Brain-Based Research and Speed Reading

I was in the library the other day looking for books on education. As usual I found the call numbers of a few books (I love the Dewey Decimal System) and just went to the general area to see what was there. I came back with a few books on Montessori and “Remember Everything You Read, The Evelyn Wood 7 Day Speed Reading and Learning Program” by Stanley D. Frank, Ed.D.

Cover of "Remember Everything You Read: T...

Cover via Amazon


I found the book interesting and useful. I read a lot, but haven’t really found speed reading to be conducive to memory. I have heard, done right it is supposed to improve memory. After reading the book I have learned to increase my reading speed (when I use the system) and it does help my memory. I also recognized an interesting connection to some brain research on learning.

Carol Dweck is a name I have heard associated with brain research and its implications for education. She describes two general conditions of the brain. A fixed mindset and a growth mindset. The fixed mindset is simply the belief that our intelligence is fixed. For example, if we think we are bad at math, then we are bad at math. A growth mindset is the belief that our basic abilities can be developed. For example, if we have a growth mindset then we don’t believe we are bad at math. Rather we have struggled to learn math, but we can get better at it. With a growth mindset we believe we can learn and that belief in itself is often enough to show gains in learning.

In Brain Plasticity: What is It? Learning and Memory, a page edited by Eric H. Chudler, Ph.D. on the University of Washington website, Dr Chudler tells us that the brain is most active in our early years, but it continues to change throughout our lives. That unused connections in the brain, called synapses, will be pruned over the years, but we can create new ones and strengthen old ones with repeated use.

English: Shows early psychological student mot...

English: Shows early psychological student motivation theorists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I like to think of a synapse as a path through the woods. A path that is seldom used with soon become overgrown and disappear. However, if that same path is used it becomes more visible. As it become more visible it will be used more often and grow larger, leading to more use. Eventually, it becomes a road then a highway with enough use. Not every path in the woods becomes a f 4 lane divided highway, but not every path disappears into nothing either.

In the paper “Brain-Based Learning: The Wave of the Brain”, Ruth Palombo Weiss explains how high stress, patterns, emotions, memory, and motivation all contribute to learning and memory. This is where the science of the brain, learning, and speed reading really seem to start connecting.

Stress- the brain reduces the pathways in the brain as stress increases. Creative thinking is difficult in high stress situations. Speed reading starts with good posture and a quiet environment, though soft music is ok for those who prefer it.

Patterns- The brain loves patterns and will often fill in patterns even if it isn’t complete. For example if you ask a person to memorize a long list of cookie ingredients, but sugar isn’t on the list. Then later ask the subject if sugar was on the list they will almost always claim that it was, because they expect it to be there. The first step in speed reading is what was termed “Gestalt”, or getting an idea of what the reading material is about. Not reading, but scanning. Then stopping and writing what the purpose is for reading and possibly some question you want to answer. The second step is to go through the scanning again quickly, about four seconds per page or less. Just reading the words that jump out. Again getting an idea of what the material is about. Then go back and write some more or answer some questions if you can.

Emotions – Brain research shows that when we are learning at our best we are not entirely emotional or entirely devoid of emotion. It is though that our emotional responses to what we are learning connects the material to memory in a more permanent fashion.  While Dr. Frank d didn’t mention anything about emotions in his book I did note that he used a lot of personal stories. This is a technique that many advocate for increased comprehension and memory. I also note that the third step is to read the entire chapter or book (depending on the material) and mark passages that jump out at you for a slower reading later. Perhaps, those are the passages that strike your emotional core as it were.

Memory – Our memory is not set in stone. It is more like a cushion. What happens makes an impression on our brain, but it will soon rebound back to its original shape unless we sit down again and again in the same spot. While this sounds like I’m advocating repeated drills, I’m not. in my opinion that would associate the skill with a negative emotion making the person remember the associated pain, but not the learning. Instead the person is asked to learn or use a skill several times until it becomes natural. I’m doing this now by reading several articles on brain based learning and synthesizing it all into one paper. In speed reading the steps of “gestalt” scanning, reading, then post reading, and finally reviewing are all asking the reader to sit in the same spot again and again, but not drilling the students into submission.

Motivation – It is pretty obvious that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation. While brain research hasn’t found a silver bullet for finding intrinsic motivations for students speed reading does suggest that preparation and organization will lead to better grades.

Your Brain on Rainbows

Your Brain on Rainbows (Photo credit: garlandcannon)

So is speed reading a notion that was before its’ time or is this all just good common sense? Probably a bit of both. Should we change all of our teaching and learning habits to suit this new information? Perhaps not. As Larry Cuban, a good educator and good writer on education, has a few negative things to say about solutions labeled Brain Based, and I’ll agree with him when he says run away. At least when something is labeled as Brain-Based, that is most often just a marketing gimmick.  

I don’t think we should ignore ways of using the research in our learning.  As he said in his article “neurological findings can reinforce existing practices that experienced teachers have found workable”. I say feel free to use the research and experiment with your practices, but don’t do something just because it is called brain based, “because the connection between the brain and behavior is not obvious”.



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