AS PART OF his multimedia presentation on reading, G. Reid Lyon shows a video of a 9-year-old girl named Michelle.
Michelle is reading so haltingly that Lyon, a neuropsychologist, cannot bear to watch. She pauses 22 seconds over the word "sweet." Her reading is labored, inefficient and inaccurate. Lyon and many elementary teachers could recognize the signs of a learning disability, probably dyslexia.
Then Lyon tells his audience at a Timonium hotel that the video was shot a dozen years ago. "With a lot of help," he says, Michelle has graduated from Yale University with a degree in architecture. There's one that was saved, he says, but many are not.
Based in Rockville, Lyon directs reading research for the National Institutes of Health, which for 35 years has been one of the biggest sponsors of studies of the first "R." NIH's Institute of Child Health and Human Development supports 41 research sites in North America, which have examined the reading development of more than 35,000 children and adults.
Occasionally, Lyon takes his show on the road, and he was in Baltimore on Thursday to talk at a conference on school readiness sponsored by a coalition of people and organizations interested in early childhood health and education. (It's called the Ready At Five Partnership.)
Conference organizers expected about 300 participants. More than 500 signed up to attend sessions such as Lyon's "Baby and the Brain," in which Johns Hopkins University Professor Janet DiPietro described recent discoveries about early brain development. Never, conference sponsors said, has there been more interest -- or more study -- of what happens to children in the four or five years before they set foot in that institution we call school.
"Children are prolific learners long before they're official students," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who was applauded when she renewed her proposal that the state halt financial support for the 12th grade and put the money saved into education for 3- and 4-year-olds.
From a long-term study of 19,000 children in 940 schools (published by the National Center for Education Statistics), here's what we know about typical kindergartners when they arrive:
Twenty-nine percent know the beginning sounds of words, while 17 percent know the ending sounds. Two-thirds can recognize letters of the alphabet by name and have a basic grasp of how written English should look on paper -- that it is read left to right, for example, and top to bottom. Two percent read basic words by sight, and 1 percent read words in context. Girls enter school slightly ahead of boys in reading.
But here's a sobering finding: Nearly half of all kindergartners in the United States -- and two-thirds of those from urban areas -- come from families with risk factors for low performance, such as poverty.
Lyon, Grasmick and others say these are the children who have to be reached early. As part of his presentation, Lyon flashed a slide showing that the gap between good and poor readers widens as the children get older.
Said Grasmick: "There's only one chance in eight that a child who isn't ready by the first grade will catch up."
But getting children ready by kindergarten involves much more than honing literary skills, said Sharon Lynn Kagan, a child development specialist at Yale University, the keynote speaker at Thursday's conference. Learning the ABC's is a part of school readiness, she said, but only a part.
Learning through play also helps, Kagan said, although "letting children mill around all day is just as dangerous as drill and kill."
Schools and communities must be ready, too, she said, and few of them are. People in health, education, social services and the business community have to cooperate in the effort, she said, and the pay for early-childhood workers "is abysmally low. ... People are leaving our field in droves."
Kagan, who is president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, listed Delaware, North Carolina, Florida and California as states that have jumped ahead with long-term preschool plans. Although she praised Maryland for recent efforts, the Free State was not on Kagan's honor roll.
"Entering Kindergarten: A Portrait of American Children When They Begin School," is available free from the National Center for Education Statistics. The Web address is http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch.