Politics & Policy
Phonics Maven Is at Center of Bush's Education Push
By Bob Davis
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush needs help with reading, he turns to a phonics expert at the National Institutes of Health. His nameis Reid Lyon. (That's "rid laI/@n" in phonics-speak.) When Mr. Lyon needs help with politics, he turns to President Bush. (That's "pre/z/I/d@nt bUS.")

They have had a long and fruitful, if little-noticed, relationship. In Texas, Mr. Lyon helped design and sell a Bush plan to revamp how
public-school students are taught to read. As president, Mr. Bush is turning to his phonics mentor to expand the program nationally. Mr. Lyon is "the reading guru," Mr. Bush told a meeting of business leaders in January.

Reading czar may be more accurate. At the White House's request, Mr. Lyon is recruiting allies for top positions at the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. He is working with Republican congressional aides to craft Mr. Bush's reading initiative, priced at $5 billion over five years, so there are ample funds for phonics instruction. He is also setting up a preschool-research program to figure out the best way to add phonics skills to Head Start instruction.

The slightly built, 52-year-old Mr. Lyon doesn't look like a power broker. He avoids wearing suits when he can and stuffs at least two pens into his shirt pocket. He started his career as a third-grade teacher and later, as a research psychologist, focused on how kids learn to read.

For years, educators ignored him and considered phonics hopelessly old fashioned. In the early 1990s, early-grade teachers generally used a "whole language" approach. Teachers would read children's literature in class and help their charges figure out how to read words by their context. The approach was as much philosophy as pedagogy; they theorized that children would learn to read if they fell in love with literature.

"If kids are reading real literature, they are dealing with all systems of language," says University of Arizona professor Ken Goodman, a whole-language theorist. "It's a natural process."

Mr. Lyon was unconvinced. As head of the reading programs at the federal government's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development since 1992, he doled out funds for studies of thousands of children to see what type of instruction worked best. The results of the studies he funded: Children who were taught by
phonics significantly outperformed those taught by whole language. (His institute is a part of the National Institutes of Health in suburban Washington.)

Words are composed of 44 sounds or "phonemes" -- "shh," "kuh," "duh" and the like, Mr. Lyon explains. Children must be taught to match those sounds to letters. Literature is important, he acknowledges, but kids initially learn to read by sounding out strange words. He says the best teachers use rhymes and word play to teach phonics principles.

The battle between the two camps exploded in elementary-school classes around the country and at academic conferences. Whole-language advocates dismissed Mr. Lyon's studies, saying they were often based on children with severe learning disabilities. Those kids might need the extra discipline of phonics instruction, but average kids would find the instruction inadequate.

What really ticked off the whole-language crowd was Mr. Lyon's political skill at pushing phonics research to the top of the nation's reading agenda. "Reid Lyon is a snake charmer," Mr. Goodman says. Hofstra University professor Denny Taylor wrote a book in 1998 attacking Mr. Lyon as a "spin doctor of science."

A few years earlier, Texas's new governor was ready for phonics and reached out for Mr. Lyon. Mr. Bush wanted a way to lift the state's abysmal reading test scores. "No touchy-feely essays or learning by osmosis," Mr. Bush declared. "No holding hands until the karma is right."

Mr. Bush's aides discovered that an NIH-funded researcher was studying Houston school children and concluding that phonics instruction was effective. In 1995, the Texas governor invited Mr. Lyon to Austin to explain his findings. Bush aides picked his brain for ideas they could use in the governor's reading initiative, including early and regular testing, teacher retraining and stiff state standards.

Mr. Bush brought a personal interest to the subject of reading. His brother Neil was diagnosed as dyslexic and struggled to learn to read, and his mother Barbara started a foundation to promote literacy while serving as first lady.

As a self-described "moderate Democrat," who voted for Bill Clinton rather than Mr. Bush's father, Mr. Lyon says he initially was "skeptical" of the younger Bush. He quickly was won over and traveled to Texas at least 10 times during the next four years to promote the Bush plan while in his NIH job.

At meetings of teachers, state lawmakers and parents, Mr. Lyon displayed brain scans, which show how neuron activity increases as children learn to read. He played videotapes of children describing the pain of reading failure. He decried reading woes as a national health problem. "You ought to see his schtick," marvels White House domestic-policy chief Margaret La Montagne, who was a top Bush aide in Texas.

His newfound prominence in Texas brought him attention in Republican circles in Washington. When President Clinton proposed a $2.5 billion program in 1996 to pay volunteers to read to young students, Mr. Lyon told House Education Committee Chairman William Goodling of Pennsylvania that the money would be wasted. "If kids read by being read to, we wouldn't have problems," he says.

House Republicans blocked the Clinton plan and put together a smaller program of state reading grants, the Reading Excellence Act, which became law in 1998. Following Mr. Lyon's advice, the program focuses on phonemic awareness and sets aside for Mr. Lyon's institute three of the 12 seats on a panel that approves grants.

Other states sought him out. He says his institute is involved in efforts to reform reading curricula in half the states. Mr. Lyon's voice is being heard in Washington. Since he first met Mr. Bush in the mid-1990s, the Clinton White House and the Republican-controlled Congress doubled his institute's reading-research budget, to $28 million this year. He plots strategy with four senior Bush advisers from Texas, including Ms. La Montagne, the White House domestic-policy adviser. Ms. La Montagne says she asked Mr. Lyon to help recruit three top Education Department officials, who would oversee the Bush reading plan. As part of his plan, Mr. Bush wants to revamp the curriculum of the federally funded Head Start preschool program, which provides a larger challenge for Mr. Lyon. Nearly all his institute's studies have focused on problems facing readers in the first few grades of school. He concedes he has little data on how best to prepare Head Start kids for reading skills, whether using phonics or other methods. "I have some thoughts, but no validated data," he says he told Mr. Bush. Nevertheless, he is pushing ahead on the Bush agenda. He negotiated with Bush aides to boost his institute's budget for preschool research. It will take at least three years to get useful data from such studies, he says. In the meantime, he urges lawmakers to award grants to states that revise Head Start programs so kids are taught such skills as recognizing letters and connecting them with sounds.

"We've got to use the best evidence available," he says. "It will be, `Do some good and do no harm.' "

Jimmy Kilpatrick, Editor