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How we read

We’re reading on screens now more than ever before. Because of this, we understand things differently. The way we message our friends, order food and even interact with our bank has changed. But reading isn’t as simple as looking at words. Our bodies and brains do many things that let us understand what we see and how we store that information.


Circuits make up our brain. Anything our brain does isn’t a straight line. When we read ‘hello’ our brain doesn’t follow a quick, straight path to knowing that’s a greeting. It follows a number of paths throughout the circuits. These build up over time.

When we first learn to read, the circuits are basic. They’re formed around recognising letters. As we read more and more these circuits develop and get built upon.


This is what our eyes do when we read and you probably don’t even notice. Rather than smoothly reading from one word to the next our eyes jump around quickly, stopping several times. The speed of this varies from person to person and changes depending on what we’re reading. If you’re looking at something unexpected, it can generally take up to 200 milliseconds to start. It can then last 20 to 200 milliseconds. Scientists have even managed to cut that time in half under lab conditions.

When we read we don’t necessarily fixate on individual words. We often skip shorter words and can keep coming back to longer ones. Up to 25% of these saccadic movements go backwards, rather than following the word order. Essentially the eyes jump to the words that need processing to understand what we’re reading. It’s believed to be a sign of cognitive processing. Keeping our writing short and snappy helps facilitate quick, rapid eye movements. We’re trying to reduce any confusion for the reader.


When we read, our body still reacts like we’re talking. The muscles we use for speech, such as the larynx and others, make tiny movements when we’re reading. This is undetectable by the reader. It’s a way for the mind to access the different meanings and remember what we’re reading. It’s believed it could even reduce cognitive load.

Some people believe that blocking their subvocalization helps them speed read. However, there are a few studies that disagree with this. Although you might read quicker, you’re not taking in or understanding the information.

But, we don’t store information like a computer. If you think back to the last book you read you probably can’t remember every sentence. Our brains don’t record information like that. You’ll be able to remember the gist of the story and the characters’ names. You may also remember information that wasn’t implicitly written. This could be things like the characters’ emotional motivations.

By keeping our language plain and simple we don’t stress any subvocalization. And we don’t make it too difficult for the reader to understand, causing cognitive overload.

Inner voice

When you’re thinking about things or reading something, you might hear a voice in your head. This is your ‘inner voice’ or ‘inner monologue’. Not everyone has it, but if you do this voice explains the things you see or reads the words to you.

It sometimes sounds like your own voice, or can even sound different entirely. However, there’s a positive and negative inner voice. The positive version is a healthy coping mechanism. It involves understanding the reality of the situation. This then disregards any beliefs or biases that might lead to negative inner talk.

By using clear, easy to recognise, words and phrases we can assist the inner voice to read quickly.

The effect of digital

With such a spread of digital media, the way we read is changing. Readers generally skim when reading online. The digital environment rewards this, supporting faster understanding. After scrolling through Twitter, it’s often more difficult to concentrate on a physical book.

Knowing that our body and brain is reacting to what we read, we want to support them. As writers for the web, use terms and phrases that are common and simple, not words that people might not know or recognise.

We know users skim online so it’s important we use simple, plain language. We want to increase comprehension for the most readers possible.

21 February 2019

This article was originally published on UX Collective on 21 February 2019.