Young woman reading book in front of passing subway

Since the invention of the written and printed word, some people have always been able to read faster than others. But just when and how did Speed Reading, as a specific skill that can be learned and developed, come about? The earliness of its origins may come as a surprise.

Mid 1600s

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Antonio di Marco Magliabechi was said to have been able to read, understand, and memorize whole books very quickly.

The 1800s

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Way back in 1878, a French ophthalmologist named Louis Émile Javal studied the saccades (jumps) and fixations (stops) that people make while reading. His studies show that though we feel like our eyes are running continuously along words, they actually jump and stop as our eyes focus on them. Then our minds process the words before moving on. Speed Reading tries to increase the number words that are processed during a fixation so that the reader makes fewer saccades.

In 1894, a magazine called “The Educational Review” talked about exploring a teaching method that enabled students to read words without vocalizing or reading aloud.

Early 1900s

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In 1908, Edmund Burke Huey published a book called “The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading”. The book talked about how it might be possible to read without subvocalization, which is reading aloud to yourself while you read.

By around 1921, John O’Brian wrote about why it was good to teach silent reading skills. These skills meant being able to process more than one word at a time without vocalizing.

In 1925, the first formal Speed Reading classes were taught at Syracuse University.

Mid 1900s

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Specialists in the United States Air Force in the 1940s used to use a device called a tachistoscope, which shows an image for a certain period of time, to find out how quickly it took a person to recognize an image. These same specialists found that an average person who’d had training could make out tiny images of airplanes flashed on a screen for 1/500 of a second. Later on, they substituted the images with words.

About the same time, Harvard University was using the tachistoscope to teach students how to read fast. But while the tachistoscope was able to boost reading speeds from 200 to 400 words a minute, readers who were taught using the device found that their reading speeds dropped if they didn’t use it.

Evelyn Wood was the school teacher who originally came up with the term “speed reading”. She devoted much of her career studying how people were naturally able to read quickly. In 1958, she discovered that sweeping her hand across the page of a book helped her eyes move faster across a page. The following year, she began teaching this method using a hand, fingers, or a piece of paper at the University of Utah in 1959.

Late 1900s

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In the 1980s, Jan Davidson created the Ultimate Speed Reader, the first interactive software to teach Speed Reading.

Where will you take Speed Reading in 21st century?


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