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President Visits NIH To Discuss Reading

By Rich McManus

Photos by Ernie Branson

On the Front Page...

President George W. Bush paid his second call on NIH in 15 months on May 12 when he visited Natcher auditorium to emcee a five-person "Conversation on Reading" that touted his No Child Left Behind legislation and its "Reading First" initiative. The 40-minute session featured the contributions of NICHD's Dr. G. Reid Lyon, an authority on the science underlying the complex task of reading whose findings undergird the President's approach to a national literacy problem.


Bush, a booming speaker with a light and convivial touch in such an informal setting, recounted his relationship with Lyon, whom he affectionately called "Reid-o." "I've known Reid for a long time," Bush began. He had been worried, back in 1996 as governor of Texas, about how public schools were failing in their mission to teach children how to read. He learned about Lyon's work in a field NIH has funded since the mid-1960's and told his staff, "Get him down here. We've had a great relationship ever since.

President Bush touts his reading program.

"Reading is more of a science than people think," said the President. "We've got a problem in America. Not every child can read at grade level." He called the successful teaching of reading a "national obligation," and called reading "the new civil right...You don't have a chance to succeed in the 21st century if you can't read."

Bush repeatedly interrupted his serial discussions with five experts in reading to acknowledge members of the audience, including Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Mike Steele; NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni ("Elias, I'm proud of the job you're doing. You've got a tough job — and I picked a good man to do it, and I really appreciate you being here," he commented); and Rod Paige, secretary of the Department of Education, which sponsored the event. He also paused to greet Rep. Ralph Regula (R-OH), chair of the House appropriations subcommittee in charge of the NIH budget, and to congratulate NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci on a job well done.

Bush wants to see every child in America reading at grade level by third grade, adding, "I don't think that's too high a goal. I think it's the role of the federal government to help school districts implement reading strategies that work." He said it was appalling that some U.S. high school seniors are not able to read.

Bush credited Lyon's investigations into "phonemic awareness and phonics" as the basis of recent improvements in national test scores in reading. "I believe it has a lot to do with what Reid has shown us," he said.

Dr. G. Reid Lyon

Lyon, who is chief of NICHD's Child Development and Behavior Branch, said that NIH has been "devoted to studies of reading since 1965" but that many impoverished students still suffer a major literacy deficit that he called a "national disgrace." Non-readers typically spiral into low self-esteem and bleak futures, he explained. "We had to figure out what it was that kept those kids behind. We had to figure out how to prevent reading failure from ever happening to begin with," he said.

"Reading is complex," Lyon explained. "It requires great physiology and good genetics, but most of all, it requires teachers and adults to interact with kids to give them the foundations to be able to pull print off a page." He said that the teaching of phonics — the matching of elemental speech units called phonemes to the letters of the alphabet that represent them — is crucial, adding, "While that might not be in vogue, it is absolutely critical and non-negotiable." Interjected Bush, "It's in vogue at the White House, I'll tell you that."

Lyon recalled meeting Bush in Texas in 1996, when the governor asked him to address the challenges presented by a population of youngsters whose first language was Spanish but who needed to learn to speak and write — and read — English. "Right now, we have the largest research program in the world that is understanding how children whose first language is Spanish learn to listen, speak, read and write in English, and [NICHD's] Dr. Peggy McCardle directs that," Lyon said. Shortly after he was inaugurated as President, Bush asked Lyon to do whatever he needed to do, including gain the cooperation of previously uncooperative agencies, to improve the teaching of reading. The four other panelists, ranging from a professor at the University of Kansas to a first-grade teacher from Alabama, testified to the success of Lyon's approach.

NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni (l) converses with Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich at the Natcher auditorium after the President's talk.

Bush repeatedly emphasized that science, not guesswork, forms the basis of his approach to literacy. Noting that literacy coaches are a feature of his administration's approach to reading, he recalled that he had been more familiar with football coaches when he grew up as a kid in Midland, Tex. But he maintained, "Reading is more important than athletics."

As the conversation wound down, Bush concluded, "We're getting it right [in reading instruction] because smart people have told policymakers what works."

Bush emcees the panel, which includes Lyon (l) and Alabama kindergarten teacher Cynthia Henderson.

Bush then left the Natcher stage and worked his way across the front aisle of the auditorium, greeting officials and guests that included a number of local schoolchildren. Then, just as he had done in February 2003 when he visited Natcher to announce Project BioShield, he exited NIH by motorcade and caught his helicopter on the grounds of the National Naval Medical Center, across Rockville Pike.

Lyon and Bush engage in conversation (above)
and shake hands at the end of the event (below).

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