DADE CITY — Maribel Sanchez scanned the computer screen as sentences whizzed by faster and faster.
Her eyes darted as words then popped up randomly, followed by geometric shapes that started small at the display center and expanded outward to the edges.
After seven minutes of these eye games, the Pasco High School senior faced a final challenge, a timed reading passage. Her goal: To improve upon her words per minute, while also boosting her understanding.
"Before, I didn't really much like to read a long book because it would take so long," said Sanchez, who's in her second year of intensive reading courses. "This keeps me reading and I have a fuller comprehension of reading the book."
Using the EyeQ program, developed in Japan in the 1980s, she has improved her ability enough to push her FCAT reading score up by nearly 40 points. Others have experienced even greater gains.
Teacher Robin Walters, a 2010 finalist for Pasco County teacher of the year, recommended the program to give Pasco High's lowest performing readers another technique to improve their abilities. She and some other educators, including principal Pat Reedy, donated their school recognition fund bonuses to cover the cost.
"With remedial reading, the students are reading one word at a time," Walters said. "This gives them the concept that good readers take in chunks at a time. We don't even read the whole word. … I have to teach fluency. That's what this is."
After a year, she saw the ACT scores of her students rise dramatically, to an average of 16 to 18 from an average of 10 to 12. Students came back telling her that they could get through the reading passages more easily, with enough time to answer the questions.
Which got her thinking that maybe this concept could work well for high performers, too.
So with the help of Pasco High's academic booster club, she brought EyeQ to AP. Students in Advanced Placement courses were given the opportunity to use the computerized program, which lasts just seven minutes every other day, to help them with their studies.
"Reading is reading," Walters said. "They need good reading skills out in the real world. And it doesn't matter if you're remedial or advanced. We can all improve in our reading skills."
Count junior Carson Brock among the believers.
He sampled the EyeQ system while studying for his AP psychology exam, and said it "really helped with the capacity" for his reading.
"I could read a lot faster and still understand it," Brock said. "It trains your eyes to take in more of the page."
He scored a 4 out of 5 on the test, and plans to pick up the practice again as he prepares for the AP language and composition test.
So too does junior Kevin McDougal, who said the method helped him get past the FCAT reading test and convince him that AP language and composition is doable.
"AP was overwhelming at first," said McDougal, who saw his reading speed increase from about 400 words per minute to almost 650 in just three months. "I wasn't expecting so much reading and writing. (With the EyeQ system) I was able to read a lot faster. I am actually able to keep up with the class."
Walters said she worried that students would not warm to the idea of another reading program. She said the school's successful football team helped make it stick.
Team members who had used the program, either in remedial or advanced courses, began telling stories about how they were taking in more of the football field, noticing movement in the periphery that they hadn't seen before.
That became a selling point, Walters said, as reluctant students came to accept the new initiative. They showed how the work related not just to school success, but also to the "real world," she said.
It helps that the work doesn't take long, she added. That means it's not an imposition for students who work, play sports or have other commitments after school, unlike after-hours tutoring or other types of homework.
"It's pretty easy," said junior Maricela Mendoza, whose reading speed increased by nearly 100 words per minute in less than three months. "And it challenges you to do the best you can."
Junior Earnestine Burns credited the program with helping her get out of the intensive reading course — the goal for everyone in it.
"When I first started it, I was reading slow. Then I started reading faster. And I can understand things," Burns said. "I passed the FCAT reading. That helped me out."
Walters acknowledged that EyeQ, as virtually every reading intervention, is not for everyone. And it comes with detractors who question its value as well as supporters who applaud it.
Bottom line for her, though, is that it offers good results for many teens.
"It's not the end-all," she said. "But it's a piece of the pie."
One that has gained traction for some of Pasco High's best and worst readers.
"It's a real good thing that our school can have something that can cater to kids at all levels," Brock said. "It's helped. Definitely."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.