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Evelyn Wood: The Evolution of an Idea

Part I

By Jeffrey C. Alexander

This is the first of three articles about the Evelyn Wood School of Reading Dynamics. Part II concerns The Method. Part III discusses The Commercialization of an Idea-ed.

One summer evening almost two years ago, a small brown-haired woman in her middle fifties walked into a crowded basement room of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. She walked to the front of the room, smiled a pleasant motherly smile and said "My name is Evelyn Wood. I've come all the way from Utah to teach you to read faster than you've ever dreamed possible."

Evelyn Nielsen Wood invented the concept of "dynamic reading" and the Institute of Reading Dynamics. Both have been causing a lot of confusion, and not only in the more than 50 American cities which have working Institutes. They are everywhere. Walk into Lamont and you see three or four of them, hands tracing large "S" patterns with their fingers down the pages. And there are many more to come, at least 100,000 more this year. If you read the newspaper you have seen the advertisement: "READ FAST, ACHIEVE MORE, YOU CAN DO IT."

Has Yankee ingenuity triumphed again? Has Evelyn Wood produced this decade's answer to Marshall McCuhan and changed reading from a linear to a multiple process? Or is Reading Dynamics just another patent medicine come upon the scene to cure ills that can never be cured?

If Reading Dynamics develops as Mrs. Wood and her partisans contend, someday soon Bob Richards will appear on the television screen grinning healthfully and advising earnest young Americans to buy "Wheaties, Breakfast of Speed Readers"; and parents will be consoling their disgruntled children with "Don't worry son, you can't speed read 'em all."

Such translocutions certainly will never occur if the country's reading "Establishment" has anything to do with it. Composed of reading scholars strategically based in colleges around the country, this fortress of academia has refused to give sanction to the Wood method. Most of these experts have devoted their lives to problems of reading efficiency, not reading speed. The conventional wisdom has proved, scientifically, that it is humanly impossible to read more than 900 words per minute.

Professional reputations are at stake. One highly-regarded reading authority accused Evelyn Wood of being a "speed merchant." In 1962, George D. Spache, director of the reading laboratory and clinic at the University of Florida, wrote: "Furthermore, if anyone offers to teach you or your pupils to read at speeds in thousands of words per minute..., the kindest thing you can say to him is that he is completely ignorant of the nature of the act of reading."

Vested Machines

Reading Dynamics is no better welcomed in the world of business, where more than 30 reading machine companies are selling their wares. These vested interests have a lot to lose. If Evelyn Wood is right, their machines are obsolete.

Reading was not always so hectic. In fact, the whole idea of rapid silent reading is less than 35 years old. Until the 1920's, reading instruction in America stressed accurate oral reading almost exclusively. The good reader was the pupil who could sight read aloud with expression and fluency. Then experimenters at the University of Chicago demonstrated what appears obvious today: by the fourth grade most students can read silently faster than orally. They proved, furthermore, that comprehension and retention is significantly better after silent reading.

Also in the 1920's and 30's research was being done on the relationship between eye-movement patterns and speed of reading. In reading 100 words, the eye makes 100 to 150 stops, called "fixation pauses." Each fixation takes about one-quarter of a second. In moving from one fixation to another, the eye makes a quick jerk which takes only about 15 thousandths of a second. The eye often moves backward toward the beginning of the line to get a clearer view of the material or to reread it. These are called regressions and occur about ten times per 100 words. The interfixation moves--the jerks between words as well as the return sweep after each line is finished--take only six per cent of the total reading time, while the fixation pauses take 94 per cent. Good readers make relatively few fixations--between 50 and 100--and regressions per line of print.

Changing Eyes

Reading authorities realized that the only effective way to increase the reading rate was to change the eye patterns in some way. But it was not until World War II that a method was discovered for doing so. A device called a tachistoscope was used by the Air Force to train pilots to recognize the markings on airplanes in splitsecond time. The machine began flashing pictures of enemy fighter planes on a screen for one second and diminished the time until the planes were recognizable to the pilots at 1/100 seconds.

It was a natural for speed reading, and soon other mechanical devices appeared on the market. They all attempted one of three things: to shorten the time per fixation, to decrease the number of fixations, or to increase the span of words which could be read at each fixation. If almost any person could learn to recognize four words flashed on the screen at 1/100 seconds, shouldn't a person be able to read 24,000 words per minute?

At this very first intrusion of commercialism into reading skills the "recognized authorities" began to bend to the task of exposing the claims of speed reading quacks. First of all, even though such things as the fixation time could be reduced in practice by ten per cent, the carryover to natural reading situations was disappointingly small. Also, it was shown that the part of the retina sensitive enough to see the printed line can accommodate clearly only about one-half inch of any printed line. Optometric research has proven that letters one-half inch from the exact point of fixation are seen with only fifty per cent acuity. (In 1951, John Kennedy rounded up a few of his friends and they commuted to Baltimore once a week for a mechanical speed reading course. Kennedy graduated reading 1500 words per minute.)

Useless Effort

And so the experts "proved" that attempts to improve reading by training eye movements were useless. Documented research had shown that eye movements had no independence but were only symptoms of the central brain processes of perception and comprehension. Because they are reflective rather than primary it must be useless to change the eye patterns. The logical conclusion is that the only way to improve reading is to improve the reader's ability to perceive and interpret the material. For this reason, few college reading centers in the 1950's offered any courses labeled "speed reading." Whatever teaching was done in this area was structured to improve reading-study skills like vocabulary, selectivity, and versatility.

Reading authorities concluded that the ability to read at extreme speeds was a rare gift that nobody could "teach." Most of these experts still assert this belief today. The Harvard reading people, however, take a broader middle position. They hold that in the setting of college work one must provide as much for the improvement of conventional reading skills as for the breakthrough into extreme speeds for those people capable of it. Says Roderic C. Hodgins, who has taught Harvard's reading course more than anybody else in the past five years, "It is like teaching somebody to ride a bicycle. It is perfectly easy to tell him what is done, but you cannot train a sense of balance.... The pupil says 'teach me to read faster,' but I can't grab hold of his eyeballs and wiggle them for him. You are trying to tell the average guy about something which is highly idiosyncratic. It is here that I begin to think to teach is an intransitive verb."

Then one afternoon in the spring of 1959 Evenly Wood set up a Reading Dynamics course in Wilmington, Delaware. Here was staged the first and most important battle of Wood versus Establishment. Although similar in issues to the conflict between the reading machine and the experts, it was to end in a resounding triumph for Mrs. Wood and her concept.

Once upon a time years before, so the legend goes, when Mrs. Wood had been a high school teacher in Utah, she handed her Master's thesis to a professor and watched astounded as he flipped the pages at 6000 words per minute. Intriqued, she soon rounded up 50 equally rapid readers and after a few years discovered their secret and had it patented. It took two more years to teach herself the method and after that Mrs. Wood began experimenting with Utah high school students. After running through a good percentage of Utah's high school population, she decided to commercialize and there she was in Wilmington, Delaware in the spring of 1959.

Delaware Reading

Also located in Wilmington was the University of Delaware and its Reading-Study Center. The center was directed by Russel G. Stauffer, who is now president of the International Reading Association. "I was getting many telephone queries about the new Wood technique and the feasibility of rates ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 words per minute. I indicated that my 'informed' judgement led me to conclude that such rates were hardly attainable. I was just as heated in my denials as anybody could be, but I was forced to deal with her."

Stauffer enrolled in Mrs. Wood's course and ended up reading fiction at more than 2000 words a minute. Next, he organized a class of about 20 hardheaded faculty members, including the University president, the Librarian, the Dean of Students, and the Dean of the School of Engineering. According to Stauffer, two persons dropped the course for personal reasons and those who remained reported markedly increased rates and satisfaction with the course in general.

During the Fall semester, Evelyn Wood was appointed an assistant professor in the School of Education, and remained there for one year, structuring a three credit course in speed reading which is still being given at Delaware. When she left, there even was one graduate student working for his doctorate in Reading Dynamics.

Evenly Wood took the University of Delaware by storm

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