The Science of Learning Blog

March 7, 2018

The Little-Known Truths About Reading Aloud

BY Dylan Hendricks

An image of two children reading booksReading aloud is something usually associated with children or unsophisticated readers, a remedial technique to be phased out as soon as people learn to read silently. But a growing body of research suggests that reading out loud may actually have significant cognitive benefits — even for experienced readers.

The recent study, conducted by researchers Colin Macleod and Noah Forrin at the University of Waterloo and published in the journal Memory, found that reading words aloud made them easier to remember compared to reading them silently.

However, this doesn’t mean you should replace your entire library with audiobooks just yet. The study used four different experimental conditions to isolate exactly which elements were responsible for improved memory retention. The subject group of 95 students were asked to either read silently, read aloud, listen to recordings of other people reading, or listen to a recording of themselves reading. Memory retention was strongest when reading aloud directly, suggesting that the impact came not just from hearing the words, but also speaking them.

This is because verbally pronouncing a word creates a memorable experience — a phenomenon the researchers call the “production effect”. The active cognitive process of encoding the word into speech also helps to encode it into long-term memory. Additionally, when it came to words heard through recordings, students were better able to remember those recorded in their own voice than those pronounced by someone else. According to the authors, this suggests that hearing one’s own voice provides a distinct stimulus of self-recognition, which also helps make the content memorable.

These findings build on previous research demonstrating that the production effect’s memory boost relies on distinctiveness. In an earlier 2010 study by Macleod et al., this was shown to disappear when all the words in the study list were read aloud, as verbalization became a default experience rather than a distinct one. Rather, the production effect manifested when participants were given a mixed list, with some words read silently and some read aloud. Yet another study by Macleod in 2011 showed that the strength of the production effect was also reduced — though not eliminated — by having another person sit next to the participant and pronounce the words at the same time. Rather than adding another memorable element, the repetition by another undermined the distinctiveness of the participant’s own pronunciation, leading to worse memory recall.

This result forms an interesting contrast with a 2015 study by Victor Boucher and Alexis Lafleur at the University of Montreal. With a test group of 44 French-speaking students, researchers used a similar range of methods, asking them to read the words solely in their head, read them while moving their lips, or to read them out loud to themselves. For the fourth experimental condition, however, students were asked to read the words aloud to another person in the room. This proved to have the greatest impact on improving verbal recall. Unlike hearing another voice pronouncing the same words, the presence of a silent audience did not detract from the personal distinctiveness of the production effect but served to enhance it by placing the pronunciation into a specific context of interpersonal communication.

Although the studies tested different aspects of the production effect under different conditions, the results all supported the argument that distinctiveness improves memory. By engaging our motor system and self-recognition, speaking words aloud encodes them as unique experiences by forming additional memory pathways. And as Macleod points out, this is also consistent with research showing that exercise and movement can promote cognitive performance in children and adults alike by increasing blood flow to the brain.

Of course, silent reading has its benefits — especially in libraries. But if the situation allows, repeating important information aloud to yourself — or better yet, a study partner — can be extremely productive.

References:

Reading information aloud to yourself improves memory of materials​
Reading Aloud Boosts Memory
This time it’s personal: the memory benefit of hearing oneself
Repeating words aloud to another person increases memory recall
I said, you said: The production effect gets personal
The production effect: Delineation of a phenomenon

14 comments on “The Little-Known Truths About Reading Aloud”

  1. What you said about how reading out loud can improve your memory was really interesting to me. My wife and I want to start reading together more often so that we can improve the relationship by doing something we enjoy. I think it would be a good idea for us to find some mystery books to get started with.

  2. I googled this area because my son is studying English A 'level and they each take turn in reading a passage from the books they are study. The class has about 28 students. The problem is he is so scared of having to read out loud in front of 28 boys (afraid of making a mistake and being ridiculed especially at this age (17)), that he is shaking during the lesson before it gets to his turn and worries about it before the lesson, so it makes me think how much of book is he actually absorbing and enjoying during this hour and half lesson.Is this beneficial exercise to the student in these circumstances. I completely agree that reading out loud helps with memory but the environment and the way it is carried out must have an impact as to how much is being absorbed. Would smaller groups be a better way to conduct this lesson?

    1. Hi Karen, thanks for your comment! Being afraid and embarrassed of making a mistake in front of peers is a natural way to feel, especially at that age. The environment absolutely has a real impact on learning, and there is even new research on the importance of "socially safe environments" for adolescence learning. So I agree that your son would likely not benefit from reading aloud in those circumstances. If the teacher is open to different options, smaller groups could be a good alternative, or perhaps the teacher can excuse your son from reading aloud in class and instead have him practice reading aloud at home by himself or in front of those he trusts, such as you or other family members. Best wishes to you and your son!

  3. My daughter is in grade seven. When we asked her to read aloud she says she cannot do that as she feels distract from her study. May be she is reluctant of reading aloud because of fear of possible mistake in pronouncing words. Any suggestion?

    1. Hi Kundan, Thanks for your comment! Is your daughter unwilling to read aloud in class, at home with you, or by herself? If she is afraid of mispronouncing words in front of others, maybe she can start by just reading aloud to herself.

  4. I enjoyed reading your article on the benefits of reading aloud. I am a 77 year old male in good health but diagnosed with MCI (mild cognitive impairment. I consider myself high functioning as my business life consisted of property development and self employment. I always have had to rely on myself in building commercial projects, etc.
    Now I am diagnosed with mci. A very interesting change in my mind is this: I had to leave a class of lectures on biblical ideas. The lecturer was highly trained but as he spoke I found myself unable to recount his ideas. I love reading the bible and do so every day. When alone I read aloud in a very soft voice...(to my dog). This is the amazing part.... I can easily recall the theme and important points in the often lengthy material I have just read aloud. I amusingly check on my dog as she lies in the chair beside me to see if she is 'paying attention to me.
    She is my audience...lol.
    I feel this: I love God and want to share His teaching on a higher level with myself (self-study). I read aloud to my dog and watch her to see if she is listening. I 'imagine' that she is, in fact, listening and discerning.
    The fact is that I am the one listening (to own voice) and understanding same.
    Thanks for your article and for the chance to express my understanding.

    1. Hi David, Thank you for sharing your experience! It's wonderful how reading aloud has been so meaningful to you (and your dog!).

  5. It's awesome that pronouncing a word creates a memorable experience. My sister has been telling me about how she wants to make sure that her kids enjoy reading as they grow up. I'll share this information with her so that she can look into her options for reading books to her kids.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike! What a delightful thing to hear that your sister wants to raise kids who enjoy reading! Thanks for sharing our blog post with her.

  6. I googled this because over the last few years my attention span has deteriorated and reading in my head became impossible. My thoughts constantly deviate away from whatever I’m reading the point where I have to go back and read paragraphs again and again.

    On a whim, I switched to reading out loud and I found that I’m able to not only stay in track until I decide to stop, I can read much faster AND retain far more of the story. I haven’t necessarily noticed this helping me to remember new words, but I can see that being the case for sure.

    Reading out loud rules!

    Thanks for the article

    1. Thanks for sharing, Ste! It's awesome that you personally experienced what this blog post is all about! 🙂

  7. I am currently researching a column for my weekly publication SUPPORTING SUPER STUDENTS in a local newspaper about families reading chapter books together as an alternate to screen time. It is also a valuable use of their family time and so many benenfits for all in the family, even teens. I did it in my own family and even my husband was upset if he missed a chapter in the story.
    Thank you for your insight.

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