Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Speed Reading in the Machine Age (1959)

I thought it would be interesting to review an article from yesteryear and compare it to articles my colleagues found on the topic of speed reading. I came across an empirical study written by a doctoral candidate and a teacher, both educated at the University of Miami. They wrote of a study comparing two groups of students with equal reading comprehension levels. The control group were given a traditional  book/instructor centered course to improve their reading level. The experiment group was given a speed reading course by Perceptoscope. Hilarity ensued....

The two groups were composed of 84 college students who elected to take a three semester hour reading course. The students were broken up into 4 classes. Two of the classes received the "machine age" speed reading instructions. The other two classes received a traditional instructor based curriculum.

The experiment group's curriculum was derived from the Instructor's Manual: Advanced Reading Program. It consisted of tachistoscopic training, paced reading films, vocabulary study of words in the films, tests, and discussions on the covered reading material. The control group curriculum was derived from Improving Reading Ability, Test Lessons in Reading Book E, Selections for Improving Speed of Comprehension and various other college level textbooks. Discussions were given with an emphasis on speed but little work was done in the control group regarding vocabulary.

Tests were given to the students prior to their courses to determine their control normal rate of reading. Their  initial results from the Cooperative Reading Test are below:

                            Experiment                                  Control
Vocabulary41                               30
Speed27                               24
Comprehension40                               40

The study made sure to rotate the teachers between the classes so one class would not score disproportionately higher because of a superior teacher and both groups received an equal amount of time from the same educators.

At the end of the term both groups were given an alternate version of the Cooperative Reading Test. The results after taking the course are below with the changes from the initial scores:

Experiment Group  Control Group 
Vocabulary                   41(+0)              30(+0)
Speed                53(+28)             49(+25)
Comprehension                  31(-9)              44(+4)

By any standard, both classes made impressive gains.

The essential closing argument of the authors is that a trained educator with an intelligent curriculum can teach students to read just as fast as an untrained teacher with a prescribed curriculum and a speed reading machine. However,  metrics like comprehension and vocabulary (which some would argue are more important to the learning process) are two things that one can only improve with time and genuine commitment to development. Speed reading did indeed work, but it is certainly not the only way forward with regard to education (in 1959).


Smith, E., & Smith, M. (1959). Speed reading in the machine age. College English20(5), 242-244. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/372693


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  2. I've not come across many speed reading machines in my educational experience. I'm also guessing that the Perceptoscope is not being manufactured anymore. Given all that if this article would be updated to would the trained educator with an intelligent curriculum teach students faster than the untrained teacher who no longer has the advantage of 50s era technology?

  3. While both classes made equal (and impressive) improvements in speed, I'm surprised that more time was spent on comprehension, which would seem to me to be the most important and interesting result.