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A Call for Scientific Approaches to Reading Instruction


If U.S. children are going to learn to read more quickly and effectively, schools need to use methods that have demonstrated success and monitor what works for different children, according to Dr. G. Reid Lyon, a research psychologist. Included: Tips for improving reading instruction.

As a new third grade teacher, Dr. G. Reid Lyon was frustrated when he realized many of his students could not read, and he was uncertain how to help them. The experience prompted Dr. Lyon, who also taught special education and worked as a school psychologist, to devote himself to studying how children learn to read. Dr. Lyon, who is a research psychologist, now serves as the chief of the child development and behavior branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), part of the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Dr. Lyon oversees the direction, development, and management of research programs in reading development, cognitive neuroscience, developmental psychology, behavioral pediatrics, language and attention disorders, and human learning and learning disorders. He also has a background in physiological psychology.

"We are leaving far too many children behind when it does not have to be this way. Our energies have to be devoted to helping teachers receive critical information about how kids learn to read, why kids have difficulties, and what they can do about that" says Dr. G. Reid Lyon, chief of the child development and behavior branch at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
Education World: How did you become interested in studying how children learn to read?

Dr. G. Reid Lyon: When I began teaching in my third grade classroom, at least a third of the class was struggling to learn to read. I had a very diverse classroom with all races and ethnicities represented. The income levels of the families of the kids ranged from severe poverty levels to working class salaries. Many of the children had not had a great deal of experience being read to at home as toddlers and preschoolers, and the instruction they received upon entry into first and second grades was based on a "whole language" philosophy.

I can't tell you how surprised I was to see so many of my students struggling. I had learned to read easily as a kid, and naively assumed it was something that was relatively easy to do. What really affected me however was the look on my students' faces when I called on them to read aloud. I saw fear and a great sense of embarrassment in their eyes. In talking with the kids later, they told me how they hated to read and that it made them feel stupid. I never called on them to read in public again. Unfortunately, I did not have any idea how to help them, and I felt very stupid.

Through these experiences I learned that I simply did not know what I was doing. My graduate coursework in reading was very superficial and what I was taught about reading instruction revolved around the philosophical belief that children learned to read naturally and that any systematic instruction to help kids develop basic reading skills could be harmful. No scientific evidence was provided during my coursework to support this perspective, and that should have raised my concerns. But, I was nave and figured that the professors, who had substantial classroom experience, knew what they were talking about.

While I did not help my kids learn to read, my experience teaching led me to ask four questions to help me figure out what I should be doing. These are simple questions, but they have guided my research career for the last 25 years. They are:

  • How do children learn to read? What are the skills and abilities required for reading? What family, social, and emotional factors support reading development?
  • Why do so many children have difficulties learning to read? Which skills, abilities, environments and genetic and neurobiological factors impede reading development, alone or in combination?
  • How can we prevent reading failure from ever happening in the first place? Because of the pain I saw on the faces of the children I was teaching, it was critical to me to try to figure out how to identify kids who were at risk for reading failure before school entry so we could help them then. I also knew that we had to ask the question: For which kids are which instructional approaches beneficial at which stages of development?
  • Given that I knew that many children were in school whose reading difficulties had not been prevented, I asked, "How could such difficulties be remediated at older ages?"
This is the road I took in developing my interest in reading development, reading instruction, and reading difficulties.

EW: What has been driving the approaches to teaching reading in the U.S.?

Dr. Lyon: Up until a decade ago, most approaches to teaching reading were based upon philosophical beliefs, untested assumptions about how kids learn to read, and anecdotal reports about a particular method's success and so on. The major philosophically based approach in vogue from the mid-1970s until the mid-1990s was termed "whole language."

The developers of the whole language approach and their followers argued that learning to read and write was a natural process that unfolded on its own, once a child was given exposure to interesting reading material and guidance from a teacher. The whole language philosophy held that learning to read was just as easy as learning to listen and speak.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. While listening and speaking are natural -- they are built into our genes -- reading must be acquired and taught just like every other skill, whether it be playing piano, basketball, or gymnastics.

It may be the case that many children appear to respond to whole language approaches to reading instruction, but closer inspection will reveal that these students came to the instruction already having developed a sense of the structure of our language.

For children at risk for reading failure, philosophically based reading approaches do more harm than good. We must rely on the scientific research to tell us which instructional approaches are most beneficial for which kids at different stages of reading development.

EW: How would you assess the current state of reading instruction and reading achievement in the U.S. schools?

Dr. Lyon: Let me take the second part of the question first. To be blunt, too many children are not learning to read in our country. That is a travesty and is shameful. Why? Because we know enough about what works with most kids, yet we don't apply what we know when we prepare teachers and when we select and implement reading programs. Currently almost 40 percent of our fourth grade students read below basic levels. If you disaggregate these data, kids from poverty are really in trouble. Approximately 60 percent of kids from lower-income homes cannot read at proficient levels.

Many people will blame this epidemic of reading failure on the kids, their homes, and their families. But that is wrong. The major reason that most kids do not learn to read proficiently is poor instruction. To be clear, this is not the teacher's fault. Teachers enter their profession and their classrooms to be the best they can be in helping kids learn. They do not get up in the morning thinking that they will not do the most effective job.

The fact is, however, teachers typically will teach what they know, and many have not been prepared in their teacher education programs to answer the four questions I posed earlier. Many of our teachers have been taught that reading is a natural process and that direct and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies will detract from a love for reading. Well, how can anybody love reading if they cannot read?

In short, we are leaving far too many children behind when it does not have to be this way. Our energies have to be devoted to helping teachers receive critical information about how kids learn to read, why kids have difficulties, and what they can do about that though the selection and implementation of scientifically based reading programs.

EW: What needs to change to improve children's reading skills and fluency, particularly minority students?

Dr. Lyon: The teacher is the most important ingredient in ensuring that all kids learn to read. It is clear that the more teachers know about what it takes to learn to read and how to assess where their individual students are with respect to learning the sound structure (phonemic awareness), phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension strategies, the more they will be able to adjust their instruction if their assessments indicate trouble in one or more of these areas. Teachers also need to understand children's motivation to read and to continue reading is based on the success they have. No one wants to keep doing something that they are not good at -- particularly if they have to do it in public.

Clearly, we must begin to base both the development and implementation of reading approaches and programs on converging scientific evidence. We have been conducting very long term and rigorous research on reading for the past two and a half decades and the same findings are obtained time after time. We know that reading is a complex process that requires the learning of several critical subskills, and that while all are critical, no one skill is sufficient. All skills must be taught and integrated together.

So what needs to change? How we prepare teachers and support them in their profession by providing them the most trustworthy information about how kids learn to read, why some of them have difficulties, and how evidence-based instructional approaches can be selected and implemented.

EW: What do educators have to ask themselves when weighing what reading instructional methods to use?

Dr. Lyon: First, they must have a very good idea of how their students are reading. To do this, they must know how to use a variety of assessment strategies to determine the strengths and weaknesses kids show on the various components of the reading process. No matter what instructional approach is ultimately chosen, it will not be effective unless the teachers know where their kids are with respect to skills' development.

Second, educators must ask whether a particular program, approach, or curriculum has been found to be effective with children similar to those in their classrooms. This will require that educators understand what constitutes effectiveness and how effectiveness is determined. Educators must become proficient consumers of educational research in order to identify research findings that are trustworthy versus those that are fluff. Not all educational research is equal in quality and it is painfully the case that much of our reading instruction in the past has been based on shoddy research.

Educators should ask what resources exist that can teach them about research quality and about the effectiveness of particular programs and where to find those resources. The federal government has established the What Works Clearinghouse, which helps consumers with both of these questions. The Florida Center for Reading Research also has done a very good job of evaluating many reading programs. Educators should also obtain a wonderful publication available from the National Institute for Literacy called "Using Research and Reason in Education." This document will help consumers understand the difference between strong research and weak research.

In addition, educators also need to know that the success of any program or approach is dependent upon the knowledge of the teacher and the quality of administrative leadership in the school. The best teacher and program cannot be effective if teachers are not provided with the best scientific information and the time and instructional support they must have.

EW: What can schools do to prevent children who cannot read, especially older ones, from falling through the cracks?

Dr. Lyon: It is critical that both communities and schools understand that prevention is much more effective than remediation in helping all kids learn to read. There are a number of great models of communities and schools that have developed very strong preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school programs that are linked and build knowledge as the kids grow.

We know that unless we prevent reading failure, kids who have not learned to read by age 9 will most likely struggle the rest of their lives. In order for such programs to be developed, teachers and administrators must have a common professional language that is based on our evidence of reading development, reading instruction, and reading difficulties. We must be able to discuss individual children who are having difficulties, collaborate with each other to identify the best assessments and instructional practices to bring to bear, and the best ways to monitor the youngster's progress so that we can adjust instruction if necessary.

If we don't do these things, it is pay now or pay later -- and the kids will be the ones who pay.

This e-interview with Dr. G. Reid Lyon is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.