Listening In On the Inner Voice in Reading Comprehension

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Mount Holyoke professor Mara Breen studies the role of the inner voice in reading comprehension–and what it it tells us about how we learn to read.

Mara Breen

Mara Breen studies the role of the inner voice in reading comprehension.

"What is the little voice in your head doing while you are reading? How does implicit prosody support reading comprehension?”

That inner voice that enunciates the written words in reading comes in many different forms. Some say it sounds like the spoken voice. Some say it sings. And others say it is someone else’s voice entirely. Whatever the voice sounds like, it performs an important function in interpreting the written word.

Mara Breen, assistant professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College, studies the relationship between the inner voice in reading and its musical rhythms—known as implicit prosody—and how we mentally process the written word. She recently received the James S. McDonnell Foundation 21st Century Science Initiative in Understanding Human Cognition – Scholar Award to study the role of the inner voice in reading fluency and comprehension.

“What we are specifically interested in is what is the experience of prosody when we are reading silently,” Breen said. “In other words, what is the little voice in your head doing while you are reading? How does implicit prosody support reading comprehension?”

Just as if they were listening to spoken language, many readers rely on cues of rhythm and cadence to predict words to come, even when reading silently. But what happens when the written word violates the brain’s expectation?

Take, for example, this portion of a limerick:

There once was a clever young gent
Who had a nice talk to present

....and compare it to this:

There once was a penniless peasant
Who went to his master to present

In the second instance, the stress pattern of “present” is not what the reader expects based on the rhyme and rhythm of the preceding words, Breen noted.

“Now you have this mismatch between what you expected and what you are seeing,” said Breen.

Breen and her collaborators performed eye-tracking studies on readers to determine whether this prosodic sour note affected reading time and comprehension. They found that even when people were looking at exactly the same material, they slowed down when the stress pattern of the word was inconsistent with what the rhythm of the sentence predicted.

The finding demonstrates that spoken language is fundamental to the brain and that understanding written language is likely a more recent development, according to Charles Clifton, a professor in the psychology department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who collaborated with Breen on some of her research.

"[This research] demonstrates that implicit prosody can guide comprehension by showing that comprehension is actually impaired when an unusual sentence configuration is encountered,” he said. “[In those cases,] the normally helpful guidance that implicit prosody provides leads the reader astray."

Breen's future research will investigate this and other ways in which the inner voice can help or hinder reading comprehension.

“I am excited about this research on multiple levels,” Breen said. “What we’re learning will help us understand some of the most basic processes of silent reading, a skill that we mostly take for granted in everyday life. And on a practical level, what we uncover may aid in the development of prosodic interventions to improve kids’ reading comprehension abilities.”

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Keely Savoie
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