Silent reading vs following a transcript vs listening only vs reading out loud

I have serendipitously fallen into what might perhaps be seen as a skewed way of thinking about these activities. I am in no position to back any of this up with anything other than a hunch, some subjective personal accounts and some (I hope) common sense, but I guess that is why i’m posting this up so that the rest of you can give me your 2 cents on all this. My hypothesis (if you’d call it that) is this:

There are four (at least) fundamental tasks to language learning that we would engage in here on lingq, on our own, with our ipod, etc… and they are silent reading, following a transcript with audio, listening to the audio only and reading the transcript out aloud. Now, it is becoming apparent to me that although these four tasks appear to have seemingly trivial differences that accomplish the same thing - they are in fact remarkably different.

Now since this isn’t a dissertation and you are not a doctoral committe and since my hypothesis has probably been answered by many people beyond my limited hobbyist slash casual observer research into this subject, please allow me to indulge in an arbitrary recounting of my journey).

… and the story goes like this…

Basically, Steve posted up this youtube video

which I made a few comments. I stronly believed in certain points of view which didn’t seem to make sense at the time as to what Steve was actually saying, and it was quite funny how this all came about. You see, Steve stated that he found video a distraction when following a transcript. Initially my reaction was that the statement was a non sequitur, and i had my reasons of which if you’re interested they are in the youtube comments section - but the point is the whole conundrum got me thinking very very hard on what exactly does constitute a distraction or a non-distraction in the brain. What does the brain find distracting and how does that affect meaning?

By meaning, the overall comprehension level of the text. I find that it is this: The more brain power you dedicate to understand the meaning, the more you will understand. Now, in things like movies, a lot of the meaning IS derived from the visual, whereas in a narration you should be able to derive 100% of the meaning from the narration itself. In this case, a visual aid is superfluous and not necessary by a long shot.

When the brain is exposed to something that does not “add” to the sum of understanding in a text, it is perhaps processed as an additional process that detracts from the amount of brainpower used in actually deriving the meaning.

For instance, if you are trying to read a book and next door there are construction workers banging away with hammers and saws and power tools - you may find it insidiously difficult to read the book. Even though each time you read a word, your brain processes that word and you know that word in-side-out, the “overall meaning” of the text which may be an unfolding series of plot points, or the description of a diabolical character, or the demise of the protagonist - will largely elude you, yet you would reread the text over and over and over ad nauseum without being able to raise your level of comprehension above a certain point.

I believe that these four fundamental tasks have perhaps not necessarily an inherent level of “distraction” per se, but a certain level of effectiveness when it comes to comprehending a passage of text.

When we read something out aloud, we are, in effect, utilising a large portion of our brain to form the words with our vocal chords. In other words, our focus or point of concentration has shifted from comprehending to pronouncing the words. Much in the same manner as the book with the construction workers example, our brain now has a lower ceiling in which to formulate the total level of comprehension.

In much the same way as a visual feed would distract the narration of a package as Steve pointed out in his youtube video, so too would the audio of a transcript (I believe) have an effect at lowering, perhaps in varying degrees, the comprehensibility of a passage. Even though the input is the same as the text, simply the audible version, it still taking away from our brain’s “total” power being focused on understanding and comprehension. Now, instead of one input feed, we have 2. We are decoding text with our eyes and decoding speech with our ears. One would then expect, if we believe the hypothesis to be true, that dropping EITHER one or the other - that not looking at the transcript or muting the audio would result in better comprehension.

Will it? Are there any papers that back this up? I don’t know… it’s just a hunch at the moment.

So, here is a preliminary list of the various tasks and what I feel is the strong point. I’ve placed them in a certain order, of which I believe they are in order of difficulty from a language learning perspective.

  1. Following a transcript - Core skill: Association of written vs verbal language
    I think that when you follow a transcript with text and audio (previously I have thought of this to be the single most important activity to language leraning) it appears to be a primary driver that is the precursor to silent reading - or the ability to silently read with correct pronounciation with your silent voice. Perhaps in the beginning this must be utilised a lot.

  2. Silent reading - Core skill: Comprehension
    Silent reading, that is, reading a piece of text without any audio or any video and not moving your lips or saying any of the words or trying to verbalise anything results in the highest level of comprehension… even in your native language.

  3. Reading out loud - Core skill: Pronounciation. As with silent reading, reading out loud would help focus on our language production, but if we are reading new transcripts (I have found this very apparent actually) and reading out loud from the start, the level of comprehension drops considerably. It greatly aides language production however.

  4. Listening to audio - Core skill: Verbal understanding. No real need for elaboration here. Skype / phone conversations / radio. A very hard skill to master - may come nearer to the end. It is perhaps one of the final stages of mastering language development.

Perhaps 1 and 2 are interchangeable in various contexts, but in testing out this theory, I’ve done a fair bit of silent reading in the latest book I’m reading in my target language, and it has benefitted me immensely. In the last week, my pronounciation has skyrocketed and I can comprehend more. Now, I’m not going to pin this solely on this whimsical idea of silent reading / reading out loud does wonders etc, etc. but just the overal macro management of my overall approach to using my time studying has benefitted.

At this point in time, I find it beneficial to do this: When I get to a new text, I first silently read the whole thing (2). Then, I go back and read it along with the transcript / audio playing. I find that the slient reading greatly aides in my ability to follow the audio effectively. Then, I may do nothing - or if I like some of the transcript, I’ll pick out a passage (a paragraph or two) and practice pronouncing it several times (3). Then, perhaps later on, after reading it a few more times and following the transcript with audio, I’ll put it on my iPod and listen to the audio only (4). This last part is by far the hardest of the four, and the most rewarding when I can follow it all.

As for the whole theory, I know one thing: Never rely on yourself to support your own arguments :slight_smile: so I’m putting this out there. Disseminate it if you wish. I hope it is found to be something useful. It may or may not already be a widely known phenomenon. I’m not an expert in the field but I thought I’d write it up in any case.


PS: just to add another note, I’ve started learning Vietnamese at the moment. Early days yet. I got the first 5 sections of Who-Is-She? Translated in to Vietnamese. Cost me $70 gasp but I’m ok with that. I find that my pronounciation is zero. My ability to understand audio only is… well… zero. I can barely keep up with the audio/transcript, I use windows media player to slow the audio down to around a speed of 60-70% so I can juuuuust follow what is being said.

So out of those 4 tasks… I can barely do one of them. But again, it’s early days yet. LingQ has yet to allow different languages in also… so I’m eagerly awaiting the day.

Strange, I was just thinking along similar lines myself the other day. Yes, I also think silent reading is by far the most efficient way to process language. If you subvocalise (read into yourself) then you are giving yourself an extra task which does not aid comprehension. The same goes for reading out loud. It may aid your production like you said. Listening to audio, is of course, much more difficult to do than reading; there’s maybe five to ten times more effort involved. So, if you are just learning the basics of a language, it’s not a very efficient way to go.

So I would broadly agree with you that concentrating on one thing at a time should result in better comprehension. Concentrating on one thing at a time is always a smarter way to work! You could Google for any research done in that area. I don’t know of anything myself. If you are really keen, you could set up your own experiments to test your comprehension with different combinations of reading/speaking/listening?

Wow, are you guys really trying to read, concentrating, rereading text over and over in an attempt to raise your comprehension level?
Somehow that doesn’t sound like it’s any fun at all!

Have you ever tried to find your keys? It totally differs from going to get your keys or remembering where your keys are, does it not? That is because focus only lets you see a small part of the picture. If and when that part is not enough to allow you to understand the whole picture, it is sometimes a good idea to zoom out.

Try this for once: don’t focus on or reread a text that you would like to comprehend. Just let it sink in and acquire meaning on its own while you are doing something else.

By the way: am I the only one

  • reading and highlighting
  • listening and watching (for instance watch someone prepare dinner whilst talking about politics)
  • listening whilst alternating writing, doodling and watching (for instance during a movie or lecture)
  • listening and ironing / knitting and looking at the television only when something catches my attention
  • speaking about something else during reading
  • taking notes when speaking
  • turning down the volume of the film to improvise a dialogue
  • listening to swedish music when reading french?

I was only wondering, because I suddenly got the feeling I am almost certainly misunderstanding you…

Hi Darbanville,

Yes unfortunately I believe we’re being misunderstood slightly - but thats okay :slight_smile:

I do strongly believe, however, in immersing yoruself in a language, using as many senses as you can. Improvising. Compensating. Being creative. etc all does help in many many ways.

Ah, thank goodness.

… found something!

I found this page on the web. Not sure on the source, but it’s good to see such concepts do in fact have some support. In fact there are many many more reasons here that I failed to realise myself…

ps: fwiw, with the above link, a space exists in the word “teacher” which must be removed in order for the link to work. i think the artificial space was inserted by the forum post script.

I agree with the link offered by Roy. Reading out loud is an activity of limited usefulness. I would not like to listen to 10 other people read poorly and have no interest in reading in front of others.

I think we should experiment with all combinations of reading and listening. Recently in order to get through the vast quantity of material I am downloading from Echo Moskvi I have started doing the following.

  1. Download the sound file (30-40 minutes each) to iTunes for transfer to my iPod
  2. Import the transcript to LingQ.
  3. Print the transcript
  4. Listen and read at the same time, marking the words I want to save.
  5. Enter a list of these words into the Vocabulary section
  6. Go through the list and adding Hints to each one.
  7. Delete any words that dictionary did not find
  8. Read the text quickly in LingQ, basically moving from highlighted words to highlighted word. I either know the highlighted word and do not open it, or open it to refresh my memory, of find one of the new words I just imported and add an example, usually copying from the text rather than clicking on examples since examples take a long time for me with a Russian library of over 800 items.
  9. Now I am ready to listen again during the day.
  10. For other items I just listen.
  11. I am also reading a Russian book on Stalin where I do not have audio. I occasionally batch import words into LingQ.


That sounds like a bit of work! I only read stuff twice as well. I’m not really bothered about audio at the moment. The first time I print out the text and read it underlining any words I don’t know with a pencil. Then I import it into LinqQ and quickly read the text again, looking up some of the words. Some of the words I can guess from reading the passage the second time. And that’s it basically. I’m starting to get used to LingQ now.


That was a good link, thanks.


Don’t you ever do just one thing at a time? Do you talk in your sleep? :wink: For me, reading while you are busy doing something else is only a waste of time. If you’re not paying attention, you’re not learning - it’s just background entertainment. I admire your skill at multitasking but I would rather focus on one task at a time or not bother at all. But feel free to differ!

I think it is good to experiment with a variety of ways of listening and reading. There is no one way. I go throug periods where I prefer doing things in different ways.

As for listening while doing something else, like the dishes, exercizing, driving, gardening, cleaning up, waiting in line, shopping etc. THAT IS AT LEAST 70% OF MY LANGUAGE LEARNING TIME! That is how I learn.

The work I do reading and reviewing words is merely to help make the listening more comprehensible. It feeds the listening.

This discussion suddenly brought to mind an article I read in the Japan Times a while ago. It was written by Gregory Clark, a well known Australian diplomat and political columnist who makes his home in Japan and holds various academic and political appointments. He is a polarising figure. He often is openly critical of the Japanese but, like a lot of old Japan hands, seems to ultimately defend Japanese society. I suspect he is derided as hopelessly out of touch by mainstream academics. I don’t always understand the economic concepts he uses but I find him an entertaining read.

The following article is a long personal account (not characteristic of him) and it is pretty choppy reading . It concerns his learning of Japanese. I have excerpted the pertinent points:

" The ideal is to have some recording of something relevant and interesting which you can listen over and over again till the meaning is clear. When the brain is reaching out to understand something its retentive power is much greater.

(One of the most ineffective, and expensive, ways is the popular idea of free discussion with native speakers. Even if students overcome a natural reluctance to listen and speak, what they hear often passes fleetingly through the mind. Little is retained.)

(Concentrated listening, and memorising, is crucial. I call it deep listening, and through books and articles have managed to get that concept accepted somewhat in Japan.)

(It should then be followed up by conversation, ideally on an organised basis.)

For listening practice I used to rely on taping the weather forecasts at first. With repeated listening gradually I could make sense from the ‘wall of sound.’ It was rather like decyphering a secret code, with the same kinds of challenges, and my term of it put into book form “The Code-Decyphering Technique” (Ango Kaidoku Hoshiki) also made some impact in Japan.

Next I moved to news broadcasts, relying on the newspapers of the day to help sort out incomprehensions. In particular I liked an early morning radio program called Watashi-tachi no Kotoba in which mainly elderly Japanese gave their views on social problems.

The reading was slow and clear, by top-line NHK announcers. The topic was of interest. And the texts included many educated words and expressions that I did not know but which I could use."

I don’t why there are so many parentheses. Anyway, it seems he would have liked LingQ!

More from the article

"5. Speaking Japanese

Listening is one thing. But speaking too is important, if one wants to consolidate the language into the sub-conscious memory.

But the speaking needs to come after and as a backup to the intensive listening — something that those devotees of ‘communicative English’ fail to realise. They seem to think that if you just put people into live situations where they have to communicate the language will penetrate the memory and the speaking ability.

In fact, there should be intensive listening practice before trying to speak.

Ideally the speaking should be with a teacher who is familiar with the material you have been using for listening. Or at least you should be able to to put yourself in a situation where you can use the words you have been listening to.

And while listening can be done by oneself (all you need is a radio, TV set or even better a good tape recorder) speaking requires other human beings. Ideally it should be a circle of friends or acquaintances with whom one can discuss things naturally.


I have independently come to similar conclusions.

Listen first and listen often. Get the language in you.

You do not need to speak the language until you have learned it.

You cannot learn what you do not already know, so ignore grammar until you know the language.