Literary Shifts

History Of Reading — Examining The Transition From Oral To Silent Reading

ancient reading


Can you think of a world where silent reading didn’t exist?

Well, there was literally a time when reading was done aloud. The ancient Greeks read texts orally. So did Europeans, Romans, Indians, and Germans.  

And when I think of such times, it fascinates me and piques my curiosity:

How and when did reading begin?

How, and in what ways, has the act of reading changed over time?

What did people read before the discovery of books and printing?

Since these questions kept bothering me for a good long time, I decided to read about reading.

I dug deeper, scrolled down the ages, learnt about the differences between ancient & modern reading, and decided to summarize my learnings in an article. 

If the history of reading fascinates you too, I’m sure you’ll find this article very interesting. 

For your ease, I’ll be dividing it into three parts: Earliest reading, Ancient reading, and Modern reading. 

Let’s dive right in!


Earliest Reading 

The earliest ‘reading’ by Homo sapiens was mainly the decoding of signs. 

Before letters became language, glyphs and pictographs were used to communicate ideas. The modern discipline that concerns itself with understanding and reading of these signs is called semiotics. 

Semiotics now has a myriad of branches that can essentially be divided into three areas:

  • Semantics – relation between signs and their meaning
  • Syntactics –formal relations between signs 
  • Pragmatics – relation between signs and the effects it has on the people

The earliest reading relied on diagrams drawn on the cave wall and homo sapiens discussed them in groups to establish relationships between them.

Now, let’s take a look at how people read in ancient times.


Ancient Reading 

As I mentioned in the beginning, the ancient Greeks, Romans, Europeans, Indians, and Germans read texts aloud. The texts they read were not ‘books’ but the long strips of papyrus — rolled up on wooden sticks at either end. 

A scan of German literature illustrates how reading differed in ancient times. Here’s a quote from Nietzsche, a German philosopher:

“The Germans read aloud. In antiquity, when a man read – which he did very seldom – he read to himself… in a loud voice; it was a matter of surprise if someone read quietly, and people secretly asked themselves why he did so. In a loud voice: that is to say, with all the crescendos, inflexions, variations of tone and changes of tempo in which the ancient public world took pleasure.’’

A study of ancient text would tell you why reading aloud was so common everywhere — the ancient writing didn’t have any upper or lowercase, punctuation, or word separation. The oral reading helped hold the syllable while words, sentences, and phrases were decoded.  

In short, reading out loud helped a reader aid connections between spellings, words, meaning, and pronunciation. Because words ran all together, making it hard to read them.

But as late as the 1600s, reading continued being a social activity. It took place in barns, taverns, and workshops – even after the spread of literacy and diverse reading materials. 

“The default assumption in the classic period, if you were reading around other people, you’d read aloud and share it,” Writes Alberto Manguel in his 1996 book, A History of Reading. “For us, the default is we’ll read silently and keep it to ourselves.”

But reading aloud wasn’t the only difference between ancient and modern reads. Here’s an interesting fact I came across:

During ancient times, reading was considered inferior to writing. It was deemed as an uneventful, passive activity, whereas writing was a vivid sign of contribution to society. 

But with the development of vocabulary, phonics, reading comprehension strategies, and phonemic awareness, people started valuing reading as much (and more) than writing. 

Now, back to the reading technique:

What caused the shift to silent (modern) reading?

Modern Reading

Silent reading began after the standardization of texts. As the language structure evolved, reading became an effortless process. With punctuation, spaces, and grammatical rules, people could identify a pattern. Reading didn’t require memorization and oral manipulation. 

As the books of dictionary and grammar started to circulate, writers began to address themselves to the readers, and not the listeners. 

Take a look at an excerpt from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading:

“The words no longer needed to occupy the time required to pronounce them. They could exist in interior space, rushing on or barely begun, fully deciphered or only half-said, while the reader’s thoughts inspected them at leisure, drawing new notions from them, allowing comparisons from memory or from other books left open for simultaneous perusal.”

While this shift happened slowly, silent reading allowed readers to read more quickly. The standardization of text and invention of the printing press changed the way people read. With printing, more and more people got access to books – one they could take to their room and read in solitude. And that’s how reading became a more personal affair. 

Take a look at an excerpt from Ong’s History of Books:

“Print was also a major factor in the development of the sense of personal privacy that marks modern society.  It produced books smaller and more portable than those common in a manuscript culture, setting the stage psychologically for solo reading in a quiet corner, and eventually for completely silent reading. (p. 128)”

Final Thoughts 

In all, the shift from ancient to modern reading was preceded by the standardization of text and the printing press. Indirectly, evolution in both these areas led to an emphasis on private thought. 

I think Thu-Huong Ha put it best when she wrote:

“Mainstream historical accounts would have us think that the end of oral reading in the Middle Ages was part of the Renaissance, a new European preoccupation with the individual. But it’s possible humans’ desire for privacy, the carving out of a little pocket in which to escape by way of a book, was there all along. We just needed a little help getting there.”