Right to Read – Hooked on Phonics

“Teachers are great neurosurgeons!”

That is what a national education expert told 150 Oklahoma teachers and parents in Oklahoma City recently, referring to the need to “rewire the brain” to use phonics and sensory stimulation to teach reading.

Dr. G. Reid Lyon, a distinguished professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, was guest lecturer at the Payne Education Center’s annual Right To Read spring training event Tuesday (April 12).

For 27 years, the Center’s mission has been to train teachers to prevent reading difficulties in children and to remediate dyslexia. The Center serves as a resource and referral center. The Center invited Lyon to discuss how children learn to read and why some children have difficulties.

Center Executive Director Dr. Carrie Brown said, “What Payne Education Center is doing is trying to give teachers very well-proven, successful tools of teaching reading using multisensory alphabetic phonics.” She said the tool is a multidimensional approach to learning, with lessons using senses including touch and sound.

The method is supported by Dr. Lyon’s research. “Development of phonics skills is just one way children learn to read,” he said in his presentation. 
Payne Education Center Special Projects Coordinator Mari Spencer said of Dr. Lyon, “He is a specialist in education leadership and especially reading and reading with children and children’s reading problems and the brain functions going on.” She said Lyon’s mission and that of the Center mirror one another. “He is trying to, as a life-time mission, reform education to fix these reading problems of kids across the country,” she said.

Lyon served as an advisor to former President George W. Bush, and is ranked among the 10 most influential people in American education during the past decade. He also served as a research psychologist and chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch within the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development for 13 years.

Barbara Garrett of Destiny Christian School in Del City attended the event. “We came because we tutor “whiz kids” after school. So, we do a training program and we get our children in second grade and we keep them through fifth grade.” She said, “We want to make a difference. What we heard today is, what we’re doing is right.”

Norman Public School Literacy Resource Specialist Cynthia Howard said Norman has just implemented a process called “Literacy First”. “A lot of what he (Lyon) talked about are things that we are working through right now implementing the assessments and how the assessments drive our instruction,” she said.

Howard called “amazing” Dr. Lyon’s reference to teachers as neurosurgeons. “Really, yes, I can see that happening. Seeing diagrams of the brain and how we affect it.”

Two measures still alive in the current session of the Oklahoma Legislature concern keeping third graders from advancing to fourth grade if they do not pass reading tests at appropriate levels. 

Payne Education Center’s Dr. Brown said Dr. Lyon addresses the issue of retention versus so-called social promotion. “I think Dr. Lyon has made a very good statement on that to the effect that if you’re going to do the same thing that had not worked effectively at that point in time … retaining the child might have some benefit if you’re going to do something differently.

“If it’s going to be a repeat of what has already failed to teach a child to read, then I think it’s not fair to the child and I think it’s something that needs to be evaluated,” she said.

Brown said alternative education officials, and the Payne Center in particular, are following House Bill 1550 and Senate Bill 346, but do not have an official opinion on the pending legislation.

Before the Right to Read event Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Lyon met with “stakeholders” interested in Oklahoma’s education system. Those included State Chamber representatives, business leaders, school superintendents and State Superintendent Dr. Janet Barresi. 

“I think the state superintendent is extraordinarily competent,” Lyon said. “She has the pulse of what has to be done and she knows how difficult that is.”

Lyon said there was uniform agreement that the meeting had to be a genuine, collaborative discussion with action across all of the stakeholders. “There was a clear understanding that we’re not doing the job we need to be doing,” he said.

“Whether people take back and continue and be persistent in making sure we use what we know … that’s going to be the hard thing,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t do it.”
For more information on the Payne Education Center: www.payneeducationcenter.org