- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

Typically, literate adults retain just 60 percent of what they read, according to Jacqueline Comas, professor of literacy at George Washington University. That figure can shrink depending on the text and the reader's sense of the subject matter, Ms. Comas says.
The United States is a nation of readers. People tear through newspapers, books and online information as part of their daily routines.
Not everyone, though, can remember the important information in the text they read. Peter Afflerbach, director of the University of Maryland's reading center, says effective reading is often based on the reader's reservoir of knowledge.
Schemas structures of prior knowledge that readers can access and use on demand help guide them while they read and allow them to read material they are familiar with faster than people who lack that background. Consider a blues aficionado poring over a biography of guitarist B.B. King, retaining much of the information presented. His or her blues schema makes the passages easier to digest.
"If we don't have a well-developed schema, our reading gets more difficult," Mr. Afflerbach says.
Reading material on topics we know little about cuts both reading speed and comprehension.
"Generally, the less knowledge we have [on the topic] the more laborious is the reading," he says.
"If you have good reading skills and strategies, your threshold to make do with difficult text" is higher, Mr. Afflerbach says. "You can use context to help you figure out unfamiliar words."
Maureen McLaughlin, professor of reading education at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, says a good reader unconsciously employs various tactics when examining a text.
Such a person asks questions about the text, reads widely to improve vocabulary and creates mental pictures to aid comprehension.
Mr. Afflerbach says being a good reader has little to do with the speed at which one reads.
"Some people say the first one done is the best reader," he says. "The best reader is the one that reads at a pretty good rate but comprehends the best."

On average, readers read from 200 to 250 words per minute, Ms. Comas says. (Imagine reading the Preamble to the Constitution about five times or so per minute.)
Speed-reading classes continue to draw students, though, promising to vastly increase how quickly they can read a novel or textbook.
Mr. Afflerbach, for one, isn't sold on the concept.
"When I hear an ad that says, 'Read "Moby Dick" in two hours' who would ever want to do that?" he says. "Great literature is to be savored."
"If you're speed reading," Mr. Afflerbach continues, "you're not capable of constructing the detail of meaning and the interelatedness of meaning" in the text.
Speed-reading companies contend that their classes can help readers double, if not triple, the rate at which they read, without losing comprehension.
Doug Evans, director of instruction with the Institute of Reading Development, a California group that teaches speed reading through universities nationwide, sees a connection between reading speed and comprehension.
"Many people read too slowly in a way that does impair comprehension," Mr. Evans says. He likens his argument to watching a movie. A film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement. Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows. The film's impact, then, is diminished. Viewers won't learn as much about it as if it were shown at normal speed.
"With reading," he says, "the same thing can happen."
When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, "you're not reading on the level of ideas," Mr. Evans says. "You need to read on some level that's more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves."
Mr. Evans' group works with local universities such as American and George Washington to provide five-week courses in speed reading. The courses, which meet once a week, cost $289.
The results won't be seen overnight, he says.
"It's a real skill," Mr. Evans says. "It takes work. It takes practice."
Ron Cole, president of Advanced Productivity Solutions in San Jose, Calif., which provides speed-reading instruction, understands the skepticism many have regarding speed-reading claims.
One company promises that students can read as many as 100,000 words per minute with their courses, Mr. Cole says.
"You can't turn pages that fast," he says.
Mr. Cole's classes begin with lessons on comprehension and recall before counting how many words can be read at a sitting.
"We don't talk about speed at first," he says. "The speed comes along."
His company teaches students to preview the material about to be read. Then, students "parrot" the text's lessons back to fellow students to make sure the information has been understood.
Nancy Goudreau, an adult-learning and education specialist in Alexandria, says she made great strides years early, while taking a graduate-level education course on teaching college and high school students at George Washington University, where she earned her doctorate in adult education.
Her professor clocked her at reading about 450 words per minute, an average level for a college student. She says that at the end of the course she had bumped that speed to about 800 words per minute.
"I practiced every day," Ms. Goudreau says. The lessons included digesting words in groups of from five to seven to reinforce their meaning and holding a pencil under each line and moving it downward while reading. But she found her gains were short-lived when she stopped practicing her lessons.
Today, she says, most universities and community colleges offer classes that involve some reading comprehension.
Ms. Goudreau says readers must be prepared to think during every step of the reading process.
"That's different than watching TV where you're passive," she says. "All the work is being done for you" when you're watching television.
A good reader will not stop if he or she doesn't understand a phrase or word in a text.
"Better readers will read a line and just continue, because they're going to pick up the meaning in other paragraphs," Ms. Goudreau says. "Don't panic because you didn't get one line in the paragraph."
Reading difficulties can begin at an early age for some, she says.
Most schools, after the sixth grade, stop teaching reading-comprehension skills and move on to other subjects.
"If children haven't picked up comprehension by that time," Ms. Goudreau says. "They're on their own."
As readers age, though, they can improve their skills simply by tackling more intellectual material.
"If we're reading romance novels, they're written at a sixth- or seventh-grade reading level," she says. "They're not challenging the intellect."
Weightier tomes provide longer sentences and more sophisticated words, which can expand one's intelligence and prepare for more complex reading in the future.
That distinction can have an impact in the workplace, particularly in the District, Ms. Goudreau says. Most government materials are written at a 10th-grade reading level.
Don't read blindly. Some material is more worth your valuable reading time than others.
"People think anything in print is gold. That's not so," she says. When you read, "you have to be judging what you're reading, questioning what you're reading as you're reading."

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