Figure 121

Comprehension for text as a function of text difficulty and opportunity to use subvocal speech. Adapted from Hardyck and Petrinovich (1970).

Inner speech

It has sometimes been argued that inner speech is of little or no value to adult readers. Children learn to read out loud before they can read silently, and inner speech while reading may simply be a habit that has persisted from childhood. A very different viewpoint was expressed by Huey (1908):

The carrying range of inner speech is considerably larger than that of vision. It is of the greatest service to the reader or listener that at each moment a considerable amount of what is being read should hang suspended in the primary memory of the inner speech.

One way of studying the role of inner speech in reading comprehension is to take electromyographic (EMG) recordings of some of the muscles used in subvocal articulation. This is of interest, because EMG activity in the speech tract typically increases considerably during reading. Hardyck and Petrinovich (1970) asked their participants to read easy and hard texts while EMG recordings were being made. In the key condition, a tone sounded every time the level of muscle activity in the speech tract was greater than that of a predetermined relaxation level. Participants in this feedback condition were instructed to prevent the tone from being sounded. Reduction of EMG activity in the speech tract (and thus reduction of subvocal articulation) produced a significant impairment of comprehension for the hard text, but had no effect on comprehension of the easy text (see Figure 12.1).

The role of inner speech in reading has also been studied by means of articulatory suppression. Readers are required to say something simple (e.g., "the the the") over and over again reading a text. This requirement prevents them from using the speech apparatus to produce subvocal articulation of the sentences in the text. If subvocal articulation of the text is important for comprehension, then an articulatory suppression task should severely impair comprehension.

Baddeley and Lewis (1981) made use of articulatory suppression on a task in which participants had to decide whether sentences were meaningful or anomalous. Some sentences were anomalous because two words in a meaningful sentence had been switched around (syntactic anomaly), and others were anomalous because a totally inappropriate word replaced one of the words in a sentence (semantic anomaly). Articulatory suppression increased errors on the syntactic anomaly sentences from 15.9% to 35.6%, while also having a modest effect on the semantic anomaly sentences. The powerful effect of suppression on the syntactic anomaly sentences suggests that subvocal articulation is especially useful for retaining information about the order of words, because accurate retention of word order is crucial for successful performance.

Baddeley and Lewis (1981) used a different approach to confirm the role of inner speech in reading. Participants decided whether sentences were syntactically correct with the words in the correct order. Some sentences consisted of phonemically similar words (e.g., "Crude rude Jude chewed stewed food"), whereas other sentences did not contain phonemically similar words. It took longer to make judgements of syntactic correctness with the phonemically similar sentences, indicating the relevance of the sounds of words to the comprehension process. Baddeley and Lewis (1981) also found that articulatory suppression did not influence the size of this phonemic similarity effect, although it led to a general increase in errors. This is an important finding. It suggests that the processes responsible for the phonemic similarity effect are rather different from those responsible for the effects of articulatory suppression.

Functions of inner speech

Most adults read aloud at about 150-200 words per minute, whereas skilled readers typically have a silent reading rate of about 300 words per minute. How can we explain this difference? Perfetti and McCutchen (1982) argued that normal reading rates are much faster than speech rates, because the phonological specification of words in inner speech is incomplete. Their basic assumption was that the abbreviated phonological representation of inner speech is biased towards key information. Most words are specified more precisely by their consonants than by their vowels, and so consonant sounds are more likely to be included in the phonological representation. However, we do not consciously experience inner speech as having this abbreviated form. An alternative view-point was expressed by Rayner and Pollatsek (1989, p. 213): "It is possible that the difference between oral and silent reading rates is because a motor response for actually pronouncing each word need not occur in silent reading."

What functions does inner speech play in reading? Probably the most obvious function is that of holding information about words and about word order in working memory so as to reduce the memory load involved in comprehension. Inner speech preserves temporal order information, and thus may be of particular value when accurate comprehension depends on a precise recollection of word order (e.g., Baddeley & Lewis, 1981).

Support for these ideas comes from a study by Bub, Black, Howell, and Kertesz (1987) on a patient, MY with very deficient inner speech. When written sentences were presented to her, she had problems with syntactically anomalous sentences in which the word order had been altered, but not with semantically anomalous sentences in which an inappropriate word replaced the correct one. This confirms the view that inner speech serves to preserve word order.

Slowiaczek and Clifton (1980) argued that inner speech may provide the prosodic structure (e.g., rhythm, intonation) lacking in written text but present in spoken language. According to them, inner speech makes it easier to identify the important information within a sentence. The fact that you can sometimes "heaf' someone's style of speaking when reading a letter they have written is consistent with this position.

Some of the issues discussed in this section are related to theory and research on working memory (see Chapter 6). Of particular relevance is research indicating that articulation of recently heard speech is of crucial importance in the learning of vocabulary (e.g., Baddeley, Gathercole, & Papagno, 1998).

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