Begin reading now. Use your hand to guide your eyes. Don't regress. stop subvocalizing. Faster.

This is the message of Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics, the California based company that has made millions teaching Americans how to glide through the pile of best sellers sitting on your shelf.

Stop.

Evelyn Wood claims it will have you reading at up to 5,000 words at the conclusion of a seven-session course. They'll triple your reading they say, or your money back.

More than 1 million speed reading aspirants, including President Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy's military advisers, actor Charlton Heston, and a host of members of Congress have enrolled in the courses since they were first offered in 1959.

But now a growing number of reading specialists around the country are raising serious questions about speedreading. They dispute the value of the $395 Evelyn Wood course and others like it, saying simply that no one -- regardless of their training -- can read that fast.

"They have the illusion of improving their reading when in fact they are skimming," charges John Guthrie, director of research for the 70,000-member International Reading Association. To Evelyn Wood officials, those are fighting words.

"Skimming is a nasty word in our business," claims M. Donald Wood, husband of the woman who founded the system and helped organize a national franchise system that teaches speed reading in 26 cities around the country. "It works. We know that."

"I think it's the greatest invention since the printing press," agrees Evelyn Wood, now 72, and recovering from a stroke in her native Salt Lake City. She was a graduate student at the University of Utah there when she discovered the technique after years of observing naturally fast readers.

"It was very new, so new that it almost frightened me," she said.

Many reading experts challenge the system. Although the differ as to what is the upper limit for reading speed, most agree that anyone who claims to be reading more than 900 words a minute, is in fact, skimming.

"I can't imagine that someone reading 4,000 words a minute is reading," says Keith Rayner, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. "Given the anatomy of the eye . . . I have a hard time believing that people can read beyond 900 words per minute."

Ronald Carver, an education professor at the University of Missouri, says tests he gave students there tend to support that notion. When the students were tested at 600 words a minute, they were "simply getting an idea of what they were reading," in effect, skimming.

Evelyn Wood officials, who regularly claim to have students reading at 2,000 words a minute, says such studies ignore a basic premise of their approach. At Evelyn Wood, People learn a new way to read; one that teaches readers to take in whole ideas rather than single words, they say.

"It's a visual form of reading," says Verla Nielson, director of the program's Salt Lake City operations. "It's seeing words in chunks -- reading as the author thought it. It's like learning to read music -- you can see many notes at the same time."

Some speed reading instructions say their critics are narrow-mined and clinging to outmoded concepts about reading. "It's like teaching Darwin against the Bible," says Franklin Agardy, executive vice president of Wood Reading Dynamics, now a subsidnary of URS, the San Mateo, Calif. based engineering concern that helped build Metro in Washington.

To prove that the method works, the company cites the results of comprehension tests given to their students at the beginning and end of the course.

Some reading specialist take issue with the tests, multiple-choice quizzes that are supposed to measure the amount of information that the reading students have retained. "The tests they use are not designed for testing what they are claiming," says the University of Missouri's Carver. "They are designed to compare readers with each other -- not to evaluate if someone has improve."

Carver, a reading specialist for 13 years, says he took a group of college students, told them to imagine they were reading material from the Wood course and then gave them the West Tests. The students averaged a 60 percent comprehension level without ever reading the required material, a reflection of what Carver says is the tests shortcomings. Compounding the problem is the fact the tests given to the reader at the onset of the course are very similar to the test given at the end of the course, says the researchers.

"they claim you can increase your preception of the number of works taken at once. That's absurb," says the Reading Association's Guthrie. "There's a lot of scientific evidence that shows you can only take in 20 characters at a time."

Carlos Garcia Tunon, a Washington marketing consultant and an Evelyn Wood alumnus who reportedly went from 362.5 to 5,024 words per minute with a 20 percent increase in comprehension, says he didn't feel he was seeing every word he was supposed to be reading at the faster speeds. What you get from the speed reading, he says, is the basic theme, the characters, and the plot of the book.

Tunon was one of the thousands of area residents who have been drawn to the reading system's free mini-lessons by advertising that features students flipping through texts as if they were looking at picture books. In one ad, a cartoon character stands next to a pile of books, exclaiming: "I can't believe I read the whole thing."

Once at the mini-session, an instructor tells the student that anyone can learn the necessary skills, that all it takes is practice, that if you break the bad habits you learned as a child, you'll be reading six times faster. It's a 15-minute buildup that ends with a passing reference to the $395 price tag ($295 if another member of your family enrolls).

The instructor will tell you that you will stop subvocalizing -- reading the individual word to yourself, that if you don't regress -- reread a line -- you'll save 40 percent of your reading time.

And if that's not enough to pique your interest, the first session leads you through a 15-minute film on the reading method. The highlight is a 1975 "Tonight Show" segment of an interview with Elizabeth Jaffee, then a 13-year-old wunderkind of speed reading, who reads 30 pages of a highly technical book in one minute, while Johnny Carson jokes about the one page he sort-of, well, glanced at.

What they don't tell you is that Jaffee, now a college freshman, isn't really a speed reader anymore. That because of the publicity she got as an Evelyn Wood alumna, she sued and received a $25,000 out-of court settlement. Jaffee, Wood's star pupil, claims that the technique works only for certain kinds of reading.

While the instructor claims that the course stresses technical reading, alumni say that it works best with more simple work. "They assign simple novels, essays, nothing hard. I would say junior high reading level," says Irene Berns, of Bethesda, an Evelyn Wood graduate.

Alumni say that it takes a lot of effort to keep up speed reading -- so much, many say, that they have lost the skill. For whatever reasons -- they don't have the necessary confidence; they were too old to be taught new tricks -- most say they have returned to their old ways of reading.

As the International Reading Association's Guthrie says, "If it's true that they improve something, it's probably unnatural and it goes away."

Chris Hanburger, an alumnus and former Washington Redskins linebacker, explains it this way: "It's like flying. You work for a license and then you let everything go. I'm in that category."

Some former students, including Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) who took the course with former senator Stuart Symington (D-Mo.) and Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) in 1962, believe the course was worthwhile even if they have lost most of their former speed.

Proxmire, who boasts of reading Jack London's "Call of the Wild," in three minutes when he was enrolled, allows that he's down to 1,000 words a minute these days.

"What we're teaching here isn't magic," says Carol Dattoli, the top instructor for the Washington Evelyn Wood franchise. "Being a dynamic reader means being able to read everything dynamically."

But former students complain that the reading they find easiest to speed through is precisely the material they would prefer to savor by reading slowly. "The subtleties and nuances, they're not interested in," says one student.

For unhappy students, Evelyn Wood officials proffer a guarantee that states tuition will be refunded "if the student does not at least triple his Effective Reading Speed (reading rate times percentage of comprehension)" providing he fulfills the course's other requirements.

Evelyn Wood's oral promises to increase speed without an attendent loss of comprehension -- a claim Wood instructors still make in the introductory lesson -- drew sharp criticism form the Maryland attorney general's office four years ago. The company then agreed to sign an assurance of discontinuance -- a written promise not to mislead consumers, but not an admission of fault.

Evelyn Wood officials in the Washington are point to their refund policy as proof that their course works. Max Cohen, assistant director of the Washington franchise, says that only 2 to 3 percent of the 2,000 students who annually pass through the course here ask for refunds, and he boasts that 96 percent of those get their money back.

Jean Haywood, an employe at the British Embassy, is one of those people who asked for and received a refund. "It didn't meet up to my expectations," she says. "I couldn't seem to get anything out of it."

But, then, as screenwriter and actor Woody Allen said: "I took a course in speed reading. They taught me how to read down the center of the page. At the end of the course I read 'War and Peace' in 20 minutes. It deals with Russia."