Professor studies silent inner voice.

Professor Mara Breen studies how we “hear” the words we read, and what happens when the brain expects one word but gets another.

By Keely Savoie

That inner voice that enunciates the written words you read 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 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?”

Breen and colleagues at Haskins Laboratories and the University of Connecticut have completed research that demonstrates a relationship between prosodic fluency and reading comprehension in high school students, even when accounting for IQ differences.

“We know that kids who sound good when reading aloud also tend to be good comprehenders,” she said. “One possibility is that those who are reading with good prosody out loud also generate good implicit prosody when reading silently. Their inner voice is giving them the cues that they need.”

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. Breen looks at what happens in the brain during silent reading by using eye-tracking devices to determine how long a reader lingers on a given word. This provides an indication of how long it takes them to process it. Variations in processing time can give clues to what is happening internally and tracking this is a way that scientists can listen in on that silent voice.

“If a sentence has a particular rhythmic structure, people will tend to predict that strong syllables will occur at specific time points,” Breen said.

When most people read a limerick, for example, they typically hear their inner voice finish the phrase. Most of the time, this predictive interpretation of words makes reading more efficient. 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.

To determine whether this prosodic sour note affected reading time and comprehension, Breen and her collaborators performed eye-tracking studies on readers. 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.

“They took a lot longer to read it,” Breen said. “We interpreted that to mean that people were generating these sound representations even when reading silently.”

Implicit prosody isn’t always helpful

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.

"Mara 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."

Even more challenging for readers than the misleading limericks was when they had to re-categorize words syntactically or when they had to reimagine the word rhythm, Breen said.

For example:

The brilliant abstract the best ideas from the things they read.

Most people will read “brilliant abstract” as an adjective preceding a noun, a superlative review of a scholarly overview (brilliant AB-stract). But it quickly becomes clear that “brilliant” is a noun—a class of people—and “abstract” is a verb with a different pronunciation (ab-STRACT). The reader has to start fresh to make the correction.

“We found that these types of sentences were even more difficult and led to even greater slowdowns,” Breen said.

Another question Breen is examining is how implicit prosody affects comprehension and reading ability in children.

Her future research will investigate this and other ways in which implicit prosody 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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