphs, and skimming and scanning techniques, which allow for more analytical thinking (Ong, 2002; Saenger, 1982).  Ong (2002) even goes so far to say writing allows for creative thought because an individual can store and reference original assertions.   These changes in cognitive processes simply continued to bolster silent reading as the principal form of reading.

While it happened slowly, the shift to silent reading also impacted our education system.  There are some individual examples of silent reading in the past, such as Augustine’s shocked recollection of Bishop Ambrose reading silently (Manguel, 1996), but the large transformations can be mapped with the changes in libraries.  Libraries originated in the monasteries of twelfth century as a way for the monks to share their knowledge (Saenger, 1982; Vais, 2012).  McLuhan (1962) describes the study carrels as “singing booths” (p. 92) as they were used for dictation rather than private study.  This began to change in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when silent reading was more prevalent; libraries had side-by-side desks and important books were chained down to prevent theft (Saenger, 1982; Vais, 2012).   Silent reading allowed reading and study to happen more quickly.  In fact, in the fourteenth and fifteenth century students followed written texts while the lecturer spoke (Saenger, 1982) illustrating a shift in valuing reading over rhetoric.  Ultimately, throughout the eighteenth century, due to cheaper books and the demand for the mobility of reading, libraries rid themselves of chained books (Vais, 2012).  The standardization of text, the printing press and the prevalence of silent readings were slowly shaping the structure of education systems.

Silent reading also impacted our views on acceptable study materials.  In preliterate times it was easier to prevent the reading heretical or provocative texts.  Public reading of banned books was forbidden and only theology professors were allowed to read heretical texts for purposes of refutation (Saenger, 1982).  As literacy levels changed printing was viewed as a threat to established power (Chappell, 1970).  Eisenstein (1979) concludes “The nature of man as a political animal was less likely to conform to classical models after tribunes of the people were transmuted from orators in public squares to editors of new-sheets and gazettes” (132).  In fact, English laws suppressing freedom of press led to exodus to Holland where printing and reading were less controlled (Chappell, 1970).  The ability to read silently led to questioning censorship as the literate masses began to see the benefit of considering things critically.

Ong (2002) also upholds print played a huge role in peoples’ perception on privacy:

Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society.  It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. (p. 128)

Eisenstein (1979) also concludes that a reading society is more “atomistic and individualistic” (p. 132) because it does not require community gatherings to learn of current events. Ultimately, being able to read without judgment changed perceptions of learning. Saenger (1982) maintains:

Psychologically, silent reading emboldened the reader, because it placed the source of his curiosity completely under his personal control…removed the individual’s thoughts from the sanctions of the group and fostered the milieu which the new university heresies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries developed…Private visual reading and compositions thus encouraged individual critical thinking and contributed ultimately to the development of skepticism and intellectual heresy. (p. 399)

However, while reading became a more private affair the critical thinking it evoked also brought like-minded individuals together (Eisenstein, 1970).  The common thread between both assertions is that critical thinkers make choices, either keep it private or seek out those with compatible ideas.

This shift in emphasis to critical thinking and reflection rather than memorization and recitation has impacted the current education system.  Anderson (2008) maintains society presently values knowledge and information as commodities.  This directly affects the skills required for the workforce.  Society demands and provides “rapid change and renewal, information explosion[s], poorly organized information, incompletely evaluated information and collectivization of knowledge” (Anderson, 2008, p. 7).  Youth need to learn how to construct knowledge, be adaptable, find, organize and retrieve information, use information communication technology (ICT) and critical thinking, and work as a team (p. 7).  Voogt and Pareja Roblin (2012) found educational systems supported this globally.  All westernized frameworks highlighted the importance of collaboration, communication, ICT literacy and social and/or cultural skills and most frameworks also valued creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and productivity (p. 309).  For example, since 2003 Alberta’s English Language Arts curriculum mandates students must demonstrate competency in managing ideas and information and collaborating with others (Alberta Learning, 2003).  What western educational systems are supporting should lead to improving our current methods and curriculum so they reflect the needs of society’s workforce.


The advent of silent reading was preceded by text standardization and the printing press.   Indirectly, it was these technologies that led to an emphasis on private thought and critical thinking en masse in industrialized areas.  The predominance of silent reading in westernized countries has shaped the societal views and educational systems of today, which value the critical thinker, problem solver and team player.



Alberta Learning. (2003). English language arts (senior high).  Programs of study.  Retrieved from

Anderson, R. (2008) Implications of the information and knowledge society for education.  In J. Voogt and G. Knezek (eds), International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education (New York: Springer), 5–22.

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Eisenstein, E. (1979). The printing press as an agent of change: Communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe. vol I. Cambridge, London: Cambridge University Press.

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McLuhan, M. (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Morris, D., Bloodgood, J., Lomax, R., Perney, J. (2003). Developmental steps in learning to read: A longitudinal study in kindergarten and first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 38(3), 302-328.

Ong, W.J. (2002). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, NY: Routeledge.

Rosenthal, J., Ehri, L.C. (2011). Pronouncing new words aloud during the silent reading of text enhances fifth graders’ memory for vocabulary words and their spellings. Reading and Writing, 24, 921-950.

Saenger, P. (1982). Silent reading: Its impact on late medieval script and society. Viator, 13. 367-414.

Saenger, P. (1991). The separation of words and the physiology of reading. In Olson, D.R. and Torrance, N. (eds), Literacy and Orality.  Retrieved from Google Scholar,+P.+(1991).+The+separation+of+Words+and+the+physiology+of+reading.+In+Olson,+D.R.+and+Torrance,+N.+(eds),+Literacy+and+Orality.&ots=rpCVCEvA_e&sig=X4Z6BH684rUmoJ2DjG5LIbD9s8I#v=onepage&q=saenger&f=false

Saenger, P. (1997). Space between words: The origins of silent reading.  Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Vais, G. (2012). The house of books: The metamorphosis of the library space (Middle Ages). Philobiblon: Transylvanian Journal of Multidisciplinary Research in Humanities, 17, 50-63.

Voogt, J., Pareja Roblin, N. (2012). A comparative analysis of international frameworks for 21st century competencies: Implications for national curriculum policies. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 44(3), 299-321.

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