Speed reading was really about arithmetic.
Say you learned to triple your reading speed. You could read three times as many books in a year without cutting into your TV time. You could be smart, at long last. You could get ahead.The problem with speed reading was comprehension, especially with the deeper works of literature.
Woody Allen had a good line.
"I took a course in speed reading and was able to read `War and Peace' in 20 minutes," he said. "It's about Russia."
That joke probably wouldn't occur to Woody Allen these days. Once the rage, speed reading as an instructional activity has slowed almost to a crawl.
"It's passe," said Joy Monahan, program consultant for middle and secondary school reading for the Orange County, Fla., schools. "We're less interested in speed and more interested in comprehension and reflecting on what's been read."
Yet speed reading continues to be taught here and there, and researchers say that while it may have been oversold, the techniques have merit in some situations, with some material.
Academic research on reading speed goes back at least to the early decades of this century, but speed-reading courses didn't catch the American fancy until the late 1950s and 1960s. John F. Kennedy took the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course (as did Jimmy Carter) and claimed to be able to read several thousand words a minute.
Wood, a former Utah schoolteacher, is probably the best-known name in speed reading. She started her course in 1959.
For a handsome fee, the Wood course promised huge increases in reading speed. Competing companies emerged, and many schools began to offer speed reading as part of the curriculum or as a non-credit course.
Methods varied, but the essential argument of speed-reading advocates was that most readers are underachievers, reading at a far slower pace than they could if in top reading shape. By learning a few techniques (such as having the eyes follow a hand as it moves rapidly down the center of a page), and by practicing with a timer, readers could double, triple or even quadruple reading speed.
Comprehension, of course, was the rub. The bolder advocates insisted speed reading improved comprehension, because the quicker pace forced readers to concentrate. But common sense argued that certain material, such as poetry or difficult novels or highly technical writing, couldn't be rushed through.
Research bore out the suspicion that speed reading worked against comprehension.
"Comprehension is certainly substantially less when the material is speed read as opposed to normal reading," said Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University.
Just did his research on speed reading and comprehension in the late 1980s, but by then interest in speed-reading courses was already on the wane. The number of courses shrank, Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics was sold. It's now owned by Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Try speed reading that.)
The consensus explanation is that speed reading was oversold, that it couldn't match the claims made for it. Just has a second theory.
"There are lots of fallen away speed readers like myself," he said, noting that he took the Evelyn Wood course. "The reason with me, and with others I've spoken to, is it's exhausting. You speed read something in 10 minutes that would otherwise take half an hour, then you have to lie down for 20 minutes and rest up. It's like writing an exam under pressure."
Interestingly enough, Just doesn't totally dismiss speed reading. He says it works fairly well with familiar material, and concedes that he uses speed-reading techniques when he absolutely has to read a lot of material quickly.
David Zola, a researcher at the University of Illinois Center for the Study of Reading, also sees some value in speed reading.
"A lot of the research suggests that speed reading is really just skimming, but that's all right, because for certain tasks and material skimming is appropriate," he said.
"War and Peace" wouldn't be appropriate, nor would a contract or medical text. But Zola cited the Congressional Record and sports articles as examples of writing that can be read fast.
"If it's an article on player's salaries, and you're looking for (Jose) Canseco's, there's nothing wrong with speed reading or skimming to find it," he said.
Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, who took the Evelyn Wood course as a high school student, said he speed reads books at home. For work-related material, he said he slows down.
The stauncher advocates of speed reading insist that it's not just beneficial for light reading.
"Anybody with normal intelligence can learn to read medium-range, adult stuff with pretty good comprehension at somewhere around 1,000 words a minute," said I.F. "Bud" Foote, an English professor at Georgia Tech and a longtime teacher of speed-reading courses. "The real secret is accustoming yourself to the idea that your head works very fast and you ought to let it fly."
The speed reader may have to slow down for hard material, Foote said, but would still read that material faster than other readers.
That's a point made emphatically by Suzanne Gray, vice president of Gray Systems Inc., which teaches speed reading at Daytona Beach Community College and (for a special fee) at Lake Brantley High.
"If you practice, you can double your reading speed on any kind of material," she said. "If it's material that takes you 250 words a minute, you can move up to 500 words a minute. If the material takes you 60 words a minute, you can move up to 120 words a minute. That's still a valuable increase."
Gains of such modest proportions aren't likely to be called into question by researchers. Foote, for one, predicts a speed-reading comeback, as long as the sales talk doesn't get too thick.
"I suspect it's the kind of thing that goes in pendulum fashion, and the next time it gets sexy, people will know better what speed reading can do."