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Speed Reading: Fact or Fiction?

Several years ago, I came across the manual for a self-paced speed reading course. S Intrigued by promises of reading thousands of words per minute, I worked my way through the book. To my disappointment, my reading speed did not improve very much. I re-read the instructions and was urged to go faster! Skip words! Ignore the unimportant stuff! I did all that and my speed improved, but my understanding and retention of what I read dropped dramatically. I concluded that for some reason I just wasn’t a good candidate for speed reading. Much later I learned that my experience was quite typical.

The term speed reading was coined by a school teacher named Evelyn Wood in the 1950s.

People typically read about 250 to 300 words per minute. Wood claimed to greatly speed up reading by eliminating subvocalization and looking at groups of words instead of individual words. She would also use her finger as a guide to the eye, running it straight down the middle of a page at high speed. She began teaching speed reading seminars, and in 1959 she founded the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington, D.C. Students were promised they could increase their reading speed by two to five times, with improved comprehension. Some of her students allegedly could read 6,000 words per minute. Wood herself claimed to read anywhere from 2,700 words per minute to 15,000 words per minute depending on content (Van Gelder 1995). At 15,000 words per minute, you could read Gone with the Wind in twenty-eight minutes. Many people are skeptical that reading at this speed results in any real comprehension of the material. As Woody Allen sarcastically commented, “I took a course in speed reading and read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia” (Oliver 1995).

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