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If you’re familiar with speed reading, you must’ve heard the name Evelyn Wood at least once. She revolutionized speed reading and her technique is still one of the most well known.

“It was promoted quite extensively and, to the uninitiated, at that point as a youngster in school, it was almost synonymous with reading skills.”

Richard Ballot, president of American Learning Corp

But how authentic is the Evelyn Wood speed reading technique, and will it actually improve the way you read?

If you want to learn more about the basics of speed reading, and whether it actually works, you can read more on our blog article, “Does Speed Reading Actually Work?”.

Who Was Evelyn Wood?

Evelyn Wood was an American-born educator with a master’s degree in speech and drama. She first coined the terms speed reading and reading dynamics in the 1950s in her work “Reading Dynamics” from 1959.

At that time, she was working as a teacher and counsellor in a high school in Utah. This is where she taught her first reading class as well. It was her conviction that teaching the kids who act out in school to read would help them focus on their studies instead.

“One of the reasons people don’t read is because the process is so slow. If a person could read faster, they could stay interested.”

Evelyn Wood

She taught courses on reading dynamics at the University of Utah. They were so popular that students would line up the day before just to get a chance to attend it.

By utilizing Evelyn Wood speed reading, she promised to increase the reading speed up by two to five times. Wood herself could allegedly read 2,700 to 15,000 words per minute, depending on the text.

She first discovered speed reading when she was a graduate student in the 40s. Upon handing in her master’s thesis, her professor at the time started flipping through the pages at a seemingly impossible pace. To her surprise, she realized he could read about 6,000 words a minute. He even asked her questions about her thesis, suggesting a high level of understanding of the read text.

That was where her interest in speed reading originated. From then on, she would study other speed readers, trying to figure out their habits and what they all had in common. This  led to her writing her own first textbook on speed-reading techniques.

What is the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Technique?

Wood’s speed-reading technique is quite simple. You read down a page vertically instead of horizontally, moving your finger in a zigzag motion to guide you. It teaches you to use your peripheral vision to read groups of words, as opposed to one word at a time. First, you learn to read line-by-line and eventually even paragraph-by-paragraph. You will ‌do so by skipping margin words that don’t add to the value of the sentence.

In her Evelyn Wood speed reading course, she also distinguishes between different modes of connecting with the brain. Visual learners are the fastest with Wood’s reading technique. Wood advised auditory learners to do certain activities to prevent themselves from vocalizing words while reading, like chewing gum.

The idea was to teach people to immediately see the read words in the brain instead of vocalizing them first. This would stop the automatic activation of phonological information in our brain when reading, a process we use to distinguish between words like e.g. wind (verb), and wind  (noun).

How Authentic are Results from the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Course?

When she first developed her speed reading course, Wood quickly became renowned all over America. This popularity led to her opening her Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington in 1959. The Evelyn Wood speed reading technique was broadcast everywhere.

Prominent public figures like John and Jackie Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and even the Queen of Denmark were speed-readers. Most even took part in Wood’s course. The White House staff was notably taught Evelyn Wood speed reading as well.

But despite its popularity, her course and ideas were, and still are, met with criticism.

What is the Main Critique on the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading technique?

The promise of Evelyn Wood speed reading, giving greater comprehension of the text than regular reading, is most disputed.

Several studies showed that her method showed a possibility of increasing speed to up to 750 words per minute. This could not simply be achieved without its downsides. Speed readers failed to gain a detailed enough understanding of the text. Showing only a good grasp of the dominant theme, but lacking in conveying more precise information. However, they were still capable of at least constructing a correct outline of the text.

A study by Ehrlich in 1963 tested the ability of speed readers compared to normal readers. The study presented them with a text constructed of sentences from two unrelated sources in every other line. By the end, speed readers claimed to have a good cognisance of the text, but none of them noticed the varying source material.  

This leaves us with the question of how it became so popular. 

Perhaps the reason Evelyn Wood’s reading dynamics were given currency was because of the political situation in America. Many important events occurred in the 1950s that caused the government to invest in education. Most notably, the Cold War, the launch of the USSR Sputnik 1 in 1957, and the founding of NASA the year after.

There was an ever-present fear of losing the Space Race against the communist USSR of the time. This led to the notion that education had something to do with it. The American government reversed the recent revolution of the anti-homework movement by progressive educators. Their child-centered approach advocated for the psychological wellbeing of students below high school grades looking to eliminate homework. 

The government decided that the schools’ standards needed to be raised, and fast. This new prompted the passage of The National Defence Education Act. Teaching methods had to be rethought and restructured, and standards for students rose rapidly. The intended result was high-quality teaching with improved high school curriculums. 

Does this mean that Evelyn Wood Speed Reading is a Farce?

In the end, whether speed reading is an effective technique depends not only on the reader but also on the type of text and the level of comprehension it requires.

Using speed reading for a scientific paper might not be the best solution. Unless you’re well versed in the topic already, or have an extensive vocabulary, of course. Reading a book in under an hour could be useful if you have little time to prepare for a test on it. It would also help refresh your knowledge about the contents. Though less so when you need to write an essay about more detailed information on characters or content.

The idea that you can read up to 15,000 words per minute and still gain a perfect comprehension of the text is the one goal you should single out.

Instead, to become better at speed-reading, ‌try to read more.

According to Mark Seidenberg’s Science of Reading, reading regularly will increase your vocabulary and make you more aware of reading structures to help you become faster. By reading constantly these structures and the vocabulary you already know will update. Your brain will adapt these patterns, allowing you to naturally increase your speed.

Patterns can be anything from letters, phonemes, statistically high occurring word combinations, and other structures that make up written language. It eliminates many problems that speed reading is trying to solve. The main two being re-reading, and reading full sentences with a lot of redundant words.

Evelyn Wood speed reading is best summarized by the following quote from her daughter:

“You see, the point with reading fast is that all material isn’t worthy of the same speed. And if you can read fast, you have the adaptability of being able to read at whatever speed the material calls for, and she (Evelyn Wood) never would quote a specific speed for herself because it would vary, depending on what she reads.”

Carol Evans

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An exclusive 10-month, fully-sponsored, program designed for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place.

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