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Origins and Influences of Silent Reading

Reading is widely thought of as originally being a social activity.  Writing, reading’s partner, “served largely to recycle knowledge back into the oral world” (Ong, 2002, p. 117).  Many perceive silent reading as having an almost sudden onset in the 17th and 18th centuries, partnered with rise in literacy education and opening the doors for the novel.

However, discrepancies exist within the literature (eg: Balogh, 1927, as cited and refuted by Knox, Burnyeat and Gilliard; Saenger as cited and critiqued by Gilliard).  It seems fair to say this perception is a misconception.

Silent Reading in Antiquity

Evidence of silent reading reaches back as far as the 5th century B.C. (Knox, as cited in Burnyeat, 1997 and Gilliard, 1993).  Knox (1968) finds no argument that literary texts were indeed read aloud but investigates scholarly reading, skeptical that “Callimachus read aloud all the works from which he compiled his 120 volumes of Pinakes” (Knox, 1968, p. 422).  (More: timeline of silent reading)

Speculations and studies on the oft-cited 4th century incident of Augustine observing Ambrose silently reading have offered conflicting interpretations from the notion that Augustine was shocked that Ambrose could read silently to being appalled that he would read silently.  Neither of these propositions may be as weighty as the numerous citations would lead us to believe.  Knox (1968) offers a contextualization of the scene for us: Augustine, “not only a professor of rhetoric [typically oral] but also an African provincial from a poor family” (p. 422), and Ambrose, “son of the praefectus of Gaul… educated at Rome, and … Bishop of Milan” (p. 422), do not share the same socio-cultural history: “There is no reason to suppose that Ambrose’s silent reading would have excited such comment in the Italian imperial circles he had deserted to become Bishop” (p. 422), which is to say it would have been found neither unusual nor note-worthy.  Alternatively, Gilliard (1993) supports Clark’s interpretation that Augustine’s education was equally qualifying for Augustine to also be a silent reader, but that “Augustine’s surprise at the silent reading of Ambrose was due simply to the bishop’s unusual habit of always reading silently” (p. 694; originally suggested by Clark, 1931, p. 700).  McMahon (2008) declares, “Surely, writing several years later, Augustine understood Ambrose’s ulterior motive – to lead by example” (p. 34).

Perhaps of note, Augustine does provide “incontrovertible evidence of solitary reading aloud” (Knox, 1968, p. 422), thus reinforcing the idea that while silent reading may not have been a shocking occurrence in all circles, neither was solitary reading aloud surprising as we might find it today.  “Ancient reading was habitually aloud” (Hendrickson, 1929-30, as cited in Burnyeat, 1997), but it was not unusual to read a letter or short document silently (Gilliard, 1993).

Solitary oral reading persisted in combination with indeterminably occasional silent reading until “the disengagement of words from discourse” (Ong, 2002, p. 122) began a significant transition to how we see reading, writing, and the human psyche.

The Human Psyche?

McMahon (2008) specifies the 2nd century as the beginning of any notable evidence describing a psychological interior.  Prior allusions certainly exist, but he categorizes them as “generally explanatory rather than insightful” (p. 22) and cautions that much that has been translated has been retrospectively influenced by the “highly psychologized West of the twenty-first century” (p. 22).  What is legitimately presented as an interior is, he suggests, more authentically interpreted as a spiritual connection between the soul and God.

The Psychological Interior as Influenced by Writing
During roughly the 1st and 2nd centuries in the Roman Empire, social reading continued to be predominant.  But people began to engage in writing as a private, personal activity.  Literate citizens kept hypomnēmata, or personal journals (McMahon, 2008).  Wary of a personal bias from my 21st century highly psychologized socio-cultural situation, I struggle to state plainly that this would surely invite a reflective if not introspective disposition, priming literary culture for a narrative shift some1500 hundred years or so later.  Though keeping a hypomnēmata may have been managed socially, its writer dictating to a scribe, McMahon (2008) does connect it, with assistance by citing Foucault, to the early developments of an interior self.  From here, the priming of western society for its later obsession with the self seems to find its genesis.

On Scriptura Continua (more on this)

Saenger (1997) details that this same Roman Empire, having once spaced words to ease tracking in public reading, actually discarded word separation in exchange for scriptura continua.  I wonder if this was in effort to deter an increased trend toward silent reading and preserve an emphasis on the more highly-valued oratory (McMahon, 2008).

Word separation reappears in 9th century scriptoriums, along with punctuation similar to what we use today.  Though medieval punctuation did not always carry the same meaning or intention as the same marks may carry today, it along with word separation did serve to improve the aesthetics of the text and facilitate perusal (Manguel, 1998; Jajdelska, 2007).

Cerebrally Stimulating Further Developments
Remaining unexplored in this presentation are theories of psychology, brain anatomy and development (e.g.: Julian Jaynes controversial bicameral mind theory regarding hemispheric specialization in silent reading as “a late development in humankind’s evolution” (Manguel, 1998, p. 46).

So What is the Big Deal About the 17th and 18th Centuries Then?

With Guttenberg’s movable type stealing the scene in 1440, print became “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” (Ong, 2002, p. 128, noting that, by stating ‘eventually,’ Ong suggests silent reading is not yet a cultural norm, in spite of research finding its notable presence presented above).

In the 17th and 18th centuries, recitation was emphasized in education and memorization was a path to wisdom and piety in addition to being practical as books were often still a limited resource.  John Locke and Hannah Wolley, however, both saw the need to separate reading from rote memorization, presumably having noted a preferable outcome in students who were able to read silently and leisurely without fear of what would be tested by the governess.  Locke publicly criticized public education for its emphasis on rote memorization (in The Charging of Children’s Memories, Locke, 1693, as cited in Jajdelska, 2007, p. 32) as Locke and Wolley encouraged students to study silently in the form of leisure and privacy to develop fluent silent reading skills (Jajdelska, 2007).

Referencing 1780 as a historical dividing line, marking both societal and ideological change, Raven (1998) comments, “Affective marriage, affective individualism, the companionate marriage and feminine leisure have all been identified as prominent aspects of society marked by ‘the rising tide of individualism’ and where ‘romantic love and the romantic novel grew together after 1780.’  All are situated as progressive forces in which print culture is part nursemaid and part chronicler” (p. 273).

With such trends, there came an increase in the presence of skilled silent readers (Jajdelska, 2007).  The shift to silent reading then influenced writers such that they could no longer assume their writing would be read aloud, the role of narrator provided by the experienced reader.  The role of the speaker was left open.  As such, writing styles shifted to embed the narrator within the text, essentially creating the character of the narrator.

At face value, this may seem insignificant.  Under closer investigation, quite significant: oral readers, while not actors (Manguel, 1998), add personal interpretation to the text, embodying it, participating in the story.  Without the reader-as-speaker, the writer may sense a greater need to embellish the text to convey intonation, gesture and such to orientate the silent reader (Jajdelska, 2007).  With this additional descriptive detail added to the text, the growing sense of individualism and sense of personal ownership (Ong, 2002), and the influx in mere number of silent readers quietly but intimately engaging with their text of choice, the trend towards silent reading became strong enough for writers to identify – and create – a new genre of writing: the novel (Jajdelska, 2007).

Influence on Education
Aside from the obvious influences on education, that being the prominence of the novel study in English classes and designated silent reading times, the implications of silent reading are pedagogical and theoretical in nature.

In accordance with Vygotsky’s social cognitive theory of learning, audible self-talk is intricately linked to learning, reflecting the child’s inner thinking in external form. A child takes time to develop ‘inner speech’ or the ability to think silently (Miller, 2002).  While this process only takes a few years, it seems to parallel the historical progression of societal oral reading to a societal preference for silent reading.

Implications for education as I see them include understanding this progression, with the benefits of social learning apparently deeply-rooted in our natural and initial preferences for the oral-aural. A social foundation then serves to support progression into independent or silent work where talk serves as a distraction to investigation until such time as to share findings (as per Ptolemy, as cited in Burnyeat, 1997).

Additionally, recognizing the importance of a historic preference and comfort with oral reading, educators may do well to confidently embrace oral reading whenever deemed potentially beneficial to support learning.
The consequence of the progression’s trend toward the self and introspection may serve as warning to parents and educators alike, so as to maintain balance between the self, social responsibility, and community involvement.


Burnyeat, M. F. (1997).  Postscript on silent reading.  The Classical Quarterly
New Series, 47
(1), 74-76.  Retrieved from

Clark, W. P. (1931).  Ancient reading.  The Classical Journal, 26 (9), 698-700.  Retrieved from

Gilliard, F. D. (1993).  More silent reading in antiquity: Non omne verbum sonabat.   Journal of Biblical Literature, 112 (4), 689-694.  Retrieved from

Knox, B. (1968).  Silent reading in antiquity.  Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 9(4), 421.  Retrieved from

Jajdelska, E. (2007). Silent reading and the birth of the narrator. Toronto; University of Toronto P. Retrieved from

Lock, C. (2000).  Bakhtin among the poets: Towards a history of silence.  Dialogism: An International Journal of Bakhtin Studies, (5/6), 44. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

McMahon, C. (2008).  The origins of the psychological ‘interior’ – Evidence from Imperial Roman literary practices and related issues.  Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 44 (1), 19-37.  DOI 10.1002/jhbs.20284

Manguel, A. (1998).  A History of Reading.  Toronto; Vintage Canada.  Retrieved from

Miller, P.H. (2002).  Theories of developmental psychology, 4th ed.  New York: Worth.  In Custom course materials ETEC 512.  Vancouver, BC; University of British Columbia, Bookstore.

Ong, W. J. (2002).  Orality and Literacy: The Technolgizing of the Word.  New York; Routledge.

Raven, J. (1998).  New reading histories, print culture and the identification of change: The case of eighteenth-century England.  Social History, 23(3), 268.  Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

Saenger, P. (1997).  Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading.  Stanford; Stanford UP.   Retrieved from

Additional Notes:
Many details and contributors in the end were abandoned usually on basis of other findings, in spite of being popularly cited in other related work.

With particular interest for a non-western look at silent reading as it moved towards Russia, Charles Lock’s Bakhtin among the Poets was informative and interesting. As such, I have included it in the references above should you be interested.

Great quotes on reading

Past ETEC 540 investigations into the history of silent reading, all informative and enlightening in various ways, many of which I have not discussed at length here:

Lindsay Martin’s project
Ada Cheung, Origins of Silent Reading
Gregg Hafeli’s project (on punctuation and word spacing)
Acknowledging My Bias…:
as a silent-reading, English–speaking academic who has erroneously taught reading with the assumption that others would rather not hear my oration but prefer to read silently themselves, falsely understanding emerging literacy until recently upon working with my emergently literate child using explicit vocalization and tracking and engaging in (this) in-depth study on reading.

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