Editor's Note: Over the last few months, we have interviewed a number of brilliant reading researchers, teachers, and literacy advocates across the country as a part of A Novel Idea, our new podcast series about the science of reading. This is one in a series of Q&A blog posts containing exclusive thoughts that did not make it into the podcast from some of the literacy education field’s most impactful and insightful people.
Dr. G. Reid Lyon is a revered contributor to the fields of neuroscience and reading research. He received his doctorate from the University of New Mexico with a dual concentration in neurophysiology and learning disorders and disabilities. He is a distinguished scientist emeritus at the University of Texas, Dallas and a distinguished professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University. He served as chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the NICHD at the National Institutes of Health and was also an influential advisor to both the Clinton and Bush Administrations, contributing to initiatives such as the National Reading Panel, the Reading Excellence Act, and the Reading First program. Dr. Lyon has published hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles, books, and book chapters, and has received numerous recognitions for his work, including the International Dyslexia Association’s Samuel Torrey Orton Award for vital contributions to dyslexia research and the Excellence in the Sciences Award from the Vietnam Veterans of America for his work serving combat veterans with PTSD and substance abuse disorders.
Iowa Reading Research Center (IRRC): Tell Me A Little About Who You Are and What You Do.
Reid Lyon: I'm neuroscientist and an educator by training. I became interested in doing the work I did in reading for a variety of factors. One is that I had a tough time learning to read and that left a mark on me. I didn't want other people to have that same difficulty. Two, I served overseas and several of my fellow paratroopers received some hefty damage, particularly brain damage. In visiting them, I saw a very peculiar but sad kind of thing, and that is they had lost the ability to read. My common sense told me then that this stuff must have something to do with the brain. So when I went through my neuroscience training, I wanted to look at a complex behavior and try to map the neurobiological system and circuits that undergirded that particular complex behavior. And I thought reading was a good place to start.
As I went through my own research over the years, I had a lab at Northwestern University, then the University of Vermont, and then I spent 14 years at the National Institutes of Health. At NIH, I was responsible for cognitive neuroscience, behavioral pediatrics, socioemotional development, early childhood development, and so forth. I also directed the reading research component of NIH, and that's where I began to put into motion a framework for how to look at how kids learn to read and why some of them have difficulty.
As I reviewed the literature, I was exposed to this predictable contention between these different philosophies of how one reads and how one should be taught, and it amazed me that people were spending emotional time in these debates. How in the world could people be spending all this time talking about meaning-emphasis versus code-emphasis and so on? None of those things, to me, explained how someone learns to read or what factors go into that. So all of the trajectory of my career is based around these questions.
IRRC: Throughout Your Many Years of Reading Research, What Are Some of the Key Discoveries Your Team Made?
Reid Lyon: I asked the field to answer this question: For which children are which instructional methods, approaches, and strategies most beneficial at which stages of reading and child development within which classrooms and with which teachers? That mangled, horrible sentence gives you an idea of the complexity of what we were trying to understand. We studied 34,000 kids over at least for 5 years, some as long as 20 years, to try to figure these questions out, and the answers began to come in and began to replicate. We understood that in order for reading to flourish, one has to have a robust phonemic awareness library and to be able to apply sounds to print. One has to do that quickly and fluently, or else they'll bog down and won't remember what they read. They have to have the vocabulary to actually understand what they're reading. They have to be able to relate what they're reading to background knowledge, and then they have to apply an active set of strategies to actually comprehend what they’ve read.
By 1995, we had this well-replicated, so we had answered the question, “how do kids learn to read?” Our scientific emphasis was to kind of get geeky and say, “alright, what's the brain doing? Why isn't this brain getting this, and why is this brain getting this, and so on. Where in the brain does this work occur and are there differences in the quality of the work between a nonreader and a good reader?” And yes, there were, and that was very apparent and very replicable. So we were able to identify the system that typically has to be working well in the brain for reading to be proficient. That was what was interesting to me. So I looked at that, and our group, as well as many other groups, reported that a significant predictor of poor comprehension was difficulty in applying sound to letter symbols or letter patterns. The task in reading initially, for the nonreader, is to understand that the sounds in our language map on to letters and letter patterns. And the difficulties that you hear when you hear kids kind of stumble over the print occur primarily because of something called phonological awareness, or the lack thereof. The brain has to be able to untangle the constituent sounds within a word, and that has to be taught.
Of course, at the same time we're doing this, the NIH is getting inundated with congressional angst about why so many kids are failing to learn to read. “If the NIH knows this, why are 62% of poor kids failing to learn to read? Why are 26% of middle-class white kids failing to learn to read? How come people aren't getting this information?” The issue was, people weren't getting the information because of these debates between people who felt that code was unimportant and people who felt that just reading a wide range of literature was going to cut it.
IRRC: How Can We Use These Findings to Inform Teaching Practices Today?
Reid Lyon: The information that's continued to accrue in the last 20 years continues to build on the basic findings that we had in 1997, and that is that there are principles of instruction that have been found over and over to produce better results in student reading achievement than others. And so those factors just won't go away. The job of the scientist is to falsify the hypothesis. So what we were trying to do is falsify the fact that you needed instruction that was direct, explicit, and systematic. But we could not overturn that.
In our studies of inefficient or struggling readers, their initial strategies were to guess at the words, look at the pictures and so forth. And [guessing] at words is what poor readers do, which was another pretty illuminating finding. It was kind of a no-brainer then. Why were we teaching kids to do the things that poor readers do? With explicit instruction, you do not leave novices and pre-novices to try to navigate a complex problem when they have none of the background knowledge or prerequisites to do it.
IRRC: When It Comes to the Science of Reading, What Do You Want Current Educators and Experts to Know?
Reid Lyon: SOR is only as good as how people have it explained to them. People need to have explicit and concrete definitions of its components. When we think about scientifically-based reading, we're looking at the principles of instruction that have been validated, and the components of reading that must be taught. We know that to be an efficient reader one needs to know about the sound structure in the language and to have a fairly fluent ability to rapidly apply sounds to letters and letter patterns. If you spend too much time on words or you are guessing words, initially, that looks good, but it really hits the wall fairly quickly. You’re not getting enough information through that strategy to comprehend. What the science tells us is, you have to have these sounds. You have to apply them expertly and quickly to letters and letter patterns. You have to be able to receive the practice to be able to really make it fluent, and at the same time you have to be developing language, because without vocabulary and without background information there's not going to be any kind of expert comprehension at all.
We don't want people who read words. We want people who can read something related to their own life, you know, use it to predict something in the future, to find new kinds of excitement in other parts, and so forth. So that's why when I'm talking to leaders, I emphasize that we have a set of skills that have to be developed and they are best developed in this manner. And that is the science of reading. What you need to teach and how you teach it. That's basically it.