`Reading czar' has talk with educators

Illiteracy must be combated as if health problem, he says

Schools' `proactive' take lauded

September 17, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

G. Reid Lyon has dubbed illiteracy a national health problem and is leading the charge against it. Yesterday, the scientist many educators know as President Bush's "reading czar" urged teachers in Carroll County to be ever vigilant about the needs of the individual child.

"We have to realize that education has to take on the same importance as medicine," said Lyon, in a speech at Winters Mill High School in Westminster. "Teachers are the best brain surgeons around, the best at developing the nervous system."

Lyon directs reading research at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health. He is a nationally regarded expert in how children learn to read, and the new federal No Child Left Behind Act is sprinkled with references to Lyon's "scientifically based reading research."

He visited Westminster at the invitation of Harry Fogle, Carroll's director of elementary and special education, who met Lyon at a conference last spring. Before addressing the group at the high school, Lyon lunched with Carroll school administrators and reading specialists.

"He was not shooting off the cuff when he praised teachers here," said Fogle. "This visit was a real booster shot to build confidence, and it showed how important teachers are to the process."

For two hours, Lyon gave the school officials, administrators and reading teachers details of his research and praise for work in reading education.

"A lot of folks in this room are extra-good teachers," he said, noting the county's "proactive approach" to reading problems. Carroll's reading scores on this year on national standardized tests increased in second, fourth and sixth grades.

But he noted that 37 percent of the nation's fourth-graders read below basic level and that the number climbs to 60 percent among minorities About 75 percent of those who don't learn to read by age 9 never learn, he said. "If we are leaving more than 5 percent behind, we are not doing our job," Lyon said. "Unless we put in place a good prevention program, we will continue to see this."

Lyon, who runs reading research centers across the country, showed pictures of the brain to illustrate how it functions while a person is reading - or having trouble reading.

About $80 million has been spent during the past 25 years by the health institutes to study how children learn to read, why some children have difficulty, how to prevent and how to remediate reading difficulties, Lyon said. NIH studies reading because it is an integral part of a child's development, he said.

"We have seen the devastating consequences that occur when a child feels stupid," Lyon said. "There are substantial decreases in self-esteem, a substantial waste of life. This is a public health problem."

The extensive research has shown that reading is a learned skill, not a natural process, he said, and teachers are on the front lines instilling that skill.

"If all we had to do was immerse a child in good texts, why do we have 37 percent below grade level?" he asked.

Children raised in poverty and often living with parents who cannot read are at the greatest risk, he said. They have few books and little language interaction at home.

"Kids without books, without magnetic letters on the fridge, come in cold," he said.

Jane Baker, a reading specialist training teachers in Carroll, said Lyon "has a wonderful ability to make complex information palatable. He really makes it real."

Fogle said Lyon's message "alleviates teachers' fears and shows them there is more than one way to teach children to read. It is critical to focus on each child."

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