Speed-reading challenges its learners, users Classes: Fewer public schools offer courses, and private lessons vary in quality.

Education Beat

August 30, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

FORMER PRESIDENT John F. Kennedy. Baltimore sage H. L. Mencken. Pundit and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Even Manchester's Mayor Elmer C. Lippy.

Four men with one remarkable skill in common.

All speed-readers.

Kennedy learned the skill from the late Evelyn Wood, who introduced the "revolutionary" method she called "Reading Dynamics" 40 years ago. JFK went from reading 280 words per minute -- an average speed for us plodders -- to a thousand words per minute.

Buchanan took a speed-reading course in the 1970s when he was a presidential speech writer. He reads a book on a two-hour plane ride. Mencken could read a 250-page book in an hour and sometimes devoured three or four a day. Lippy mail-ordered a speed-reading course when he was a Carroll County commissioner seven years ago.

"I thought it did help me a good deal in getting through the paper avalanche that crossed my desk every day," says Lippy, a 78-year-old retired chemist. "But I have to admit that the problem at my age now is not speed. It's staying awake."

Speed-reading is for real, but surrounded by a mystique that it probably doesn't deserve. Like anything else learned, it requires a bundle of skills and techniques that improve with practice and that can be self-taught.

"Chunking," for example. "It's an educator's word, but it says what it means," says Richard E. Bavaria, vice president of education for Baltimore-based Sylvan Learning Systems, which offers speed-reading for teen-agers at 224 of its 700 tutoring centers. (The course is usually offered in conjunction with instruction in study skills.)

Instead of reading one word at a time, speed-readers look at chunks of words. They scan a page vertically, pausing for nanoseconds on meaningful groups of words while passing over the most common words (like "the") that have little meaning. Speed-readers are urged to stop "subvocalizing" -- reading to themselves -- which slows things down.

Wood, who died three years ago at age 86 (and who could read 2,500 words a minute), discovered early that she could use her hand to pace her reading. Opinion has been mixed over the years about hand-pacing, and children have been scolded for doing it. Bavaria, a former assistant school superintendent for Baltimore County, says reading with fingers or pointers is no longer discouraged.

Some people are so good at speed-reading that they can't turn pages fast enough. The 19th-century economist John Stuart Mill, a home-schooled, self-taught speed-reader, was one. We've all seen pictures of readers riffling through books, the pages an out-of-focus whir of motion.

With speed-reading, as with everything else, buyer beware. Extravagant claims are made and generous guarantees offered. Lippy, Bavaria and others warn that it takes concentration and practice to become a good speed-reader. Once the skill is mastered, it takes practice to retain it. It's more difficult than riding a bike.

We called one mail-order company that guaranteed our money ($297) back if we didn't learn to read a 500-page novel in an hour, while remembering the plot as clearly as if it were our "favorite movie."

Sylvan's guarantee is less dramatic and more sensible. The company offers additional free instruction if a student's reading rate isn't increased by 50 percent on completion of the standard 12-hour program. (Sylvan is changing the title from "Quick Pace" "Advanced Reading Skills" to reflect that the course isn't exclusively about time's winged chariot.)

Sylvan's reading rate is determined by a formula that includes comprehension. That's the key, of course. Reading isn't reading if it doesn't include meaning and, to some extent, retention (or memory). We've all "read" entire passages with our minds a thousand miles away, and we've all read passages with comprehension, only to promptly forget everything.

Besides, who would want to read most novels in an hour? "There are books I want to savor every word," says Bavaria. "Who'd want to speed-read John Irving?" Who could speed-read Shakespeare or Faulkner?

Where does an adult go for a speed-reading course? It's harder than you think, harder than it used to be. Evelyn Wood, owned by a Kansas company that conducts management and inspirational seminars, is in the phone book. You'll see and hear ads from time to time. (Evelyn Wood's next Baltimore seminar is Oct. 28. A one-day training session costs $149.)

But in the nonprofit world of public education, speed-reading has largely vanished -- an unexpected development in this era of information overload.

"Years ago speed-reading was big," says Dale Rauenzahn, manager of adult education and alternative programs for Baltimore County schools. "But there isn't that much call for it now. It's been two or three years since we've tried it."

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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