The narrative behind the reading mind


People interpret the world in a variety of ways; by dissecting events and understandings in people’s internal dialogues, people can compound their understandings and their implications.

Ashlyn Ware

My eyes move swiftly down the page, and before I know it, three paragraphs are gone, but I don’t remember a thing. Frustrated, I return to the top of the page and start over. 

Stress builds throughout my body as thoughts of assignments, deadlines and exams infiltrate my headspace. I have so many pages yet to turn, but I can’t get through one. What am I doing wrong? 

Turns out nothing.

“Speaking, listening, reading, writing: it is amazing that we are able to do it so quickly in spite of how much work is involved in it,” Dr. Horabail Venkatagiri said.

Dr. Venkatagiri, who prefers the nickname Giri, is an associate professor in the psychology department at Iowa State University. His topics of interest include language and reading development, speech and hearing science, speech and language disorders and stuttering.

The mind-wandering and memory issues that many experience while reading is completely understandable. The complexity of reading is unbeknownst to many, but it gives a solid explanation for such reading issues. 

Reading is a two-step process. The first step is called decoding, and it’s a process of seeing a word then converting it into the spoken word. 

The second step is reading comprehension. After the word is converted into spoken language, we can comprehend the meaning.

“If a child fails in that first step, reading comprehension will never happen,” Giri said.

To improve what I previously thought of as a reading problem, I downloaded a brain training app. I wanted to increase my speed and comprehension so I could absorb as much information as possible. Becoming a knowledge sponge is the whole goal of Dead Week, right?

The app’s words per minute test revealed what I already knew, that my reading speed is slower than average, which didn’t do much for my confidence. Nevertheless, I continued the deep dive into the whys and hows. 

The app suggested that my reading pace is slow because I read with internal dialogue. As I read, I hear myself speaking the words in my head as if I were saying them out loud. Just like you’re doing now.

I’ll admit that my internal dialogue can sometimes be distracting, but only when I’m reading in a snobby old English accent that I like to imagine philosophers speak with. Sometimes I mock my professor’s voices when I’m struggling for motivation. 

I don’t understand how a person can read without hearing the words, but the app ensured it was doable. The app suggested an exercise that would increase my reading speed by silencing my internal voice. Try it with me. As you read, silence your voice and simultaneously count to ten. 

My attempt put the “three” in failure. It went like this; This ex-1-er-2-cise is a fail-3-ure.

“That does not make sense,” Giri said. “That is the first step in reading, to convert written form into spoken form.” 

 By doing two conscious processing tasks, you’re slowing your processing speed and overall reading comprehension.

“You’re increasing the cognitive load on your brain,” Giri said.

Reading is not possible without a spoken language. We read by understanding the sounds and meanings of our spoken language. Thus, it’s necessary to hear yourself speaking the words as you read.

Even our everyday internal thinking and emotions depend on spoken language. 

“You’re thinking is actually, most of it is done through spoken language,” Giri said. “You can hear yourself saying the words as you think, not out loud, but internally.”

 “After all that we’ve discussed, it seems like this ‘fix’ is a myth,” I said, and Giri agreed.

Often people want to economize on their reading speed. They think that if they can read faster, they will be more productive. That’s precisely why I downloaded the app.

There is satisfaction in being a fast reader, but speed is only beneficial if comprehension comes with it. 

“Reading fluency is important, but finishing a 500-page novel in 2 hours is not important,” Giri said. “We don’t want to overemphasize fluency at the cost of reading comprehension.”

Before understanding the complexity and intricacies of reading, I was stewing in feelings of inadequacy. I worried that my low word per minute reading score would limit my academic success.

Now I understand that the value in reading is not to economize the speed but to grow from the comprehension, regardless of how you reach that comprehension.

Many students search for quick fixes and study hacks that will economize their studying. I know most of us have rested our heads on our book in exhaustion and thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to absorb all this through touch?”

Unfortunately, touching our heads to the pages of our books doesn’t work like Apple Pay.

As you set forth on your studying, remember that your brain is marvelous, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Even the internal dialogue you use to belittle yourself is an evolutionary marvel. Cut yourself some slack.