Education Chat

Chat Transcript: Evidence-Based Research Policy

G. Reid Lyon, a research psychologist and the chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, takes your questions on reading programs, evidenced-based research, and the federal Reading First initiative.

What is your definition of “evidenced-based reading” vs. “scientific-based reading?” How do they differ?

About the Guest:

G. Reid Lyon is a research psychologist and the chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health. He has been an influential proponent of the scientific approach to reading instruction and development.

Moderator (Moderator):
Good afternoon, and welcome to Education Week‘s and’s Live Chat. Joining us is G. Reid Lyon, a research psychologist and the chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Mr. Lyon will take your questions on reading programs, evidenced-based research, and the federal Reading First. I’m Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, an associated editor at Education Week where I’ve been writing about reading policy and practice for the last eight years, and I’ll be moderating this discussion.

For background on this topic, read my most recent article: “Select Group Ushers In Reading Policy.” Let’s go now to your questions.

NOTE: The newest postings appear at the bottom of the page.

Question from David E. Rubin, MD, Medical director of Laboratory, Saint Anthony Community Hospital:
“Whole language” is embraced by some, cursed by many - for whom is it truly appropriate and for whom is it inappropriate? (Is it possible to tell in advance for whom it will work or won’t work?)

Reid Lyon:
Dear Dr. Rubin. Thanks for the question. It is unfortunate that the debates in the reading community surrounding whole language versus phonics has and continues to detract from the critical issue, which is what instructional approaches/strategies/programs are most beneficial for which kids at which phases or reading development. The answer to your question has several elements which I will try to address. As a preface we are trying very hard to help people move away from simplistic dichotomies like phonics versus whole language to ensuring that they fully understand (1) what it takes for kids (and adults) TO LEARN TO READ; (2) WHY SOME KIDS HAVE DIFFICULTIES; and , how can we prevent and remediate reading failure. Do answer these questions, we have to go to the converging scientific evidence. In doing so, this is what the conclusions are at this time.

First, learning to read is an extremely complicated process requiring the development of many skills and abilities. For example, kids need to understand the sounds of their language, how sounds (phonemes) link to the letters and letter patterns in written language (phonics), how to apply these skills accurately and rapidly and read with expression (fluency), how to develop vocabulary and world knowledge so that what is read can be linked to what one knows about content, concepts, and the world, and how to actively deploy reading comprehension strategies to comprehend in an optimal fashion. Thus, for reading to develop, any program or approach must be comprehensive in order to ensure instructional interactions for all of the components. The instruction also must be tailored such that success is achieved and motivation to read continues and is enhanced.

The whole language question gives us an opportunity to examine the scientific evidence related to the philosophy under girding whole language principles. First, you should know that whole language is very hard to define given that different people view it in different ways. To be sure, it is a philosophy of instruction and learning and not a teaching method or program. Given this, many tenets of the philosophy do not seem to be scientifically accurate. For example, whole language espouses the notion that learning to read and spell is just like learning to talk and therefore kids can glean the form and structure of written language through exposure to context meaning-making activities that do not require direct instruction. This idea flows from the notion that learning to read is narural and develops in a similar fashion (as already noted) as listening and speaking. These under girding philosophical notions have not been supported by the scientific evidence. Reading development takes place over a relatively proactive period of time where many of the reading skills noted above have to be very systematically and explicitly taught to make sure the concepts are clear to the kids. One rule of thumb is that the more difficulties kids are having with learning to read, the more systematic and direct the instruction must be. The instruction must also be comprehensive and cover all components. Even if kids are receiving direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension strategies, that does not mean that the reading lessons should be dull, drab, or painful.

To reitreate, I would try to move away from the whole language-phonics dichotomy and ask:

1. What does our converging evidence tell us about what it takes to learn to read.

2. make sure that any reading instructional program or approach addressess all of the critical reading components;

3. Make sure that our teachers have been provided the necessary professional development to be able to assess and target concepts that are unclear for instruction, and

4. Make sure that we continuously assess reading progress across all reading domains to make sure we can rapidly adjust instruction to ensure clarity and understanding on the part of the student. The adjustments make take the form of teaching in a more sequenced and systematic way, providing additional clear examples, making sure that kids are reading text that is within their instructional reading level, ensuring that the material used in instruction is personally and culturally meaningful to the student and so on.


Teachers must also be able to understand which programs are based upon solid evidence-based principles and are effective and which programs are based on beliefs and philosophies that are incorrect and based upon anecdotes and untested assumptions.

Question from Karen Speier, Teacher:
What reading program/strategies do you recommend for secondary school students reading at 3rd grade level?

Reid Lyon:
Karen, you have asked a critical question that is on the minds of many teachers and parents. The first thing to remember if that learning to read at age six or 16 requires that students master all of the fundamental building blocks critical to reading comprehension. The students must be able to access the print off the page in an accurate and rapid way so they do not get bogged down in the print and forget what they have read or become discouraged. We have top make sure that our older students (as well as our younger ones) have developed the necessary vocabulary to make sure they can relate what they have read to what they know. Consider, you and I can read the words in Einstein’s theory of relativity, but we may not understand what the meanings of the words are. In addition, our kids must have developed substantial background knowledge and world knowledge once they try to negotiate content because so much of the information goes beyond just knowing what the words mean. Finally, older students with reading difficulties sometimes get focused on just one aspect of the reading process (e.g., word recognition) and forget that the goal is understanding what they read. Thus they have to be taught comprehension strategies for making sure they learn how to actively organize what they read and relate it to what they know in a systematic fashion.

At the NICHD we are in our second year of research on adolescent literacy and no doubt teaching older kids to read is very complex, particularly since motivation has probably waned given the years of reading failure.

Some instructional programs showing promise for older kids is Jane Fell Greene’s LANGUAGE program which attempts to integrate word level instruction, with higher level language instruction to develop semantic and syntactical abilities, and comprehension activities. I would suggest you consult the Report of The Rand Committee that focused on reading comprehension. Also take a look at Sally Shaywitz"s new book on Dyslexia for excellent suggestions.

Question from Linda Andersen, Teacher, The John Carroll School, Bel Air, MD:
Given that most children are cognitively ready to begin reading sometime between 4-8, I am increasingly concerned with what seems to be a push to initiate reading instruction to begin at an ever-earlier age. What of the “late bloomer”, whose cognitive skills are set by nature and will NOT be rushed, who is ready to read in the last half of Grade 1...or not until Grade 2, or 3? By this point the reading instruction is already advanced as much as two years’ beyond these kids, and they are “left behind”. Wouldn’t it make more sense to go back to a time where children learned about social skills and learned by playing in kindergarten and literacy skills centered around learning the alphabet, and leaving phonics and beyond until at least the first grade? These late bloomers get heavy doses of negative experience early and I wonder if this is where we are losing many of our readers, many never to be recovered.

Reid Lyon:
Linda: What we know know about kids in preschool and kindergarten is that they can learn a number of reading readiness skills if they are taught within the context of a warm, nurturing enviornment that supports emotional health and the development of social competencies. We also know that waiting to teach kids to read until the end of the first grade or second grade does not work. We have not been able to support the idea of a “developmental Lag” and actually find that the longer we delay formal reading instruction, the less like it is that the kids will catch up.

You might want to contact Susan Landrey at the University of Texas-Houston to obtain additional info on this topic.

Comment from Ken Goodman Secretary Reading Hall of Fame:
I deeply resent your characterizing the view of Reid Lyon as “THE scientific approach to reading instruction and Development” You owe your subsribers a counter view. Ken Goodman

Question from Bill Clarke, Literacy Coach, Blackstone Charter School:
How do we transfer the enthusiasm/focus that exists for ES reading programs to MS and HS? Do we start with teacher-training programs or school reform for emphasis on content area literacy? Thanks.

Reid Lyon:
Bill. Developing reading capabilities in middle and high school will require the same teacher knowledge and skill that is critical to kids in elementary school In the future, we have to be able to mkae sure that ALL teachers are READING TEACHERS. They will need to understand that the learning of content is critically related to reading words accurately and fluently, having the necessary vocabulary to comprehend, and having the necessary critical thinking skills to understand content information at higher levels of complexity. Teacher preparation and continuing professional development is essential. All teachers must be prepared to close gaps in vocabulary and critical thinking skills at all levels.

Question from Matthew Brown, Program Consultant, ESS:
How can a smaller company with a limited budget and resources have their programs validated as being research based?

Reid Lyon:
Matthew, both the NIH and the U.S. Department of education support Small Business Innovative Research Grants (SBIR) that allow small businesses to develop and field test both assessment and instructional programs. Since the proposal for the research from you has to go through rigorous peer review to ensure scientific integrity, the program that is developed meets many of the essential criteria for an evidence-based program. You can find this information on the NIH or Educations web sites.

Question from Robin Suter, Educator, Alpharetta, GA:
2 Part Question: What is your definition of “evidenced-based reading” vs. “scientific-based reading?” How do they differ?

Reid Lyon:
Great question Robin given that these terms are frequently confused. First, let me direct you to a couple of very good resources that explain these issues in clear detail. First, a very user-friendly document by Stanovich and Stanovich on research in education and what constitutes trustworthy evidence can be obtained from the national Institute for Literacy. Second, take a look at the National research Council’s recent report on educational research. Also Vinita Chhabra and I recently published an article in Educational Leadership that will take you through the definitions of the terms and so on.

The thing you have to remember, many programs are said to be research-based when they are not. In order for research to have scientific integrity, the study must use the appropriate research designs and methods to address the question at hand. For example, you can’t figure out which programs are effective with which kids unless you employ experimental designs and randomized controlled trials are best for that. At the same time, if you are asking questions about the classroom climate, teacher characteristics, what kids do out of school in their spare time, then descriptive, qualitative designs and methods are more appropriate.

The Department of Education has recently instituted the WHAT WORKS CLEARING HOUSE that explains the terms well and also can give you a good idea about which programs are effective and for whom. Realize that the WW clearing house has just come on line and evaluations of more programs are on the way.

Question from Penny Noyce, Trustee, Noyce Foundation:
What is different about the brains or language-processing mechanisms of those children who learn to read fluently without explicit phonics instruction? What should early reading instruction emphasize for them?

Reid Lyon:
Our studies addressing the neurobiological correlates of both skilled and unskilled reading are providing a great deal of convergin evidence. The data tell us that specific regions of the brain are activated or engaged in order to perform different types of reading behaviors. Thus, skilled reading is supported by a network of brain regions each of which is not sufficient to learn to reading. Children who learn to read with out explicit phonics instruction most like came to school with a substantial amount of language and literacy interactions from birth to school entry. As we observe many parents interact with their kids using oral language and literacy activities (bed time reading, lap reading, etc.) we see that many skills are being taught, albeit in a warm, nurturing way. Moms and dads point out letter names and letter sounds when reading to their children. They typically engage in vocabulary development, they continually ask the kids to interact around the reading process and engage in dialogic activities, not just listen to the story being read. They play with language through nursery rhymes and the like. All of the activities help to develop the same neural systems that are required of all readers. With this type of background, the systems are ready to go by school entry. But, that DID NOT happen in a natural way. Parents are very good teachers.

Question from Annie. Blais, teacher, Boston, MA:
How is the research into adolescent reading coming along at NICHD?

Reid Lyon:
Annie - we are coming into our second year within a five-year long study protocol. Contact Dr. Peggy McCarde at NICHD who directs our research programs in that area for additional info.

Question from Courtney Zmach, Doctoral Fellow, University of Florida:
Retention in grade is a commonly used reading intervention. In what ways do you see retention as an appropriate intervention? Please explain the scientific-evidence supporting this intervention. Thank you.

Reid Lyon:
Hi Courtney: Retention is hard to study experimentally because this is not a condition you can do randomized trials with - NOR WOULD YOU WANT TO!!!. What the literature suggests that retention, like an instructional context or program, that has not been successful with a student will not become more successful by just trying the same thing again. Kids usually do not succeed because they have not received the necessary type of instruction given their skill levels. It is not because they are experiencing a developmental lag. Take a look at the Shaywitz Longitudinal studies on reading development published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. These data will give you good background on the developmental lag issue.

Question from Gail Paquette, Staff Writer, Challenger School:
Recent findings published by the NICHD indicate that “reading readiness” is not developmental or natural, but is learned. Given that, it’s been shown that kindergarten children can learn to read best via direct, systematic phonics instruction. My question is whether recent brain research would support teaching preschoolers (3’s and 4’s) systematic phonics without any ill effects long-term. Do you think the NAEYC turns a deaf ear to modern brain research by maintaining their “developmentally appropriate practices” for preschoolers, which fall far short of teaching reading? What do you think is appropriate for teaching preschoolers to read? Thank you.

Reid Lyon:
Gail: Our NICHD research as well as a great deal of other research converges on these findings:

1. Preschool children can learn a number of school and reading readiness skills such as the names for letters, numbers, that reading a book requires left to right top to bottom attention, that words gave smaller sound parts, and that words have many meanings. I do not know of any preschool programs that concentrate on teaching systematic phonics. What the programs under study seem to show is that preschool children can learn all of the basic readiness capabilities when integrated with interactions that develop social and emotional health and provide the instruction in a nurturing environment. The children are taught in a very intentional and systematic way, but that takes place in settings that are fun and nurturing. Keep in mind that the systematic instruction of sound concepts, vocabulary concepts, and print awareness concepts are critical for those children from impoverished environments that have had little exposure to books and wide language use.

Question from Jerry Zimmermann, Adjunct Associate Profession, University of Iowa: Several states are demanding 70-90% decodable text in scientifically-based reading programs for grades k and 1. I have been searching the literature for scientific support for this requirement. What is the reseaerch support for this “requirement?”

Reid Lyon:
Jerry, to my knowledge, there have not yet been rigorous studies that meet essential criteria that can support use of decodable text to enhance reading fluency and reading comprehension. What is known is that a great deal of practice on material that is within a studen’s instructional reading level is critical to fluency development which, in turn is critical for comprehension (as is vocabulary). A rule of thumb is that for a student to comprehend what is read, they have to be able to read at least 95% of the words correctly in the text with at least 90% vocabulary proficiency (see Hirsch, 2003 - American Educator). In theory, decodable text allows a student to have great access to the content thus allowing for greater practice. This has intuitive appeal and some progams employ decodable text in their content. However, very well designed studies that unpack the specific influence of DC on downstream reading behavior must be done.

Question from doralee brooks, professor, community college of allegheny county, pittsburgh pa:
Mr. Lyon, we have been inundated with arguments for and against the whole language approach in opposition to the phonics approach.

It is clear to most educators that this should not be an either or proposition. We need to employ both approaches. What does the research say about this if anything?

Reid Lyon:
The research indicates that characterizing reading instruction according to phonics or whole language approaches is nonsense and a waste of time. Most teachers clearly understand that not all instructional programs or approaches are equally beneficial for all kids. What is clear is that reading development DOES require that the student learn the sound structure of the language (phonemic awareness), the alphabetic principle (phonics), the ability to deploy these word level skills accurately and fluently, a robust vocabulary, and an ability to deploy reading comprehension strategies when reading.

The philosophical debates are nonsense because they take time away from teaching kids. We know that learning to read IS NOT A NATURAL PROCESS. We know that many kids at risk for reading failure require very specific, systematic, and well sequenced instruction across all reading areas in order to make the concepts clear. We know that the use of context to predict the pronunciation of unknown words is not an effective strategy. We know that while word level reading skills are critical, they are not sufficient for proficient reading to develop - the kids also have to learn vocabulary and how to deploy vocabulary and world knowledge to understand the content.

The questions we should be asking are:

1. Is the instructional program comprehensive 2. Does it have evidence of effectiveness 3. Has the teacher been provided the necessary professional development to assess, reteach, and assess the students reading skills on a frequent basis.

4. Is the teacher able to serve as an informed consumer in understanding the difference between research that can be trusted and that which cannot.

Question from KC Rafferty, parent:
My oldest son just started the first grade this fall, and he is having some difficulties. What should I be looking for in his classroom? What should I be expecting from his teachers? How can I make sure he is getting the best instruction available?

Reid Lyon:
Hi KC:

I would make sure that you talk with his teacher about his reading readiness skills. Your son should be able to rhyme words by this age, should be able to segment words into smaller parts - syllables and such. He should be able to understand the material in the book when read aloud to him. He should now understand that the print represents our language and more specifically the sounds of our language. While some folks would tell you to wait - that he is just developmentally not ready to read - I don’t think that is a productive piece of advice. Take a look at Sally Shayitz"s new book titled Overcoming Dyslexia. Even if your son does not have dyslexia, she answers your question very well.

Question from Paul Dunlop, Arlington County Schools:
We hear a lot about needing to use research, but it is clear that all research is not created equal. How can teachers tell good research from not so good research?

Reid Lyon:
Paul: A very good resource to help with this is by Stanovich and Stanovich and available from the National Institute of Literacy. It is available on their web. You can also take a look at an article by Vinita Chhabra and I published in educational Leadership this year. That should help answer your questions.

Question from Esteban Guzman, parent, Washington, DC:
What will happen to the direction of education research if next Tuesday’s vote brings a new President or a significant change on Capitol Hill?

Reid Lyon:
I doubt that much change will occur. The NCLB was a strong bi-partisan initiative and supported by both presidential candidates. While funding is at historical levels, more funding could hopefully be provided.

Reid Lyon:
I doubt that much change will occur. The NCLB was a strong bi-partisan initiative and supported by both presidential candidates. While funding is at historical levels, more funding could hopefully be provided.

Question from Danielle Pazos, Literacy Mentor, CAPIC Head Start:
Many schools are using Open Court as their reading program, funded by Early Reading First. I’m concerned that this program is too phonics based, and only skims fostering long term language/literacy goals. Any feed back? Is the program supposed to look skill and drill or am I missing some component of it? thanks!

Reid Lyon:
Hi Danieele: If any program is too much this or too much that, the teacher must be able to identify where the gaps are and fill them with the appropriate interactions and materials. If you have a chance, contact Alice Furry in Sacramento at the Sacramento USD and have her direct you to teachers now using the program.

Moderator (Moderator):

That concludes our chat today with G. Reid Lyon. Thank you all for your very thoughtful and provocative questions. Thank you to Mr. Lyon. A transcript will be posted soon on

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