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Evelyn's Game: Any Number Can Play


By Jeffrey C. Alexander

Evelyn Wood's method of teaching speed reading has changed little since her days of glory at the University of Delaware. If you were one of the supposed 300,000 people who have mastered her technique, you would have passed this paragraph a long time ago and would be making better use of your time on column two.

The Experts have tried to tell her that it's impossible. But that's no use, because she reads the same way, only faster-probably column three by now. And she knows it can be learned, because she taught herself. She counters the pessimistic research by maintaining that bad reading habits are artificially ingrained in students when they are first taught to read, that they are not natural limitations.

For example, the extreme length of fixation is the result of what she calls sub-vocalization, "The first assurance you had that you could read was when you were able to look at the symbols and say the words outloud.... This gave you great security. Knowing that the symbols you read were the words you heard made you begin to lean heavily upon the sound of words... you had become so thoroughly accustomed to the sound in connection with reading the words that you would have difficulty breaking away from the necessity of hearing the sound as you read the words." In most adults, this oral pronunciation is suppressed into a noiseless subvocalization which means that the word cannot be recognized until it is heard by mind.

The smallness of each fixation -- usually no more than a word and one half--the number of fixations, and the ability to read only linearly from left to right are also results of the way reading is taught in the earliest stages. Mrs. Wood explains, "You learned to read across the line. You cautiously picked up each word in the spoken word order, and became very dependent upon this word order." Whereas in learning German, "You become accustomed to seeing the first half of a German verb at the beginning of a sentence and the last half some seven or eight lines later. You also know it is possible to become accustomed to this kind of material and to read fluently in the German language." She concludes that "Word order, therefore, cannot be the determining factor in a person's ability to read fast down the page and get thought."


According to Mrs. Wood, the size of fixation was decreased in the process of learning to read. "You did not learn to use your eyes in reading as you use them in all other seeing functions. For example, you do not look at a picture from left to right. You see it as a whole, as a unit; then understanding the whole, you can more intelligently understand its parts."

A key idea to the Wood Method, which is foreign to all conventional reading philosophy and which seems to violate the bounds of common sense more than the other theories, is that comprehension increases as the reading rate reaches exceptionally high levels. It is true that most traditionalists agree a person will understand better at 350 words per minute than at a rate of 200. But they contend that at more accelerated speeds the comprehension will drop sharply. What is unique about Evelyn Wood's concept is that she has taken the idea of speed - increasing - comprehension and extended it far beyond the traditionalist's limited estimates.

It is easily explained in the context of the entire technique. If the eye is taking in large bunches of words out of order, the faster they are linked together and the more that come in should determine how much the words will mean to the reader. Also, the mind can understand words as fast as the eye sees them and does not have to wait a quarter second before allowing the eye to move on to the next words.

The Wood teaching technique is composed of two main parts divided into six steps. Steps one and two are concerned with eliminating regressions and decreasing subvocalization. The student is instructed to use his closed fingers as a pacer to his eyes, running them under each line of print. According to past research, the fixation time spent in regressions equals ten per cent of total reading time. This is the easiest technique in the course and is acquired with little practice.


Two weeks are spent on steps one and two and the desired result is the beginning of the end of subvocalization. This is accomplished by the "push-up" drill, probably the most important technique developed by Evelyn Wood. The student reads for one minute using step one and advancing at an easy rate. He adds one page and reads them in the same amount of time. A second, third, fourth and fifth page is added in the same way before the reader is once again given the original number of pages to read in one minute's time. This technique keeps pushing him to speeds at which he can no longer subvocalize, and then brings him back to speeds at which he is a little more comfortable but which are still above his first, natural speed. The theory is that, after repeating this drill many times, the original reading speed should seem unnaturally slow to the reader.

The rest of the steps from three on are devoted to enlarging the fixation area and learning how to read out of expectancy order. Step three teaches the student to read down three lines diagonally from left to right and then, on what used to be the return sweep, to read down three lines diagonally from right to left. On both of these downward-diagonal sweeps, only three fixations are made. The expanded fixation is called the "soft glance,"and is by far the most important Reading Dynamics technique, and the most difficult to master. It assumes a greatly decreased subvocalization. Evelyn Wood's theory is there is no reason why vertical vision should not be used in reading as well as horizontal vision, as long as the words can be assimilated out of expectancy order.

The other steps introduce hand movements which accommodate an increasing number of lines. An "S" - shape is considered the ultimate design for a hand movement because it is simple and holds to a minimum the time the hand hides the print.

Reading dynamically has only one thing in common with conventional reading: fixation time is the same, about one-quarter of a second. But the number of fixations is reduced by at least 90 per cent. Reading is from eye to mind, rather than from eye to ear to mind. The terms return sweep and regression have lost all meaning. Right to left diagonal eye movement usually dominates over the old left to right because it seems to be easier.

Dynamic readers also attest that the actual experience of reading is greatly changed. Evelyn Wood, who herself can read almost anything at 12,000 words per minute, describes it: "The reader becomes a part of the story....The more accurately and carefully chosen the author's words, the sharper the pictures we see and experience....Since the Wood method relies upon the total idea or thought for meaning rather than the individual words, there is no feeling of hurry or fast motion or speeded reading... as the eyes go down the page. The words go in fast, but they go in only to make the complete picture."

Relating the Reading Dynamics techniques to the research statistics endorsed by reading authorities is a dangerous game because the latter do not admit that the Evelyn Wood Technique is reading. Briefly, assuming three fixations for every three lines on a page of 30 lines, total fixation time is 7.5 seconds per page. At ten words a line, the rate for step three would compute as 2400 words per minute.

The success at Delaware converted one fort of academia, increased the stature of Mrs. Wood as a reading instructor, and added legitimacy to the concept of Reading Dynamics. But it had little effect on the majority of reading scholars. Some, however, recognized a real potential at least for some scholars. One nationally-known scholar formerly of the traditional school of reading recently remarked, "I have a growing suspicion that this is a different way of reading. It is devolving a capacity to use multiple as well as sequential channel functions. It is a creative process, something like the dream process, rather than a strictly linear development".

Still, the traditionalists demand scientific, rather than deductive, proof. And, in fact, there is a dearth of such experimentation on the Reading Dynamics techniques. Evelyn and her partisans claim that nobody has been able to invent a machine with enough range to test the super-reader. The college reading teachers say that nobody has asked them to build one. Neither side appears anxious to obtain indisputable truth. There is too much to lose. At this point, each has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

Concerning the validity of the Wood method, the only explanation of the increased speed is the greatly increased area of visual perception during fixation. On this point the traditionalists do not have to invent new tests. They can waive the results of scientific research which have proved the retina can bring only one inch of a printed line into clear focus.

To these critics, Reading Dynamics convert Stauffer has an answer: "They are always demanding we show them how it is possible it can be done. But none of them has ever shown us that it can't be done".

After all, 300,000 people couldn't have been wrong.

NEXT WEEK: The Commercialization of an Idea

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