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What is that voice in your head when you read?

Hand uses chopsticks to extract thought bubble from man's head.
Reading becomes faster when you don’t have to say each word out loud. Gary Waters/Science Photo Library via Getty Images

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskidsus@theconversation.com.


What is that voice in your head when you read? – Luiza, age 14, Goiânia, Brazil


When you first begin reading, you read out loud.

Reading aloud can make the text easier to understand when you’re a beginning reader or when you are reading something that’s challenging. Listening to yourself as you read helps with comprehension.

After that, you might “mumble read.” That’s when you mumble, whisper or move your lips as you read. But this practice slowly fades as your reading skills develop, and you start to read silently “in your head.” That’s when your inner voice comes into play.

As experts in reading and language, we see this transition from reading out loud to silently all the time. It’s a normal part of the development of reading skills. Usually, kids are good at reading silently by the fourth or fifth grade.

The shift from reading out loud to reading silently is very similar to how kids develop thinking and speaking skills.

Young children often speak to themselves as a way to think through challenges. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, called this “private speech.” And kids aren’t the only ones who talk to themselves. Just watch an adult try to put together a new vacuum cleaner. You might hear them muttering to themselves as they try to understand the assembly instructions.

As kids become better thinkers, they shift to talking inside their heads instead of out loud. This is called “inner speech.”

Once you’re a good reader, it’s a lot easier to read silently. Reading becomes faster because you don’t have to say each word. And you can jump back to reread parts without disrupting the flow of reading. You can even skip over short familiar words.

Silent reading is more flexible, and it allows you to focus on what’s most important. And it’s during silent reading that you may discover your inner voice.

Developing an inner voice

Hearing an inner voice while reading is relatively common. In fact, one study found that 4 in 5 people say they often or always hear an inner voice when they read silently to themselves.

It’s also been suggested that there are many types of inner voices. Your inner voice might be your own: It might sound similar to the way you speak or might be just like your spoken voice. Or it might assume a different tone or timbre altogether.

A study of adult readers found that the voice you hear in your head may change depending on what you are reading. For example, if the lines in a book are spoken by a specific character, you may hear that character’s voice in your head.

So, fear not if you start hearing a bunch of voices in your head when you dive into a book – it means you’ve already become a skilled silent reader.

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