History of Speed Reading

Psychologists and educational specialists working on the visual acuity question devised the tachistoscope, which is a machine designed to flash images at varying rates on a screen. The experiment started with large pictures of aircraft being displayed for participants. The images were gradually reduced in size and the flashing-rate was increased. They found that, with training, an average person could identify minute images of different planes when flashed on the screen for only one-five-hundredth of a second. The results had implications for reading.

Using the same methodology, the U.S. Air Force soon discovered that they could flash four words simultaneously on the screen at rates of one five-hundredth of a second with full recognition by the reader. This training demonstrated clearly that, with some work, reading speeds could be increased from reading rates to skimming rates. Not only could they be increased but the improvements were made by improving visual processing. Therefore, the next step was to train eye movements by means of a variety of pacing techniques in an attempt to improve reading. The reading courses that followed used the tachistoscope to increase reading speeds; it assumed that readers were able to increase their effective speeds from 200 to 400 words per minute using the machine. The drawback to the tachistoscope was that post-course timings showed that, without the machine, speed increases rapidly diminished.

Following the tachistoscope discoveries, the Harvard Business School produced the first film-aided course, designed to widen the reader’s field of focus in order to increase reading speed. Again, the focus was on visual processing as a means of improvement. Using machines to increase people's reading speeds was a trend of the 1940s. While it had been assumed that reading speed increases of 100% were possible and had been attained, lasting results had yet to be demonstrated.

It was not until the late 1950s that a portable, reliable and 'handy' device would be developed as a tool for promoting reading speed increases. The researcher was a school-teacher named Evelyn Wood. She was committed to understanding why some people were naturally faster at reading than others and was trying to force herself to read very quickly. It is told that while brushing off the pages of the book she had thrown down in despair, she discovered that the sweeping motion of her hand across the page caught the attention of her eyes, and helped them move more smoothly across the page.

She then utilized the hand as a pacer, and called it the "Wood Method." which was renamed into Reading Dynamics in 1958.

More recently, speed reading courses and books have been developed promising the consumer even higher increases in reading speed, some at 10,000 words per minute with high comprehension. With specific reference to pseudo science concepts, they have even claimed to be able to extract meaning out of consciously unnoticed text from the para-consciousness or subconscious. These courses go by various titles such as photo-reading (1994), mega-speedreading (1997) and alpha-netics (1999). They tend to be accompanied with the sale of expensive electronic machinery. Reading experts refer to them as snake oil reading lessons because of their high dependence on the suspension of the consumer’s disbelief.

Other researchers have gone in the opposite direction. Rather than seeking increased reading speed, they have focused on comprehension. These approaches include Rapid Analytical Reading (2005), and have been marketed primarily to college students and corporations.