June 25, 2015

Have we always read silently? An interview with Professor Daniel Donoghue


Portrait of Saint Ambrose

Portrait of Saint Ambrose

The current conversation about reading mechanics, speed, and comprehension, hinges onthe obvious: most modern day reading is done silently. But, there is a tradition of challenging the widely-believed-to-be-intrinsic ability for people to read silently. Some have theorized that until the late Middle Ages, most people were only able to read aloud and silent reading was an anomaly.

Harvard University Professor Daniel Donoghue’s current research includes the history of this counter-intuitive idea. In this interview, he explains the theory’s origins, development, and shortcomings.

How and when did the theory that people haven’t always been able to read silently originate?

Donoghue: I don’t know exactly how long the idea has been around, but there was an article written by Jozsef Balogh, a survey of Greek and Latin literature. He noticed that it always seemed to be that they were reading out loud, and so he came to the conclusion that silent reading was an anomaly in the classical world. His idea was picked up and popularized. It made its way into popular media, and books like Marshall McLuhan’s — The Gutenberg Galaxy, where he expressed the idea that people before a certain century always read out loud and they could never read silently. [It was a] very influential book among academics, very trendy for a while. That is one way in which an idea like this can really spread – if it’s given his stamp of approval.

So what happened was Balogh noticed this trend and generalized, and then that was picked up and people popularized the theory that people couldn’t read silently. These people usually think there is some sort of turning point, either 12th century scholasticism, or the arrival of the printing press, which allowed people to be more scholastic in their reading, etcetera.

In the 1960s people began to blow holes in this theory, pointing to passages that have to be read silently even if [silent reading] is not [described]. For example, in Cicero, there is a passage about deaf readers, who have to be reading silently. There are one or two instances in Beowulf, for example, where one of the characters is reading runic letters that were inscribed in a sword – and it never says he read it out aloud – and then gave a speech on the topic of pride. No one has brought attention to it because it seems so natural.

What arguments can be made in support of the theory?

Donoghue: One of the favorite passages for people to point to when discussing the idea of silent reading is in the Augustine Confession. Augustine had recently arrived in Milan and he wanted to get into a deep discussion with Ambrose, but each time he went to see him Ambrose was deep in reading silently to himself – and he just sat there, reading quietly to himself. People have seized on the passage to say that Augustine was surprised [to see him reading silently].

This is one of those instances where people know a passage in literature so well that they think they know what it says without actually reading it. There is a famous book called—it’s a wonderful little book—called How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. [The author, Pierre Bayard] shows that we all do this. That’s the category that Augustine falls into. We talk about it so much and we hear people talk about it so much that we think we know what it says without having read it.

It’s usually an informal occasion; if you ask people how they know [that Augustine was surprised], they usually say they heard it in a lecture or from a friend. It’s one of those surprising counterintuitive little facts; it makes for a nice little story, but you can’t back it up with the reading of the passage.

Is there any scientific support for your position?

Donoghue: If you are ever reading out loud, there is a time lag – your reading is about 2 words behind the uttering of the word, and as long as there is a time lag, you have a moment of silent reading. Do you hear a little voice in your head when you read silently?

Sternberg: Yes.

Donoghue: Most people do. They also often move their lips as well, especially when trying to absorb difficult material. Awareness is heightened when you begin to move your lips. Silent reading has been going on since reading has been going on. But now I want to flip it around completely, and say that silent reading has never been happening, because that little voice is still there. I wonder, now, if when [you are] reading aloud, if that silent voice is happening and being echoed in your louder voice.

Are there any other ways to argue that silent reading used to be an anomaly?

Donoghue: You could also look at Paul Saenger’s Space Between Worlds: The Origins of Silent Reading. It’s a very learned book and it gives a very brisk argument of how people back in the days of ancient Greece and ancient Rome were compelled to read out loud because they wrote their sentences without spaces between the words. It created a greater cognitive challenge for the reader. He had the idea that reading aloud activates greater cognitive function in your brain.

In particular, there was a journal that was circulated among academics called Lingua Franca – and this was kind of an irreverent insiders’ journal among professors: ‘here are these cool things going on that some professors are doing, here’s a scandal going on,’ etcetera. So [the journal] did something on [Saenger’s argument].

It turns out, in this case, that it’s counterintuitive for a good reason: because it just didn’t happen that way.