Reading doesn't come naturally Research: Neuro-psychologist takes his multimedia show to concerned parents, and acknowledges he doesn't have all the answers.

The Education Beat

November 19, 1997|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

G. REID LYON keeps a life-size model of a human brain in his Rockville office. As a neuropsychologist, Lyon looks into the brains of children and tries to determine why some learn to read and some don't.

Lyon, 48, is in charge of reading research at the National Institutes of Health. But his office also looks at other aspects of children's well-being. Lyon and his associates are among a tiny group of scientists who study with equal interest a dyslexic child and one with AIDS.

Lyon has a multimedia show about reading research that he takes on the road. He did it Monday evening for the PTA Council of Howard County, and the concerned questions and anxious faces in a Columbia audience of 250 spoke volumes: Sometimes desperately, parents and teachers want answers about reading.

Lyon tells them what he knows and no more. He says reading is xTC a skill, not a naturally acquired ability such as speaking. He says readers have to break down the "code" of the language, learning the relationship between sounds and letters.

Some do it easily, even before they get to school. Some don't, and the skill of reading isn't related to intelligence, Lyon says.

He insists that NIH researchers, who are scattered among 18 university centers around the country, don't have all the answers or even a majority of them. In studying the reading behavior of 10,000 children since 1983, Lyon and his colleagues, like most scientists, are cautious and tentative in their conclusions. The brain is the last part of the human body to yield a lot of definitive answers, they say.

So why is Lyon being pummeled by much of the education establishment, and why did one critic suggest recently that he be sent to Germany for his "fascist" views? Why is he regarded as the enemy of "whole language" instruction, which holds that children will learn to read if they are exposed to rich literature?

Lyon says he's neutral in the "Great Debate" between whole language and phonics. In his talk at Long Reach High School, he said most NIH researchers are, in fact, liberals. "Some of [them] have dogs named Sandinista."

Still, much of the NIH research does support the arguments of phonics proponents. In the latest salvo in the Great Debate, Kenneth Goodman, the Arizona professor known as the "father of whole language," plumps Lyon in the middle of a right-wing phonics conspiracy that includes the Christian Coalition and the media.

But there's another, less evident, reason that Lyon rankles many educators.

He strikes at their professional insecurity. He needles them for their unscientific "beliefs." What goes on in teacher education, he said Monday, is "based on belief systems, not science." Teacher education is "totally without accountability." Textbooks are produced without regard to research and sold by the "thumb rule that a better-looking salesman gets better results."

Such remarks get appreciative laughs from an audience like the one in Howard County. These were people taking notes, anxious for solutions to their children's or students' reading problems, anxious for the comforting news that they aren't alone, that their children aren't stupid.

Teacher educators and education bureaucrats, however, are enraged by this kind of talk. They've devoted professional lives to the schooling of children, and they can point to many more successes than failures. Lyon's criticism is a threat to their professional integrity.

If educators were trained for as many years as scientists and physicians, if they had to pass three-day examinations to enter their profession, if they could agree on a reliable and replicable method of teaching reading, if teaching reading were as easy as setting bones, the Great Debate probably wouldn't be so intense.

Lyon says he can endure the attacks. He keeps something else in his office: a framed photo of him in his first job out of high school -- piloting a helicopter in Vietnam.

From the Department of What Goes Around

From The Sun, September 1971:

"The state Board of Education today will hear a controversial proposal that all new teachers and many teachers working now in Maryland be required to take courses in reading instruction.

"The proposal has been generating heat in education circles for more than a year but has gone largely unnoticed by the general public."

The article continued:

"Harriet Bernstein, a Montgomery County PTA leader, recalled recently that there have been 10 major studies of teacher education in Maryland since 1920, and that an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the state's students have serious reading problems.

" 'If educators do not speedily act to produce real change in the individual classroom,' she said, 'citizens and legislative

discontent will wrest the decision away from the educators.' "

"Overriding the discussion is a general feeling that the 'green eyeshade approach,' or 'credit counting,' will solve none of the problems and that the proposals to be aired today will have no effect at all on reading performance."

The rest of the story: The board did require a course in reading instruction for all new teachers in Maryland. (That's all that the state still requires of new teachers.)

Harriet Bernstein, now Harriet Tyson, is the nation's foremost critic of the textbook business. She lives in Washington. Mike Bowler, who wrote the 1971 news story, writes The Education Beat.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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