Wood, Evelyn Nielsen

views updated

Wood, Evelyn Nielsen

(b. 8 January 1909 in Logan, Utah; d. 26 August 1995 in Tucson, Arizona), educator and leading proponent of speed-reading.

Wood was the daughter of Elias Nielsen, the superintendent of the Logan Knitting Mills, and Rose Sirland Nielsen, who worked at the Logan Knitting Mills before her marriage. Wood had one brother. Wood entered the University of Utah in 1927 and received her bachelor’s degree in English in 1929. On 12 June that year she married Myron Douglas Wood, a meat dealer and merchant. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Woods had one daughter. Evelyn Wood taught English and biology at Weber College in Ogden, Utah, during the 1931–1932 school year. Returning to the University of Utah to pursue a master’s degree in speech, she earned her M.A. degree in 1947.

Wood became interested in speed-reading techniques at the University of Utah after she turned in an eighty-page term paper to Professor C. Lowell Lees. Wood was stunned as she watched Lees read and grade her paper in less than ten minutes. As Lees discussed the paper with her, Wood found that he had not simply skimmed her paper. He described the paper’s content in detail and discussed the paper’s weaknesses as well. Wood was impressed. She asked Lees if she could time his reading of other materials. She discovered that Lee could read approximately 2,500 words per minute, an astounding rate. The average American reads about 250 to 300 words per minute. Lees could not explain how he had developed this skill, and Wood wondered if the average person could be trained to read at a faster rate.

Wood began to search for techniques to improve reading skills while working as a teacher and a girls’ counselor from 1948 to 1957 at Jordan High School in Sandy, Utah. Working with troubled students who performed poorly in the classroom, she determined that a major factor in their lack of academic success was their inadequate reading skills. Believing that reading was the key to general scholastic achievement, Wood established Jordan High School’s first remedial reading program. As the students’ reading improved, so did their grades in other subjects and their discipline. Wood observed a strong correlation between the speed at which the students read and their ability to comprehend what they read.

Wood was a graduate student at Columbia University from 1956 to 1957. In 1958 she decided to seek out fast readers and see what traits they shared. She found fifty-three people who read from 1,500 to 6,000 words per minute and remembered what they had read. Her subjects ranged in age from their teens to their eighties and came from a variety of backgrounds. In observing these speed-readers, Wood found that they had several reading habits in common. Her subjects concentrated on the material and avoided rereading passages multiple times. They read complete ideas or groups of words at once rather than reading individual words one at a time. They also ran their eyes down the middle of a page rather than from left to right. Finally, they read materials on a wide variety of subjects efficiently. Wood was convinced that concentration was the key to the speed of these readers. Indeed, she argued that faster reading itself improved concentration and retention of knowledge because speed readers did not give their minds the opportunity to wander.

In trying to improve her own reading skills, Wood found that her reading speed increased when she used her hand to guide her eyes down the page. Believing that this was a critical factor in the increase of her own reading speed to 2,700 words per minute, Wood noted that children use their fingers to mark their places when they first learn to read. Ironically, their teachers then require that they abandon this technique.

After Wood worked for two years as an instructor at the University of Utah, she and her husband established the Reading Dynamics Institute in Washington, D.C., in 1959. The institute’s reading courses won widespread popularity, and Reading Dynamics courses soon were offered all over the United States and in other countries. Wood’s speed-reading methods even received presidential endorsements. President John F. Kennedy believed in her program and sent White House staff members to her institute in Washington, President Richard Nixon sent thirty-five members of his administration to her courses, and President Jimmy Carter sent aides and was himself a student of Reading Dynamics.

Wood was an active teacher and researcher on the collegiate level as well. She taught reading at the University of Delaware in 1961 and at Texas Christian University in 1962, and she was a research specialist in reading at Brigham Young University from 1973 to 1974. In addition to her book Reading Skills (1958), coauthored with Marjorie Wescott Barrows of Jordan High School, Wood wrote several articles on reading education, including “A Breakthrough in Reading” (International Reading Teacher, 1961), “A New Approach to Speed Reading” (Speed Reading, Practices and Procedures, 1962), and “Speed Reading for Comprehension” (Bulletin of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, 1962).

The petite, soft-spoken Wood sold her Reading Dynamics business in 1967. While developing a remedial reading program for children in 1976, she suffered a severe and incapacitating stroke. After her husband died in 1987, she moved to Tucson, Arizona, to be with her daughter, Carolyn Davis Evans. Wood passed away at the age of eighty-six in Tucson. She is buried in Salt Lake City.

Wood’s Reading Dynamics program has had its share of critics, who have argued that her techniques encourage readers to skim material. Wood maintained that a reader has to slow down somewhat to read difficult material and that students have to practice their speed-reading skills on a regular basis. Despite the criticism, Wood’s name is synonymous with speed-reading.

Wood’s papers are archived at the Utah State Historical Society. The collection includes instructional materials, correspondence, legal documents, photographs, and church-related documents. Although Wood did not publish her Reading Dynamics program in book form, Stanley D. Frank wrote Remember Everything You Read: The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program (1990), a study skills book based on Wood’s speed-reading courses. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Arizona Republic (both 30 Aug. 1995).

Kathy S. Mason