By G. Reid Lyon
I am frequently asked why the National Institute of Child Health
and Human Development (NICHD) conducts and supports research in
reading, given that the NICHD is part of the National Institutes
of Health, a federal agency that emphasizes basic biomedical science
and health-related research. A primary answer is that learning to
read is critical to a child's overall well being. If a youngster
does not learn to read in our literacy-driven society, hope for
a fulfilling, productive life diminishes. In short, difficulties
learning to read are not only an educational problem; they constitute
a serious public health concern.
The NICHD has been studying normal reading development and reading
difficulties for 35 years. NICHD-supported researchers have studied
more than 10,000 children, published more than 2,500 articles, and
written more than 50 books that present the results of 10 large-scale
longitudinal studies and more than 1,500 smaller scale experimental
and cross-sectional studies. Many of the longitudinal research sites
initiated studies in the early 1980s with kindergarten children
before they began their reading instruction and have studied the
children over time.
Researchers have studied some children for 15 years, with several
sites following the youngsters for at least 5 years. Additional
research sites have joined within the past 3 years to investigate
the effects of different reading instructional programs with kindergarten
and 1st grade children.
At most research sites, multidisciplinary research teams study
cognitive, linguistic, neurobiological, genetic, and instructional
factors related to early reading development and reading difficulties.
(See Fletcher and Lyon (in press) and Lyon and Moats (1997) for
reviews of NICHD reading research findings. Contact the author for
a complete set of references of published research from all NICHD
reading research sites since 1963.)
Reading Research and Scientific Tradition
The NICHD reading research has centered on three basic questions:
- How do children learn to read English (and other languages)?
What are the critical skills, abilities, environments, and instructional
interactions that foster the fluent reading of text?
- What skill deficits and environmental factors impede reading
- For which children are which instructional approaches most beneficial,
at which stages of reading development? Before summarizing findings
related to these questions, I would like to explain the NICHD
First, the NICHD reading research program is rooted in scientific
tradition and the scientific method. The program rests on systematic,
longitudinal, field-based investigations, cross-sectional studies,
and laboratory-based experiments that are publicly verifiable and
replicable. Second, the research integrates quantitative and qualitative
methods to increase the richness, impact, and ecological validity
of data. However, using qualitative research methods requires the
same scientific rigor employed in quantitative studies. Third, the
NICHD reading research program is only one of many programs dedicated
to understanding reading development and difficulties. The U.S.
Department of Education's Office of Research and Improvement, the
Office of Special Education Programs, and the Canadian Research
Council have supported many outstanding reading researchers (see
Adams, 1990, for a research review).
The cumulative work of federally and privately funded researchers
illuminates how children develop reading skills, why some children
struggle to learn to read, and what can be done to help all readers
reach proficiency. Although much remains to be learned, many findings
have survived scrutiny, replication, and extension.
The Critical Role of Phonemic Awareness
How do children learn to read English? Reading is the product of
decoding and comprehension (Gough et al. 1993). Although this sounds
simple, learning to read is much tougher than people think. To learn
to decode and read printed English, children must be aware that
spoken words are composed of individual sound parts termed phonemes.
This is what is meant by phoneme awareness.
Phoneme awareness and phonics are not the same. When educators
assess phoneme awareness skills, they ask children to demonstrate
knowledge of the sound structure of words without any letters or
written words present. For example, What word would be left if the
/k/ sound were taken away from cat. What sounds do you hear in the
word big? To assess phonics skills, they ask children to link sounds
(phonemes) with letters. Thus, the development of phonics skills
depends on the development of phoneme awareness.
Why is phoneme awareness critical in beginning reading, and why
is it difficult for some children? Because to read an alphabetic
language like English, children must know that written spellings
systematically represent spoken sounds. When youngsters figure this
out, either on their own or with direct instruction, they have acquired
the alphabetic principle. However, if beginning readers have difficulty
perceiving the sounds in spoken words for example, if they cannot
hear the /at/ sound in fat and cat and perceive that the difference
lies in the first sound they will have difficulty decoding or sounding
out new words. In turn, developing reading fluency will be difficult,
resulting in poor comprehension, limited learning, and little enjoyment.
We are beginning to understand why many children have difficulty
developing phoneme awareness. When we speak to one another, the
individual sounds (phonemes) within the words are not consciously
heard by the listener. Thus, no one ever receives any natural practice
understanding that words are composed of smaller, abstract sound
For example, when one utters the word bag, the ear hears only one
sound, not three (as in /b/ /a/ /g/. This is because when bag is
spoken, the /a/ and /g/ phonemes are folded into the initial /b/
sound. Thus, the acoustic information presented to the ears reflects
an overlapping bundle of sound, not three discrete sounds. This
process ensures rapid, efficient communication. Consider the time
it would take to have a conversation if each of the words we uttered
were segmented into their underlying sound structure.
However, nature has provided a conundrum here: What is good for
the listener is not so good for the beginning reader. Although spoken
language is seamless, the beginning reader must detect the seams
in speech, unglue the sounds from one another, and learn which sounds
(phonemes) go with which letters. We now understand that specific
systems in the brain recover sounds from spoken words, and just
as in learning any skill, children understand phoneme awareness
with different aptitudes and experiences.
Developing Automaticity and Understanding
In the initial stages of reading development, learning phoneme
awareness and phonics skills and practicing these skills with texts
is critical. Children must also acquire fluency and automaticity
in decoding and word recognition. Consider that a reader has only
so much attention and memory capacity. If beginning readers read
the words in a laborious, inefficient manner, they cannot remember
what they read, much less relate the ideas to their background knowledge.
Thus, the ultimate goal of reading instruction for children to understand
and enjoy what they read may not be achieved.
Reading research by NICHD and others reveals that making meaning
requires more than phoneme awareness, phonics, and reading fluency,
although these are necessary skills. Good comprehenders link the
ideas presented in print to their own experiences. They have also
developed the necessary vocabulary to make sense of the content
being read. Good comprehenders have a knack for summarizing, predicting,
and clarifying what they have read, and many are adept at asking
themselves guide questions to enhance understanding.
Programmatic research over the past 35 years has not supported
the view that reading development reflects a natural process that
children learn to read as they learn to speak, through natural exposure
to a literate environment. Indeed, researchers have established
that certain aspects of learning to read are highly unnatural. Consider
the linguistic gymnastics involved in recovering phonemes from speech
and applying them to letters and letter patterns. Unlike learning
to speak, beginning readers must appreciate consciously what the
symbols stand for in the writing system they learn (Liberman 1992).
Unfortunately for beginning readers, written alphabetic symbols
are arbitrary and are created differently in different languages
to represent spoken language elements that are themselves abstract.
If learning to read were natural, there would not exist the substantial
number of cultures that have yet to develop a written language,
despite having a rich oral language. And, if learning to read unfolds
naturally, whydoes our literate society have so many youngsters
and adults who are illiterate?
Despite strong evidence to the contrary, many educators and researchers
maintain the perspective that reading is an almost instinctive,
natural process. They believe that explicit instruction in phoneme
awareness, phonics, structural analysis, and reading comprehension
strategies is unnecessary because oral language skills provide the
reader with a meaning-based structure for the decoding and recognition
of unfamiliar words (Edelsky et al. 1991, Goodman 1996).
Scientific research, however, simply does not support the claim
that context and authentic text are a proxy for decoding skills.
To guess the pronunciation of words from context, the context must
predict the words. But content words, the most important words for
text comprehension, can be predicted from surrounding context only
10 to 20 percent of the time (Gough et al., 1981). Instead, the
choice strategy for beginning readers is to decode letters to sounds
in an increasingly complete and accurate manner (Adams 1990, Foorman
et al., 1998).
Moreover, the view some whole language advocates hold that skilled
readers gloss over the text, sampling only parts of words, and examining
several lines of print to decode unfamiliar words, is not consistent
with available data. Just and Carpenter (1987), among others, have
demonstrated consistently that good readers rarely skip over words,
and readers gaze directly at most content words. Indeed, in contrast
to conventional wisdom, less skilled readers depend on context for
word recognition. The word recognition processes of skilled readers
are so automatic that they do not need to rely on context (Stanovich
et al., 198 1). Good readers employ context to aid overall comprehension,
but not as an aid in the recognition of unfamiliar words. Whether
we like it or not, an alphabetic cipher must be deciphered, and
this requires robust decoding skills.
The scientific evidence that refutes the idea that learning to
read is a natural process is of such magnitude that Stanovich (1994)
wrote: That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates
early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions
in all of behavioral science.... The idea that learning to read
is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist,
psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community (pp.
Why Some Children Have Difficulties Learning to Read
Good readers are phonemically aware, understand the alphabetic
principle, apply these skills in a rapid and fluent manner, possess
strong vocabularies and syntactical and grammatical skills, and
relate reading to their own experiences. Difficulties in any of
these areas can impede reading development. Further, learning to
read begins far before children enter formal schooling. Children
who have stimulating literacy experiences from birth onward have
an edge in vocabulary development, understanding the goals of reading,
and developing an awareness of print and literacy concepts.
Conversely, the children who are most at risk for reading failure
enter kindergarten and the elementary grades without these early
experiences. Frequently, many poor readers have not consistently
engaged in the language play that develops an awareness of sound
structure and language patterns. They have limited exposure to bedtime
and laptime reading. In short, children raised in poverty, those
with limited proficiency in English, those from homes where the
parents' reading levels and practices are low, and those with speech,
language, and hearing handicaps are at increased risk of reading
However, many children with robust oral language experience, average
to above average intelligence, and frequent early interactions with
literacy activities also have difficulties learning to read. Why?
Programmatic longitudinal research, including research supported
by NICHD, clearly indicates that deficits in the development of
phoneme awareness skills not only predict difficulties learning
to read, but they also have a negative effect on reading acquisition.
Whereas phoneme awareness is necessary for adequate reading development,
it is not sufficient. Children must also develop phonics concepts
and apply these skills fluently in text. Although substantial research
supports the importance of phoneme awareness, phonics, and the development
of speed and automaticity in reading, we know less about how children
develop reading comprehension strategies and semantic and syntactic
knowledge. Given that some children with well developed decoding
and word- recognition abilities have difficulties understanding
what they read, more research in reading comprehension is crucial.
From Research to Practice
Scientific research can inform beginning reading instruction. We
know from research that reading is a language-based activity. Reading
does not develop naturally, and for many children, specific decoding,
word recognition, and reading comprehension skills must be taught
directly and systematically. We have also learned that preschool
children benefit significantly from being read to. The evidence
suggests strongly that educators can foster reading development
by providing kindergarten children with instruction that develops
print concepts, familiarity with the purposes of reading and writing,
age-appropriate vocabulary and language comprehension skills, and
familiarity with the language structure.
Substantial evidence shows that many children in the 1st and 2nd
grades and beyond will require explicit instruction to develop the
necessary phoneme awareness, phonics, spelling, and reading comprehension
skills. But for these children, this will not be sufficient. For
youngsters having difficulties learning to read, each of these foundational
skills should be taught and integrated into textual reading formats
to ensure sufficient levels of fluency, automaticity, and understanding.
Moving Beyond Assumptions
One hopes that scientific research informs beginning reading instruction,
but it is not always so. Unfortunately, many teachers and administrators
who could benefit from research to guide reading instructional practices
do not yet trust the idea that research can inform their teaching.
There are many reasons for this lack of faith. As Mary Kennedy (1997)
has pointed out, it is difficult for teachers to apply research
information when it is of poor quality, lacks authority, is not
easily accessible, is communicated in an incomprehensible manner,
and is not practical. Moreover, the lack of agreement about reading
development and instruction among education leaders does not bode
favorably for increasing trust. The burden to produce compelling
and practical information lies with reading researchers.
Most great scientific discoveries have come from a willingness
and an ability to be wrong. Researchers and teachers could serve
our children much better if they had the courage to set aside assumptions
when they are not working. What if the assumption that reading is
a natural activity, as appealing as it may be, were wrong and not
working to help our children read? The fundamental purpose of science
is to test our beliefs and intuitions and to tell us where the truth
lies. Indeed, the education of our children is too important to
be determined by anything but the strongest of objective scientific
evidence. Our children deserve nothing less.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: G. Reid Lyon is Chief of the Child Development
and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and
Human Development. National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department
of Health and Human Services, Bldg. 6100, Rm. 4BO5, 9000 Rockville
Pike, Bethesda, MD 20892.
This article appeared in the January/February 2000 issue
of LDA Newsbriefs (Volume 38, No.4), the newsletter of the Learning
Disabilities Association. Newsbriefs is published six times a year
and is a benefit of LDA membership.