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The decor of the Boston office of the Evelyn Wood Institute of Reading Dynamics is a testimonial to success. Subdued colors. Thick carpets. Soft lighting. Pretty secretaries.
Three weeks ago I was waiting in the outer office for an appointment with the Institute director when an electric typewriter salesman walked in the door. After informing him that the boss was in conference, the secretary asked the salesman if he had ever taken the course himself. He replied sheepishly, "I don't really read too well, usually I fall asleep. So I guess I wouldn't really make too good a student." "Oh, you would though," the secretary exclaimed, "Think how fast you could read when you were awake!"
The Reading Dynamics operation, which has justly been called the greatest advertising campaign since the comeback of Hertz, was not always based on the pure money ethic. In fact, Evelyn Wood is a deeply religious person and she considered her first attempts at commercialization in 1960 more in terms of a religious crusade: "Why have I dared to believe that reading down the page, at speeds held by many experts to be impossible, can be done? Perhaps it is because my deep religious convictions teach me that 'a man is saved no faster than he gains knowledge;' that 'no man can be saved in ignorance;' that 'the glory of God is intelligence.'" For Mrs. Wood, speed reading has always been next to godliness and she thought of speed reading instruction as God's work.
In the fall of 1960, Evelyn Wood set out to convert the world, opening about 25 instruction centers around the United States. The following September, Evelyn Wood went bankrupt and the company sold out at 30 cents on the dollar.
John Kilgo, director and owner of the Boston franchise, tells the story this way. "We opened all 25 centers within one month with no preparation and no advertising. There was just nobody with any practical business experience involved. Soon five centers in the South went bankrupt--sold out is a nicer way to put it..." Faith, evidently, was not enough.
A closed corporation was created and George Webster, a well-known graduate of the Harvard Business School, was hired as business consultant. Howard Ruff, the San Francisco franchiser, invented the idea of simply-worded full page newspaper advertisements, and Reading Dynamics was on its way.
The first thing Webster did was to fire most of the old guard, the elite who were devoted to the concept of dynamic reading and had stuck by Evelyn Wood from the very start. The franchises were subsequently sold to hard-headed businessmen who knew the value of the penny. "The franchises have been sold very selectively. Of course, these new boys do not have the pioneering spirit of the old teachers, but I guess they don't need it anymore," says Kilgo. In fact, most of the franchise owners cannot even speed read. Kilgo admitted that he has not been able to master the method, "I had it once, for a few minutes I was reading at 20,000 words per minute, but never since that time."
The second thing Webster did was to institute a policy which guaranteed full refund of tuition if the course did not triple-improve the student's reading. This is the prime factor for the popular success of Reading Dynamics. Since the day the guarantee went into effect, the driving force behind the Evelyn Wood program has been the profit motive.
With this commercialization, the old guard religious movement has become more of a political party with its ideology. Faith is needed now more than ever, lest students drop the course before they have paid the entire bill. But the faith has changed in nature from inspiration to dogma. What does the teacher tell the student after the third lesson has come and gone and he is still reading at 400 words a minute? "You have to believe deep down that you're going to get it. You must have faith that sometime this week you will be doing your homework and suddenly it will happen. You must be faithful to the method." This is usually the standard line used by the Reading Dynamics teachers. The "faith" is now "being faithful;" it is used as a club to prevent people from dropping the course.
Evelyn Wood, now demoted to an advisor to the closed corporation, is the official party priestess. She is a trouble-shooter, spending time in cities where the sales are down and managing institutes which open in big important cities for the first few weeks. It is her duty to instill in students a blind unquestioning faith in the party dogma. When a student told Mrs. Wood during the first lesson that she doubted she would ever read very fast, Mrs. Wood admonished her with "young lady, if there is any doubt in your mind about ultimate success, I promise you that you will fail. You must have perfect confidence in yourself." If a student complains he is not learning it, Mrs. Wood will say "You aren't trying hard enough." To doubt the party dogma, the absolute rightness of the Wood technique, is to fight the system. Fighting the system means you do not really want to learn it, after all, you are wasting valuable energy. If you take your speeding seriously, it can be rather frightening.
The Reading Dynamics Institute also produces the same kind of propaganda associated with party activity. Usually it is composed of statements from well-known people who have been converted to the idea of reading dynamics. Professor Stauffer of Delaware is probably the party's chief propagandist. But not to be overlooked are statements from prestigious non-experts such as Senator William Proxmire whose famous quotation is: "I must say that this was one of the most useful educational experiences I've ever had. It certainly compares favorably with the experiences I've had at Yale and Harvard."
One last vestige from the old "religious" days of Reading Dynamics which has since been altered is the "Breakthrough," which denotes the abrupt attainment of dynamic reading. Kilgo desrcibes his Breakthrough in an unmistakably religious manner, "It was as if I was in a trance. My vision blurred and suddenly I could see the entire page in one glance. It was induced by rhythmic repetition over the same page many times." The term has been dropped, in favor of a more gradual description of success, because it was not conducive to profit making. "We have been instructed not to talk about it much anymore. Too often it is not substantial and students return to their old speeds. Also, it makes the course too much of a hit and miss proposition," says Kilgo.
If learning to read dynamcially was as straightforward as Evelyn Wood says, none of this complicated superstructure would be necessary. It is true, as the previous two articles showed, that it is possible for a person to learn dynamic reading with the Wood method. But it is also true that the vast majority of students never do learn, even if they do their homework every night and believe and believe and believe. Nobody who is associated with Reading Dynamics would ever come out and admit this because it makes ridiculous the fact that less than two percent of the students get their money back after the course.
Failure seems to be admitted tacitly by director Kilgo when he says, "Some students of course have more aptitude than others, but 95 per cent of the students who come to us could, sooner or later, read more than 2000 words per minute. People who are conscientious enough to stick it out long enough are rare." The guarantee states that the student will learn the technique in eight weeks, not "sooner or later."
At one time, the course was 12 weeks for $150. Now it is eight weeks for $175. Kilgo explains, "We found out that people were only attending eight of those 12 sessions, so we decided it would be more efficient to supply only eight in the first place." The switch must have proved immensely profitable. But a strange phenomenon has been occurring: now students are only attending an average of five of the eight sessions. Missing $65 dollars worth of teaching is not carelessness. The only plausible explanation is that students usually become so discouraged that they give up that infamous faith in ultimate success.
The only way loyalists of the Reading Dynamics enterprises can counter this evidence is by pointing to the small percentage of tuitions refunded. As the official pamphlet says, "The success of Reading Dynamics lies on its ability to teach successfully over 96 per cent of its pupils." This argument is valid only if there is a direct correlation between reading success and tuitions refunded. Unfortunately, there is an amazingly large gap between the two.
Special attention must be paid to the guarantee: "Reading Dynamics will refund the tuition of any student who fails to at least triple his reading index during the course as measured by our standard testing program. This guarantee is valid so long as the student attends each lesson and maintains the requisite home drill at least one hour daily at levels specified by his instructor."
The "reading index" is the product of the reading rate multiplied by the percent score on the comprehension test. Thus if a student reads 300 words per minute and scores 70 per cent on the test he takes during the first session, his index is 210. If on the final test he reads at 1500 words per minute, he need score only 42 per cent on the comprehension score to triple his former reading index to 630. What makes this stipulation even less valid is that before the final test during the eighth lesson, the students are usually instructed to "go full out" even if they have not mastered the technique.
So it often happens that a student will push himself along at 2000 words per minute on the final test, following instructions and confident that his low score on the following comprehension test will prove what he is sure of-that he has not learned to read dynamically. Then a strange thing will happen. He will score well on the comprehension test in spite of understanding little of what he read.
This leads to the basic deception of the Reading Dynamics course. The comprehension test in the first session is much more difficult than the one in the eighth session. The tests are usually on the first and second half of a biography of Albert Einstein. The first questions are almost all fill-ins, and are specefic questions which require detailed recall. The questions on the second test are multiple choice and much less specific.
A Yale graduate student named Richard Gordon is suing the Institute for the price of his tuition. On the final test he refused to read faster than he could understand and consequently finished only about half of the reading in the time allotted. On the comprehension test, he scored 80 per cent on the questions covering the part he read and 70 per cent on the reading he had not done. In a letter to the director of the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Institute, Gordon writes of the second test, "... it was
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