Rapid Reader is the latest program from Synergy Software - one of the more interesting of the small companies producing software for the BBC Micro. Synergy's previous programs have been characterised by originality, practical application and high quality of program design and documentation. There is every indication that Rapid Reader lives up to this high standard, though I must admit that I have not had time to complete the seven week course prior to review and I have no scientific data to show whether it achieves its objective of significantly increasing people's reading speed.
As usual, Synergy maximise the usefulness of their programs by not protecting the discs and recommending users to make back-ups for practical use. This is important since one of the discs is written on by the program to keep track of the progress of a number of individuals on the speed reading course. There are 48 lessons in all employing 26 passages of text. You are recommended to use 80 column displays, though 40 column screen modes are provided for those whose equipment or eyesight makes this necessary.
The documentation provides an intelligent and informed analysis of the causes of slow reading, including subvocalisation (speaking the words to yourself), regression (re-reading of earlier text) and poor concentration. The author has introduced several ingenious techniques into the text display to try to combat these problems. For example, in some lessons, the text rolls with lines being deleted as soon as you read them to avoid regression. The speed of presentation depends upon your current reading speed and is timed to be a little bit faster than you find comfortable, though the timing can also be adjusted by the user. This principle of gently 'stretching' one's capabilities is employed in various ways throughout the course.
An interesting feature is an option which simulates a 'tachistoscope' - a machine much used by psychologists to present visual stimuli (words or images) for brief and controlled amounts of time. Under the tachistoscope option text is read as a series of phrases flashed briefly in sequence in the centre of the screen. This technique ensures that the reader has insufficient time to move his or her eyes along the text while reading, thus helping to increase the visual span of attention in a single fixation. This is relevant since slow readers tend to make more eye movements - fixating more closely spaced points in the text - than fast readers. A more debatable claim (as Synergy concede in the documentation) is that it may also help break the habit of subvocalisation.
A possible weakness in the system is a lack of test for comprehension in the passages presented on screen. There are, however, several passages with comprehension tests provided in the documentation to be taken at stages through the course. I think it might also help Synergy's promotion of the package is they could quote data to show improvements in reading speed achieved by people taking the course - preferably conducted by independent researchers. In the absence of such data I can only comment that Rapid Reader appears to be a well researched and designed product that has every prospect of achieving its stated objective.