Monograph - A Breakthrough in Reading - 1960
Evelyn Wood, Dynamics Reading Institute

To destroy the Western tradition of independent thought, it is not necessary to burn the books. All we need to do is to leave them unread for a generation or two. Robert M. Hutchins

If you could read a book of average size in an hour or less would you read more books?

Responses, from a wishful sigh to angry resentment, are evoked by this question. Why can't you read a book in that time? Why must people be content to read at the old horse and buggy rate of 200 to 400 words a minute?

Few important things have resisted twentieth-century progress. Industry has packed a former month's production into a single day. High speed vehicles have caused time to shrink length-wise until a former three-month ocean trip becomes a daily round-trip routine.

Undreamed strides have been made in audio and visual communications, adding height and perspective to our social and cultural advance. Yet education and thought communication remains shackled to the printed page. And the tragic fact remains that we still take as long to read those pages as our grandparents did.

The professional, the educator, the specialist are launched into the field of service by a vocational, a bachelor's, a master's or a doctor's degree. The more education he receives the more he becomes dependent on books. After he receives his final diploma he must continue to read, or the very tools of his profession obsolesce, causing the relative effectiveness of his services to decline.

A relentless flood of books, magazines and papers pours forth, only to be placed in neat stacks by his desk. Instead of opening new horizons in his field and bringing new ideas, these must be relegated to his when-I-get-the-time-to-read shelf to gather dust.

Two hundred to four hundred words a minute has been the accepted reading rate for decades. A reading specialist can devise ways of making the eyes move over the words at faster speeds. Dedicated students can double their speeds on fairly simple material, but still the reading bottleneck remains very real.

Thousands of the nation’s most capable students choose less rewarding vacations rather than suffer the fatiguing barriers created by necessary reading. Knowledge is just books away. A breakthrough i reading could change the course of many lives. Such a breakthrough is being achieved. A new kind of research is required to make it possible.

Fast reading is not unheard of. History records interesting snatches about famous people who were able to read at exceptionally fast rates.

Perhaps the best known was Theodore Roosevelt. In addition to his time-consuming obligations as president of the Untied States, he was able to read three books a day. Boswell refers to Samuel Johnson's rapid reading. John Stuart Mill bemoaned the fact that it took him longer to turn the pages than to read them. Balzac, Jonathan Swift, and Caesar also referred to by historians as very rapid readers. I was 50 to 100 years to late to ask even the last one how he did it.

I watched Dr. C. Lowell Lees, head of the Speech department at the University of Utah, read a typed term paper as fast as he could turn the pages. He could tell what was in it and what was not. He answered questions on the content as they were answered on the paper.

He was one of the best informed and widely read professors I met in college. His classes are an inspiration to all who hear him. He was the first proof to me that people who read very, very fast can also have good comprehension and retention. I began to wonder if there were others alive today who could read as he did. My students and I began research for such people.

In Salt Lake City I found other fast readers. One was a boy who was a sheep herder in the summer. One was a doctor who was able to read his assignments during his medical study 1,800 to 2,500 words per minute. This man was also well informed on every subject that came up for discussion.

In the course of two years I personally timed and checked the speed and comprehension of over fifty people who could read from 1,500 to 6,000 words per minute. I watched each one read, jotted down the characteristics of his reading, his speed and my evaluation of his comprehension on a card file.

Of significance to me was the variation in occupation as well as intellectual attainment of these fast readers. None of them had received special training in reading. All of them enjoyed reading and had read extensively. None of them were special products of any one school. All of them read fast from youth. All of them read difficult materials at fast speeds, and all of them were avid readers.

None of them were aware of their speed, and none of them had techniques to offer. The most common statement was "I was just bored at slow reading and there was so much to be read that I decided to read fast."

Of course, one of my greatest desires was to be able to learn how to do this myself. I began comparing the methods of the fast readers and those of slow ones. I had over 600 similar cards taken on slow readers. After careful analysis, I found the fast readers had nine points in common. The slow readers did not show any of these nine points.

Then began a period of five years of hard work. At that time I was teaching in a high school. The Superintendent, Reed H. Beckstead, gave me unlimited support, interest and equipment and most of all, encouragement. Principals O.D Bakarad and Ralph Keeper supported and motivated the early efforts. The superintendents also made available the testing services of the school district psychologist to test every step of the way.

Later, for three years, the University of Utah supplied endless reams of students who stood in lines for many hours to register for the course.

In Washington, D.C, during this last year, with the assistance and help from some of the finest educators in the communities in this vicinity, we have been trying to rub off some of the rough corners and refine and perfect the teaching methods so that many more young people and adults can read the precious information in great books.

Groups of executives such as the president of a large corporation and his board of directors, groups of selected chemists, physicists, sales executives and their wives from another large company, and selected classes of high school students have registered in the classes.

Summer sessions have been filled in Washington with young people who are anxious to read; many students reading from 30 to 100 books of their own choice during the 12-week course.

And what of the results as shown on the standardized tests?
Very high, so high that more adequate kinds of testing must be provided. Otherwise too many students who can and will read very fast and accurately will push against the ceilings of these tests.

Author's Bio: 

Richard Sutz, Personal friend and consultant to Evelyn WOod and Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics