You might be quite proud of the reading level you've reached – particularly when measured against a group of school kids – but we've got some news for you: many of us apparently carry on reading like children no matter old we get, as several scientific studies have reported. Gizmodo's Esther Inglis-Arkell pulls together a lot of this research, which stretches back as far as the 1970s.
What the various studies reveal is that we can carry on 'sounding out' words in our head as we read them, even if we've stopped moving our lips by the time we've left school.
In a 1971 experiment, volunteers were asked to identify the nonsense words they found in a text, and they all struggled over pseudohomophones – that is, words that aren't really words but sound like they might be (think "meen" or "lern"). That points to something in our brains that recognises the sound of a word as well as the way it's spelt.
But not so fast, because more recent studies have added extra detail to the picture. While it seems that we can learn to spot pseudohomophones more readily when we're exposed to them more often, it's also the case that words which are visually similar to real words trip us up as well – words such as "knile" in place of "knife", for example. This 1982 report posited that the look of a word could have just as much of an effect as the way it sounds during an inner monologue in the brain.
Finally, Inglis-Arkell points to a 1996 study where English was swapped out for German to see what impact it would have on the way participants would reject nonwords. In this case, unusual spellings – think "ph" in place of "f" – proved more problematic for the volunteers, which would indicate that both word sounds and how words appear on the page affect the way we sift through them.
This most recent study found something else too, that some readers were more skilled than others in rejecting pseudohomophones, even if they weren't aware of the original homophone in question (hence the switch to an unfamiliar language like German). That could be down to a better familiarity with typical spelling structures or the fact that particular words just don't trigger off any meaningful associations in the brain.
Nevertheless, the report authors reached the same conclusion as their fellow researchers in 1971: at least some of the participants were sounding out words in their minds before identifying them, something you might want to try and test for yourself the next time you reach for a book.