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Overview of Silent Reading



 “What is reading but silent conversation?”

Walter Savage Landor

Reading silently is generally accepted as the norm for accomplished readers today.  There are times when people read aloud to other people or enjoy being read to but in terms of concentrated reading, most of us read “eyes scanning the page, tongue held still” (Manguel, 1996, p. 42).  Silent reading is much faster than reading aloud and is a solitary event (Gavrilov, 1997).  What is clear in an overview of the history of reading is that the predominance of silent reading was not always the case.  When did we shift from reading aloud to reading silently?  Why did it change?

Understanding the differences in reading processes, both orally and silently, is important to understanding the shift in reading mode (Saenger, 1997). Saenger (1997) describes the physiology of reading and notes that two factors in written texts are involved in the process.  The first is the language structure which determines the cognitive processes the mind must use to decode.  The other factor is the graphic method of transcribing the language which can affect the length of time it takes to decode.  The study of modern languages and pedagogy gives clues to the cognitive processes in both oral and silent reading in ancient times. For example, Chinese graphics provide easier access to meaning than phonetic based graphics since the reader does not have to reconstruct the word.  Therefore, this leads to early silent reading when learning to read.  In graphics based on alphabetic scripts, the decoding process is slower and in the case of Ancient Greeks and Romans slowed even more by the lack of spaces between words as was common at that time.  Ancient reading required more complex eye movements (Saenger, 1997) to decode the text and a smaller amount of text could be retained.  Reading aloud made the retention easier and aided in comprehension (Lyons, 2010; Saenger, 1997).  Reading silently would not have increased the reading speed (Saenger, 1997) since it  was still limited by the requirement for a smaller focal field because of the continuous script (Saenger, 1997).

There are three stages in learning to read:  reading aloud, sub-vocalization (under your breath) and silent reading (Gavrilov, 1997).  Silent reading is a visual and mental process which allows for variations in speed and the ability to skim backwards and forwards.  A greater reading speed leads to greater comprehension but Gavrilov points out that the two reading modes are “mutually complementary” (p. 61) and the two types are closely connected.  The eye-voice span (EVS) needs to be well developed in successful reading out loud and it takes practice, especially in text without spaces between the words.

Although some researchers (Ong, 2002) promote a polarized view of oral and literate cultures, others (Lyons, 2010) prefer a more graded interpretation where “the oral and literate co-existed” (Lyons, 2010, p. 17) and provides a context to describe the shift from oral to silent reading.



Writing absent                     Mixed                          Modern western societies


Scholars agree that oral reading was the norm in antiquity (Jajdelska, 2007; Manguel, 1996; Saenger 1997) but the academic discussion on the origins of silent reading has been vigorous and developed over the years in an interdisciplinary field ranging from classicists, linguists, historians and psychologists to paleographers.

Although references to silent reading are found in ancient texts, the shift to silent reading was a slow process that came about because of developments in the design of text spaces, in particular, the addition of spaces between words, changes to conventions in word order, and the invention of punctuation (Saenger, 1997; Manguel, 1996).

In this video from the C-SPAN video library, Alberto Manguel reads the chapter “Beginnings” from his book A History of Reading (p. 177).  After the reading (at approximately the 33 minute mark),  Manguel answers a question from the audience about silent reading and word separation and goes on to discuss various issues in the development of silent reading.

(Sorry, it can’t be embedded)


Go to Silent Reading History


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