When I read, I hear a voice in my head. The voice is usually a pretty flat version of my own voice and it’s the same as the voice I hear when I think. Occasionally, when I receive an email from someone with a distinctive voice then I might hear their voice instead. And I sometimes hear characters’ voices when I am reading fiction.
In the past, it would never have occurred to me to mention this because I would have assumed that everyone has the same experience. But we do not. Recently a respected researcher commented in an email forum I follow that he hears no voice when he reads. I couldn’t imagine that but I did believe him so I looked into the issue and found two things; people do seem to have diverse experiences of reading ‘voices’ and yet there is little research on this phenomenon.
Let us accept that some people hear a voice when they read and some do not. If this is the case then it seems to me that there are three overlapping possibilities.
1. There are qualitative differences between people that mean that some of us hear a voice when reading and some do not.
2. There is a spectrum of experience where some are more likely to perceive a voice than others.
3. We all have fundamentally the same mental architecture but our subjective interpretation of our experience is different.
You may struggle to understand what I mean by the third possibility so here’s an attempt at trying to explain it with an analogy: Ever since I moved to Australia it has annoyed me that some Australians refer to certain people as having ‘an accent’. Everyone has an accent, I complain, especially Australians. Yet to these people, the Australian accent is so normal that they simply don’t hear it.
Perhaps some people are so familiar with the voice in their head that they don’t hear it. It’s there, but they don’t identify it as a voice because it is their own.
Whatever the case, this looks like a great phenomenon to investigate. I would speculate that people who hear a voice when reading might be relatively more inclined to accept the argument for systematic phonics teaching and those who don’t hear a voice might be relatively more inclined to be persuaded by whole language arguments about turning words directly into meaning.
Similarly, there might be a correlation between the presence of a reading voice and the way someone was taught to read. Teaching phonemic awareness and phonics might create an inner voice or it might raise awareness of a voice that would otherwise go unnoticed.