Scientist, educators meet to discuss how children learn NIH expert advises using several methods to teach reading skills

December 19, 1997|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

Science and education, long divided by mutual suspicion, got together yesterday to translate new advances in research into better reading instruction in Maryland's schools.

G. Reid Lyon, chief reading expert at the National In- stitutes of Health, told a state task force on reading that children learn in different ways, so teachers need to master a broad range of methods and recognize the warning signs for reading failure -- much more than the typical teacher now does.

About half of all schoolchildren pick up reading quite naturally. Many of the others come to school unprepared to learn to read because they haven't been exposed to books or rich vocabulary, Lyon said.

And overwhelmingly, children who are poor readers lack understanding that the language is made up of tiny individual sounds, called phonemes. They don't understand, for instance, how to separate the "b" sound from the word "big" to make the sound "ig."

"It's a small piece, but it's a critical piece," Lyon said. "The weight of the evidence is quite substantial.

"My wish is for teachers to come to teaching not with a set of materials but a set of questions. What does a kid need to have to learn to read? And given that we have a number who aren't learning, a variety of options to get after those conditions.

"We need to make our teachers more dynamic."

The meeting with Lyon was the first in a series of discussions that the task force is planning with nationally recognized reading researchers.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick asked the panel to examine cutting-edge reading research after a Sun series of articles last month reported how NIH-sponsored studies show that most of the poorest readers can be brought up to grade level with the right mix of instruction in kindergarten and first grade.

While the NIH-sponsored studies focus on children who are in the lowest 20 percent in reading ability, average readers also need the same skills in phoneme awareness and understanding sound-letter relationships, Lyon said. The difference is in the intensity of the training required; some children can proceed much more quickly to literature. Fifty-two percent of the NIH studies involve average readers.

Within the next six months, researchers plan to publish a test that schools can use to predict which children will have trouble learning to read, Lyon said. In addition to "phoneme awareness," predictors include whether children can name letters and numbers and if they know how to hold a book.

People are too quick to reduce the discussion to the phonics -whole language war, Lyon said -- the ideological battle that has engulfed schools for years. Phonics teaches children to sound out words, while whole language stresses figuring out words from context.

Lyon calls it a silly debate. Some children can jump right into literature; others need direct instruction in phonemes, phonics and speed training first, while listening to someone read engaging stories so they can experience the language, he said.

The NIH gets accused of pushing phonics, Lyon said. It's untrue; in fact, he said, researchers funded by NIH have found lots of bad phonics programs.

"Some of this phonics stuff they're doing is very misinformed," he said. "Still kids are being beat over the head with boring phonics."

Researchers have also found schools that are making phoneme instruction enticing. Lyon showed a videotape of a classroom in Sacramento, Calif., where a teacher is practicing the phoneme "ch" with a group of poor readers. She sits holding a bear named Chuck, the children clustered at her feet.

"He likes to eat," the teacher says of the bear. "Often he gets to CHoose his meal. His favorite meal is lunCH. But his favorite foods [have] the first sound of his first name."

Cheese, chunks of peach, cheese chips. The children repeat the words.

Fueling the nation's reading problem is the poor quality of reading textbooks, which aren't based on rigorous research, Lyon told the panel.

Many of the textbooks are designed in response to market research from focus groups that examine how well teachers like them, how attractive the cover is,how good-looking the sales representative, he said. NIH officials have testified before Congress that reading textbooks should be put through clinical trials.

"The people who are yelling the most -- they're authors of textbooks. A great deal of the anger in this field is market-share anger," Lyon said. "There are a lot of millionaires in the reading field."

College textbooks for teachers-in-training aren't much better and are often full of misinformation, Lyon said.

The research has made the task force acutely aware of the difficult decisions ahead. Joseph Czarnecki, reading and language arts coordinator of Anne Arundel County schools, said the trick is to figure out how much of each method of instruction is appropriate for which children at which stages.

For years, schools and textbook publishers have focused on the methods that work for the 50 percent who learn to read somewhat naturally, he said.

Now, Czarnecki said, it's time to focus on the other half -- especially the 45 percent who are struggling but have been shown in studies to succeed with proper instruction.

About this series

Part of a long-term series of articles on the successes and failures in teaching children to read by third grade, or age 9.

To learn more

For more information about reading issues and the performance of individual schools in the Baltimore area, go to The Sun's Web site, SunSpot, at www.sunspot.net/news/

Pub Date: 12/19/97

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