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Evelyn Wood; Pioneer in Speed Reading

August 31, 1995|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Evelyn Wood, the mother of speed reading who taught students as diverse as Jimmy Carter and Burt Lancaster to multiply their reading speed and comprehension, has died at the age of 86.

Mrs. Wood, who had been in poor health since a disabling stroke in 1976, died Saturday at the home of her only child, Carol Evans, in Tucson.

In 1959, the Utah teacher founded the Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington. At its peak, the institute had more than 150 outlets around the country.

A natural speed reader, President John F. Kennedy invited Mrs. Wood to teach her skills to his White House staff in 1962. A few years later, President Richard Nixon invited her to do the same with his staff. And in 1977, President Carter took her course along with his family, improving his reading rate to 1,200 words a minute.

Despite complaints that nobody could read faster than 350 words a minute, Mrs. Wood zipped through novels at a rate of 10,000 to 15,000 words a minute, admitting that she slowed down a bit for textbooks.

She was a strong advocate of literacy as the basis of learning and pleasure, and slowly developed her understanding and practice of speed reading from that precept.

"I worked on a lot of ways of making the reading process easier to do so that everybody could enjoy it," she told The Times in 1986. "Everyone I talked to felt [reading] wasn't very exciting. One of the reasons people don't read is because the process is so slow. If a person could read faster, they could stay interested."

Born Evelyn Nielsen in Ogden, Utah, she majored in English and minored in speech at the University of Utah, where she met and married student body President M. Douglas Wood. Her business partner in the original institute, Wood died in 1987.

While working on master's degrees in speech and drama and counseling, Mrs. Wood was excited to discover that one of her professors could read 6,000 words a minute with remarkable comprehension.

As a Salt Lake City high school counselor in the 1950s, Mrs. Wood began teaching reading, finding that teaching her troublemakers how to read solved their behavior problems. She also started teaching a speed reading class at the University of Utah that became so popular that students camped out with sleeping bags to be first in line to sign up.

Mrs. Wood's speed reading system essentially required the reader to read down the page, not from left to right; to read groups of words, not a word at a time, and to avoid involuntary rereading of material.

The Woods sold the institute in 1966, although she continued to teach there until her stroke.

Speed reading never shook criticisms of poor reading comprehension, despite Mrs. Wood's assertions that reading faster meant remembering more, and her institute was often ridiculed. Its television advertising, which featured customers running their hands over books and flipping pages, was parodied on "Saturday Night Live." And Woody Allen offered a typical joke aimed at the Wood method: "I took a course in speed reading and was able to read 'War and Peace' in 20 minutes. It's about Russia."

The institute is currently owned by Pryor Resources Inc. of Shawnee Mission, Kan.

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