An Interview of
Robert Sweet – Phonics and the Evolution of Reading Policy
Robert Sweet was a professional staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives. From his work as Director for the National Institute of Education, under the Regan administration, to his role in crafting language for "No Child Left Behind", Mr. Sweet has played an important role in how reading is thought about and taught in the United States. Parallel to his government work, Mr. Sweet co-founded the National Right to Read Foundation. He has been and remains one of the nation's most powerful champions of phonics centered reading reform.
We found Mr. Sweet to be one of the most sincere and dedicated servants of children we have encountered. His story is an important one in understanding the field of reading today.
The following transcript has not been edited for journal or magazine publication (see 'Interview Notes' for more details). Bold is used to emphasize our [Children of the Code] sense of the importance of what is being said and does not necessarily reflect gestures or tones of emphasis that occurred during the interview.
David Boulton: Thank you for all you have been doing for children.
Robert Sweet: Well, thank you. It’s kind of nice every once in a while to have somebody appreciate what’s done.
David Boulton: Early on in my inquiry I ran across your “malpractice” piece. It was really seminal to the development of a number of questions, had some good chunks of data, and informed parts of the theory that was forming within in me.
Robert Sweet: That’s wonderful.
David Boulton: To begin with, I am interested in your personal background story with an emphasis on your own learning journey — how you learned your way into understanding your core distinctions, and how that connects to what’s driving you.
Robert Sweet: When I came to Washington and to the Reagan administration back in 1981, within nine months I was appointed as Director for the National Institute for Education. At that time it was about a $53 million agency and we had responsibility for setting the agenda for education research in the nation. It was something actually established by Richard Nixon, back in 1971 or 1972. By the time I got there, it really was not doing what would be called today randomized studies or research, and to be honest with you, at that time I don’t think I fully appreciated the necessity of that approach.
I met a gentleman shortly after I came, in fact I think the second day I came to Washington, his name was Mike Brunner, and he had been director for Title I. I called him to see what issues might be researched, and he began to send me material. In fact, I called them “Brunner Bundles” because he would send me major packets of material that had come from an organization that had been around for many years called the Reading Reform Foundation. It was primarily established after Rudolph Flesh wrote his book in 1955, “Why Johnny Can’t Read”. I believe it was in the early 1960’s that the Reading Reform Foundation was started and Mike was a part of that. He had become a student of reading instruction and understood “the code” as he called it, and so that was my initial introduction to the issue.
To be honest with you, I really hadn’t thought much about it or even realized that it was such a contentious issue at that time. My kids had learned to read and I had learned to read, and I guess I knew there were problems with illiteracy, although I didn’t really think it was something of national importance. The statistics back then were that twenty-three million Americans couldn’t read and that was the case for a long time, until, of course the numbers continued to grow.
That really was the foundation of my understanding. I was able to hire Mike, actually, as part of my staff at the Institute. In my naivete in the moment at that time, I thought we should be able to gather the information and the data available and put that together and determine what is the best way to teach an individual to read. I thought if we could publicize that nationally, since we had the authority of the Federal Government behind us, then we ought to be able to resolve this. Needless to say, that turned out not to be the case, but I did initiate, with Mike’s help, the study which became “Becoming a Nation of Readers” and that was published when Bill Bennett was Secretary of Education in 1985. It was during that period of time that I began to read more and study more and understand more of the reasons for why there was a problem. It was primarily because the teaching practices were just not consistent with, at that time, just plain common sense, and studies that had been done earlier than that.
As I continued on through my tenure in the Federal Government, the issue of reading instruction became a major focus of my interest, and I just felt called to continue to pursue it with the hope that somehow the tide could be turned and that we would encourage teachers to become educated about how reading instruction should be carried out and that ultimately we would resolve the illiteracy problem. But then, of course, I became painfully aware of the lack of instruction at the teachers college level and the fact that they were actually teaching a philosophy of reading instruction that was really contrary, 180 degrees, from what research indicated was the best way to teach reading.
I was with the Reagan Administration for seven and a half years, and then at the end of that I went to the Justice Department and became an Administrator for Juvenile Justice. Again I brought Mike Brunner back because if ever there was a population that needed the attention, or teachers who could really teach them to read, it was the population who had become involved with detention centers and youth boot camps and young people who were in the custody of the State for a period of time. I brought him back again and commissioned him to do a report which ultimately became “Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential” which was published by the Justice Department. Once again, we thought that would have a certain degree of credibility and clout because the U.S. Justice Department endorsed it and published it. I think it has had an impact, but, once again, it’s an incremental battle that we’ve been engaged in.
Prior to my going to the Justice Department is when I wrote “Illiteracy: An Incurable Disease or Education Malpractice?”. When I was at the Study Committee with Senator Bill Armstrong from Colorado, I wrote that paper and it actually became the most popular papers they had ever done up to that point. In the beginning of the 1990’s, when I was at the Justice Department, I got Mike to do the study which resulted in the publication of that book, “Retarding America: The Imprisonment of Potential”. It was at that time that Marilyn Adams did her study, “Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print”. Mike and I had been working with Senator Zorinsky from Nebraska prior to that to lay the foundation for the initiation of that study. I left the Education Department and went to the White House for about five years, where I worked to lay the basis for that study that came out in 1993, which, of course, has had a very powerful impact.
It was after President Bush, (Herbert Walker Bush), left office, that I established with another Bush Administration colleague, Jim Jacobson, the National Right to Read Foundation (NRRF). Again, we had hopes of educating the public to the need for what at that point was research or evidence based instruction in reading. That was another part of the education process for me in that I was able to talk with literally thousands of parents who called in to our help line over the five year period that I was working at NRRF. I heard first-hand from parents whose children were normal children, bright kids, but who had missed out on learning to read. Really the bottom line is they never learned the decoding process which is foundational, as you know, to going on to become good readers. I think it was during that period of time that I met Reid Lyon from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and became aware of the work that had been done by the NICHD over the previous twenty years or so, going back into the 1960’s with a lot of work being done at the Haskins Laboratories at Yale University.
I had the opportunity to travel around the country during my time with the National Right to Read Foundation (NRRF) and testify before a number of legislatures, one of which was in Texas. In fact, I met a fellow there, Jimmy Kilpatrick, who invited me to speak before the State Board on Education on the reading issue. I think Marilyn Adams was at that meeting at the Capitol in Austin where we met with some of the leadership on the State Board and some of the leading State Department of Education educators down there, and encouraged them to pursue evidence based reading instruction. Then Reid Lyon, of course, became one of the main people who informed President Bush about what to do about the reading problem in Texas.
At the end of my tenure with NRRF, in 1997, I joined the Committee on Education in the Workforce and about two weeks after I got there we had the opportunity to write legislation which became the Reading Excellence Act. That was really where we defined scientifically based research for the first time and was sort of the initial beginnings of what the Federal Government now does through Reading First and Early Reading First in providing funds for evidence based instruction. It was during that period of time, 1998, when “Preventing Reading Failure in Young Children” was published, the Snow Report; and then, in 2000, The National Reading Panel Report, that was requested by Congress was released. During my tenure on the committee I had a number of opportunities to deal with the legislative end of things in the Federal Government and really get the ball rolling on doing scientifically based research in reading as well as in other areas.
When President Bush was elected, one of the first things that was on the agenda was his initiative in reading, which, of course, was right down my alley. I had the privilege of spending the year of 2001 writing a portion of the No Child Left Behind bill which is now Reading First, and incorporating into that legislation the actual findings of research that had been validated over and over and over by many studies and confirmed by people like Keith Stanovich and Marilyn Adams, Sally Shaywitz and all the NICHD researchers, and lots of others such as Barbara Foorman, and others down at Wake Forest University whose names escape me at the moment. There was kind of a convergence, a consensus of an understanding of how reading instruction should be carried out and, so by putting that in federal legislation and having a billion dollars a year to back it up, we at least had a fighting chance. I’d say we currently do have a fighting chance to help reverse the century long decline in reading instruction.
That’s kind of the long-winded story of how I got to be where I am. All through this period I have continued to be interested in reading what good researchers have studied and found out and then trying to apply that through the legislative initiatives that I’ve had the privilege of working on.
Juvenile Justice, Special Education and Reading Difficulty:
David Boulton: That’s quite a story. Thank you. Going back to the beginning of that, it sounds like when you first brought Mike Brunner in at the National Institute for Education that you discovered this pattern that so many of the troubled areas in education had their roots in reading?
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: And then Mike was able to bring together the correlations in a way that was compelling.
Robert Sweet: Yes, he did, and he backed it up with documentation. I used to teach physics when I was a high school teacher back in the 1960’s. My background was in science, and I think that may have contributed to the fact that I was looking for evidence. I really didn’t have, as they say, a dog in that fight. If someone could have demonstrated or proven that learning to read was a natural process like learning to speak and that really, you could just surround people with books and that they’d automatically pick it up. It would have been fine with me if that could have been demonstrated in research, but it was not. So Mike really provided me with a lot of good articles from many well respected researchers that validated the approach to reading instruction that we now know works.
David Boulton: And then again, at the Justice Department you saw a strong correlation between juvenile offenders and reading problems?
Robert Sweet: Yes. Seventy-five to eighty percent of the juveniles were unable to read (at least the statistics that Mike found out). When you can’t read, then you can’t do your schoolwork and you can’t get a good job, and you end up on the street getting in trouble. That goes for welfare recipients and it goes for really, the school drop-out population. Not learning to read has such profound effects on the younger population.
Even now with Special Education, according to the studies and statistics, I think it’s something like two to three million young people are placed in Special Education simply because they haven’t learned to read, not because they have any other physiological problems or emotional problems. It’s strictly because they haven’t learned to read. They get placed in Special Ed, and the statistics show that only two to three percent of the kids that get placed in Special Ed ever go on to higher education. So basically, you have a smart, intelligent individual who is locked out of the American Dream simply because they didn’t have the appropriate instruction in learning to read.
As I say, maybe because of my science background, it’s so logical, and it’s so easy to remedy this, this problem we have in America, and it doesn’t have to be expensive. We’ve reached a point now where we are using the tools of research, which we have to back up the claims that teachers thirty, forty, fifty years ago knew intuitively. They knew because they practiced that kind of instruction in the classroom, and it worked, and their kids learned to read and there wasn’t even a question about it.
I’ve read so many stories of Master Teachers, Hazel Loring comes to mind, she wrote a little book called “Blend Phonics”. Hazel was up in Minnesota or Wisconsin and she has a little booklet that I think is probably forty-five to fifty pages long, a little folded paperback, not even a book, it’s just a pamphlet, and included in that are really all of the information that one needs to teach a person to read. She was successful in teaching the students in her class to read over many, many years and she put it in a little booklet and shared that with people, and said that they could reprint it for free, as long as they would apply it. [Hazel Loring book available for free download] So, in other words, it doesn’t have to be an expensive proposition. It’s really the will to do it and becoming acquainted with the skills that are essential for the foundation, for training children to read.
Reading is Unnatural:
Robert Sweet: We pay tax money to hire people to teach children. We have volumes of research now available to us, and really distilled down to very simple, straightforward elements of what needs to be done to teach a person to read which are now clearly defined in terms of instructional practices. There are instructional materials for a teacher to use to accomplish that. To refuse to do it, in my view is truly malpractice. I mean, it’s inexcusable.
David Boulton: I must say that from my perspective, I want to spend a lot more time on understanding the challenge than on advocating the solution. My sense is that the more that we show the radically unnatural, convoluted process through which this technology comes to us, the more that we can recognize that the unique kinds of processing challenges associated with processing this code have nothing whatsoever to do with our nature. Our nature’s just not wired up for it…
Robert Sweet: The thing that really persuaded me is that this is an invention.
David Boulton: Yes.
Robert Sweet: We weren’t born with an alphabet in our brain. The alphabet is an invention. Man, humanity, invented the alphabet, or the sound symbol system, and when you invent something it isn’t natural. It’s unnatural, as you say.
David Boulton: Absolutely. And for the first 2,000 years of it, and for the way that it’s used in a lot of languages, it remained reasonably phonetic.
Robert Sweet: Exactly.
David Boulton: And for reasons having to do with King Henry V needing to finance his French campaigns from people with money back in England, a group of Latin scribes and French scribes got together. These scribes had no allegiance to the English spoken language, which was the peasant’s language, and learned how to transcribe its sounds with the Roman alphabet and did it without a great concern for how this code would be processed in future generations. We’re talking about a technological device, a system not unlike any other kind of technology, that the human brain has only been using for about twenty generations. The story of how the code comes to us is a very exciting story.
Robert Sweet: Yes it is.
David Boulton: The more that people understand where this thing came from, how convoluted it is, why it got convoluted, and therefore what kind of a challenge that we’re talking about, the more that they can make a distinction between that and the kind of natural processes the human brain is equipped well to do, the better. That’s certainly part of the center of what we’re trying to get across.
Robert Sweet: I commend you for that and one of the difficulties that some of us have had, and I’ll speak for myself over the past twenty years since I’ve been involved in this, is that many in the research community who have done wonderful work and whose names I saw on your list, have been somewhat handicapped because they were, in their effort to convince their colleagues that they really had found an answer to how to teach a person to read, they felt like they couldn’t use the term phonics. They couldn’t really talk about decoding, they couldn’t be more specific because it would turn off their colleagues and the teachers. I think they, to some degree, have tried to address this issue without getting to the core of it.
Basically what you’re doing is getting to the core of it. My e-mail is phonicsman and people often think that I’m too radical, too far out because I want to talk about decoding skills. I think that you need to measure whether a person can read in terms of their decoding ability, and that speaks directly to the fact that it’s a code that is learned and once you’ve mastered that then you have at your disposal the ability to unlock any word in the English language. It’s from that point that you learn the vocabulary and have the understanding to comprehend what you’re reading. Maybe your contribution to this will be to in effect, break this, not unwillingness, but reticence, I would say, on the part of some who I have great respect for that believe that in order to persuade their colleagues in the education field that they have to sort of tiptoe around that.
We Are Children of the Code:
David Boulton: That’s why we call this Children of the Code, in that, we’re talking about the average American is a product of this code.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: How we abstract, how we generalize, how the infrastructure of our consciousness, of our thought develops is dependent on this code. Human beings are wired for an organic, natural learning that’s based on real-time feedback from real-time events that are coherent to it. There’s just no internal structure for learning this code. It requires an externally structured learning environment that will help us develop the reflexes needed to process it. The kinds of confusions that are in this code are kinds of confusions that no living organism has ever dealt with before.
Robert Sweet: Right.
Phonics is a Code Patch:
David Boulton: The more that we understand that, I think, the greater the opportunity to do something about it. I also have to say that with respect to phonics, there’s no question it’s the tried and true approach, and it gets its license from the fact that, yes, this is a code, and we’ve got to teach the code.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: On the other hand, phonics is like a code patch. In software language, you might say, okay we have this underlying code and something’s not right about it so we had to develop this other code to run on top of it, to interpret it with.
Robert Sweet: Um, hm.
David Boulton: You follow?
Robert Sweet: Yes. In other words, in using that term I could see that it could be a patch or it could be a…
David Boulton: It’s a subsequent adaptation for dealing with the underlying confusion that’s in the code.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: It’s analogous to Microsoft having an operating system in which ninety million users are struggling and they’re losing their best customers who are being psychologically and intellectually damaged and harmed by it. It’s costing all this money and in the analogy Microsoft is saying there’s nothing wrong with the operating system, we’ve got to train the user. As if the problem is all in the minds of the users.
Robert Sweet: Right, I agree with you. I think on both sides of this discussion or debate it’s been difficult to know what kind of terminology to use that people will understand and grasp and relate to, and Children of the Code may do it.
David Boulton: Yes, well, that’s just the title for this whole rubric but I understand what you’re saying. What I’m trying to say is that we have some fundamental misperceptions about what reading is.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: Reading is a virtual reality experience that’s functions according to the instructions and information contained in a code.
Robert Sweet: Um, hm.
David Boulton: And we need to understand the code. We need to understand how the brain can learn to process it in order to generate this virtual reality experience with sufficient efficiency, with enough resources left, to go ahead and comprehend and use what’s being read.
Robert Sweet: Now let me ask you this, because I’d be interested on your thoughts based on all of your study and research here. Take it the next step now, what is the practical application of that in the classroom? In other words, where do we go? Let’s assume that in your presentation that you are persuasive and that people grasp what you’ve described to me. What then is the next step?
David Boulton: I think that one of the things that causes so much of the difficulty is that teachers are forced to relate to the children through a model they don’t understand themselves. For example, one of the things that we’ve experimented with and that we will bring out in the series, is that the hesitations, starts, stops, what we call ‘stutters’ of the mind – the processing stutters we hear in the articulation of a reader who is struggling — have a direct correspondence to the letter sound confusions in the code that they’re struggling with. The longer it takes to work that out, the more their attention is consumed doing it, the more prone they are to drop out of having a smooth flow in their articulation and comprehension.
Tour of Phonics Programs:
Robert Sweet: I don’t want to get off your stride here, but I would say that there are products. There are instructional products available that have been available for decades that help to minimize that confusion if appropriately applied to children when they’re early on in the learning process, and that those techniques that are involved in teaching the code through these products are working as we speak.
David Boulton: Yes.
Robert Sweet: All through this period of time when I have become aware that this is a need I’ve visited classrooms. I’ve visited up in New Jersey for example with Sue Dickson, who is the author of “Sing, Spell, Read, and Write”. I went to her classroom and watched her teach children using song, and using a variety of interesting ways of getting the kids engaged in this process and she overcame that problem of the difficulty of learning the code. The kids mastered it and they became excellent readers. Her program is available on the market today.
There’s a lady in California, Delores Hiskes, who published a little book called “Phonics Pathways” and she basically does the same thing, and her book sells for $29. Saxon publishers has a program where they’ve approached this in a little more sophisticated way, but they have a program which really overcomes the difficulties that are involved in the complexity of the code, and there are a number of others as well, for example, the Spalding program has been around for decades.
“The Writing Road to Reading” is another approach and a lot of the work that Louisa Moats is doing in her program in training teachers, she has a very good approach as well. They all go back to the same foundational principles. My good and dear friend Pat Groff, who has given his life practically, for advancing the cause of good scientifically based reading instruction, understands probably the teaching of the code better than anybody I know. In other words, I guess what I’m getting at is that there are specific applications, perhaps they need to be modified, improved, strengthened, as is always the case in education, but it isn’t like we’re starting from ground zero.
David Boulton: No, not at all. On the one hand we’re going to avoid the advocacy of any particular program. We will provide a matrix of information and interviews and also links to the What Works Clearinghouse that Dr. Whitehurst is working on. We believe that at this junction in time, given where we are, that there’s just no question that children need systematic instruction.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: At the same time, what we’re saying is that a significant part of the teacher population is not getting this.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: So we have to ask why. What are the assumptions that they are holding onto that are acting like some kind of a lens over their eyes that they’re seeing children through that’s keeping them from understanding this level of the unnaturalness of this code and how the brain has to learn to process it? How can we bring about an experience in parents and teachers so that they see the complexity of this code processing that’s going on – that when they see a child struggling to read they are saying that they’re struggling with this radically unnatural, complex technological thing?
Robert Sweet: From my perspective, many of the teachers think they are teaching the code. They just teach it through rhyme, they teach it through exposure to print. The Reading Recovery people just put out a big publication and you would think that they were Spalding if you read their publication. The fact is, they are not following a systematic approach to teaching the code. And yet, you’d think so if you read their publication. I’m just saying that part of the challenge that we have is that many teachers think they are teaching the code. I would say the vast majority of teachers do not spend time reading research reports and doing a historical analysis of the language. They just can’t. They’re faced with so much already.
David Boulton: Right. Which is why we’ve got to make a compelling, entertaining journey through the entire history of this thing as a technology and make sure that it’s really clear to people that the code is a technology. We wouldn’t shame a four year old because they were having problems learning how to program a remote control for a VCR.
Robert Sweet: Yes. I noticed you interviewed Ray Kurzweil, didn’t you?
David Boulton: Yes, I did.
Robert Sweet: From a scientific standpoint, a technological standpoint, the fact that you can program telephones to respond, or human speech… Speech Tech has a conference every year up in New York city and I went up one about three or four years ago and they had a lot of these speech simulation devices and I was simply flabbergasted by the way that they could really build human speech by using the code. I mean, that’s how they do it.
We had a meeting when Bill Gates was in town and Bill Goodling was still chairman of the Education Committee. I arranged for a meeting with Goodling and Gates. We didn’t have long to speak with Gates, it was in a bigger meeting, but I had hoped that we could approach Gates and say, ‘Look, you know, you can change the world. You can, not just through your Microsoft program, but if you can apply some of the speech technology that Microsoft is already working on and come up with a way to present this on every computer… In other words, put a program on a computer that uses voice recognition that teaches the code.’ People can do that in the privacy of their homes.
David Boulton: Right, It’s only a matter of time before we have that kind of feedback coming from a child that’s going to allow us to loop back through and use the computer to instruct them in that way.
Robert Sweet: It is available or at least my understanding is that it is. I met with a Vice President of a company up in Utah and they were involved in primarily telephone technology to deal with speech recognition and so forth. I discussed this with him and I said, “If you guys can build human speech some way and use the bits and pieces of the code to do it, well, why can’t you just teach the bits and pieces in the first place to somebody that’s trying to learn it?” And he agreed. When you make an investment in actually doing that, you’ve got to be pretty sure if you’re a businessman that you’re going to get a payback on it. Perhaps most of the products that you see on the market these days that are used on computers nowadays really pick up on existing approaches to teaching reading, unfortunately.
David Boulton: They haven’t been designed from the ground up around using speech recognition as a feedback loop to heuristically tune the instruction.
Robert Sweet: Right.
Digital Reading Divide?:
David Boulton: But that’s inevitable. Then the question is, will enough children have pervasive enough access to that kind of technology that it can really shift the ground of reading in a way that isn’t another digital divide?
Robert Sweet: Well, that’s true. That’s a problem. However, I would say that with the increasing number of people who have access to computers, whether it’s in a library or whether in a school, even in inner cities, I mean…
David Boulton: Yes, but in the scenarios that you just outlined, learning to read would depend on whether or not there’s sufficient access. Ultimately, it’s going to be most powerful when the tool that children are learning to read with is one they can have continuous access to, and we’re a long way from that yet.
Robert Sweet: I’m a little more optimistic about it then that. I just bought a new computer, and what I bought three years ago is like a model T Ford compared to what I just got. I do think that there will be a breakthrough and that technology may be a solution to it. Somehow we’ve got to get over and around the education establishment to do it. And I must admit, I don’t have any instant solutions. I’ve told Reid Lyon I’m sort of like a carpenter. I know how to hammer in the nails to make the legislation and contribute to a part of the solution here, but the question that you asked earlier, “Why is this the case?” is just a very difficult one to answer in a way that is specific and short enough so that a person pays attention to it.
David Boulton: Right. We’ve talked to close to fifty people now and another fifty to go, and we’re trying to talk to everybody that’s got a distinct angle on this and trying to develop a matrix of the underlying assumptions. Where is it that we’re bumping into one another and not communicating? There’s an awful lot of quick dismissal going on.
Robert Sweet: Yes.
David Boulton: There are people out there that are bolstering the case for this being natural and so everyone that wants to believe that has got a source to support his or her belief. Understanding where people are anchoring their different assumptions about this provides us a way to have a dialogue that gets deep enough, I hope.
Robert Sweet: I think that the tools that we have at our disposal in 2004 are much more effective than what we had even ten years ago. Basically, we have people like Russ Whitehurst, Director of the Institute for Education Sciences, who is moving quickly toward randomized studies. We have Reading First, lead by Chris Dougherty, which is pumping a billion dollars a year and folks on the peer review panel such as Sally Shaywitz, Jack Fletcher, and others. As long as we have the administration that is serious about implementing Reading First, that gives us one more tool. I don’t know whether you are aware of it, but in the recent budget legislation that just passed, the big omnibus bill that passed in January 2004, we included a charge to Russ Whitehurst to do a review of all the Colleges of Education and how they approach reading instruction. There’s money available to do it and so he’s laying the groundwork for that right now.
Robert Sweet: Are you familiar with the Flexner Report that was done back at the turn of the century in which Abraham Flexner reviewed the colleges of medical schools? He determined that there was a very wide variation in how doctors were being trained, and how and whether or not they were given evidence based solutions or approaches to medicine. He found that there were some schools of medicine that were terrible and others that were excellent. The result of his report really raised the level of medical training in a way that probably no other single report has ever done. Our thought on this would be that if we can do something similar with education and really educate the public in terms of the disparity of, or the differences in how teachers are being prepared to go into the classroom and what they’re being taught, that may tie into some of the other aspects of the work that’s being done by people like you.
David Boulton: That’s great. Once you take into consideration the psychological consequences of failure to read and the social pathologies that come from them, and you look at the risks, it seems to me that more children are at risk from the consequences of not learning to read well then from everything else we keep track of.
Robert Sweet: Well, I think that some of that evidence is available through what the NICHD has done. Maybe not quite as complete as what you’ve suggested. I know that Reid Lyon, we’ve had him testify before a committee, and certainly when Bob Pasternack was there in Special Education, they made a pretty good case that so many children in Special Education are there simply because they haven’t learned to read and they’re casualties. If they’re not taught even in Special Education, which is usually the case, (some of them are, but many of them are not), they end up never going beyond; being passed through to some of them getting out of high school, but then never going on to any kind of higher education. Maybe there’s a way to describe it in a more powerful way to paint a more powerful picture.
David Boulton: I don’t think the average parent has a sense that their child is more at risk for having their lives mangled by how well they come through learning to read than just about anything else their child’s life is at risk for.
Robert Sweet: Right, I agree. But how do you quantify that? What questions would you ask or how would you determine that?
David Boulton: What are the top twenty physical disorders a human child is born at risk for? What are the risks that a child will be scarred or marred by physical or domestic abuse or other developmental disorders? If you just look at those things as percentages of children’s risk factors and then take a look at NAEPS scores and bring in the things that you and Mike Brunner were talking about relative to the correlations with juvenile justice and with general educational success and how this connects, there’s no question more children are at risk for this than everything else combined.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: And yet, that’s not clear to the population. We spend so much time worrying about all kinds of little fragmentary things, comparatively.
Robert Sweet: When the adult literacy study came out in the early 1990’s, that was big headlines for a while where they were talking about at least fifty million people can’t read at all and another fifty million people have limited reading ability. They release a new literacy study every ten years and they’re coming out with another report this year and I’m absolutely positive that they’re going to have the same general findings that they had ten years ago.
David Boulton: Right, I understand it’s a little bit worse. The thing is that it’s not translating. I think everybody thinks, it’s not me, it’s not my child, it’s nobody that I know.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: I don’t know whether you had a chance to look at the Nathanson work but probably the most significant thing that connects all the dots for us in our project is that the instructional environment surrounding reading, in general, is causing many, if not most of our children to grow up feeling ashamed of the functioning of their minds.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: It’s the nature of shame that the moment it starts to pop up we want to leave the scene, we want to escape from whatever is causing us to feel shame. So children develop strategies like “I’m not that smart” or “I’m not a good reader” because by defining themselves as not smart, it nullifies the shame.
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: I’ve met lots of kids that are struggling who say, “It’s just not that important,” or “Who needs to read?” They develop various strategies to deal with the shame that they feel in relation to the unnatural confusion that’s induced into them by the process of learning to read.
Robert Sweet: I agree with you. I guess it’s going to be an accumulation of things that are done like what you’re doing and some of the work that’s been done here in D. C., and some of the other work that’s been done, that it’s cumulative. I do think that with the amount of publicity that the Reading First program has received and with Reid’s Lyon’s tireless efforts to travel around the country and meet with anybody and everybody that will have him, along with a number of others that have done the same and are doing the same and Chris Doherty’s work and those who work with him. I think that there are more tools at our disposal now that are moving the debate in our direction. I’m hoping that perhaps the work that you’re doing with this project will sort of let the light dawn on people and maybe help us move another good giant step ahead in reaching a public, which I think is desperate to know what the problem is and really doesn’t understand it. I just don’t know.
The Greatest Risk:
David Boulton: I think your right. There’s no question that we’re all standing on the shoulders of giants who have been working on this for quite a while now. I have great respect and appreciation for Dr. Whitehurst and Dr. Lyon and James Wendorf. We have interviewed Chris Doherty, Louisa Moats and many others who really live in this space, who really care about this issue. We are trying to hook all the work together and then translate it in such a way that it has impact. When you break down the numbers, like we said, more kids are at risk for reading failure than anything else.
The other thing is that one of the difficulties is our national confusion between not being able to read at all (below basic) and reading better but still so poorly that a psychological aversion to reading related learning sets in (between basic and proficient).
Robert Sweet: Right.
David Boulton: That’s the big middle ground; the 40% that’s in trouble but few recognize it to the same degree as the children that have clear neurobiological difficulties in the 5% range or the roughly 20% that are in the fuzzy dyslexia (above the 5% neurobiological). In the big picture many millions of people who can “read” “basically” are being harmed by their psychological aversion to reading related learning.
Robert Sweet: Right. You’re accurate. This initiative the President has proposed in his budget called Striving Readers Proposal is another effort to address that group, although they’re still school aged kids, and many of the people that you’re talking about are out of school and are probably never going to receive the kind of help that they would need.
David Boulton: But by NAEP standards, we’re talking about 88% of 4th grade African-American children, 84% of 12th grade African-Americans that are reading below proficient. We’re talking approximately 64% of all 12th graders that are reading below proficient. Though there are all kinds of arguments about what that means, we can still say that most of our children are not proficient in reading. And we know that the first consequence of reading difficulties is that the child, because of the way that we contextualize this as being natural, folds back to take it on themselves as if their failure in reading is some indictment of something wrong with them. That’s got to stop.
Robert Sweet: Yes it has. It’s very real to me because of the number of people that I actually spoke with during the years when my wife and I were manning the phones at the NRRF. We had enough publicity so were just barraged with phone calls. To listen to the cries of the parents who call about their children and realize that you really do have a solution for them and that it really should be part of their instructional program at school.
I’ll never forget a lady that called me from Alabama. Her son’s name was Jared. She called me on my home phone on a Friday night and she was in tears and she said that her son was in seventh grade and he had been struggling all through the years, and they had been hoping, trying different things and trying to get the school to teach him and nothing had worked. He was discouraged, felt down on himself, thought he was stupid, and yet in every other way, athletically and socially and in his interests outside of school he was a very smart boy. At the time we had some products that we were able to send out to people for free. And so I said, “Let me send you a program that you can use at no cost to you and why don’t you try it with him at home and see what you can do.”
This was in September and I got a call from her in early December and she said, “I want to call you and thank you and then tell you how thrilled we are with Jared’s progress in the last three months. His Christmas request was that he would have a certificate at Books-A-Million so that he could go down and buy a book.” He was gradually mastering the code and gradually learning to read enough that he was able to read books and he was so excited that he could go down and pick out his own book. Stories like that just give me goosebumps because you can see it in real people who actually do achieve the success that they want.
David Boulton: I’m glad that you existed and like I said, you’ve been an inspiration and resource that I encountered as I started to look into all of this.
Robert Sweet: That’s wonderful. I feel very insignificant in this whole thing but I feel like I’ve had a burning in my inside that I just can’t let it go. The last place I ever thought I’d end up is in Washington, I’ll tell you that.
David Boulton: Well, I’m glad that somebody who cares about these issues ended up there and that you’ve managed to put yourself on the forefront of a very important social and educational challenge for quite a while now.
Robert Sweet: Well, I’m ready to turn the reins over to someone else. I must admit, I’m becoming weary of it, not that I don’t care about it; I care deeply about it. However, as evidenced by the fact that everything I do seems to somehow turn this way.
I don’t know whether you recall Max Rafferty, the Superintendent for the State of California schools back in the 1960’s? He wrote “Suffer the Little Children” and “The Crisis in Education”. He wrote a number of other books and he did his best to try to turn California in the right direction. He left and went to Troy State University and unfortunately was tragically killed in an automobile accident. Back before I came to Washington I spoke with him when he was at Troy State University and asked him to help some. I read something that he said in a speech, “You know, I’ve been working with this issue for the last thirty years and done what I can, and doggone it, I’m getting tired. I’d like to have someone else come along to help.”
As you say, it’s taken a lot of people to do this.
Stewarding the Health of Our Children's Learning:
David Boulton: Yes. My sense is if you take any issue, anything that’s challenging human beings, and if you take the long view of it, more than one generation out, it all comes down to the most precious resource on this planet is our children’s learning.
Robert Sweet: Exactly.
David Boulton: There is no greater thing that we can do than steward the health of their learning — which means how they learn to participate from the inside-out in their extension into learning. The biggest problem facing more human children, in this country anyway, with respect to the health of their learning is the confusion associated with this radically unnatural, artificial challenge we call reading.
Robert Sweet: Yes.
David Boulton: So they are unnaturally, cognitively confused and the environment has created the frame of reference for them in which they’re blaming themselves for it. It’s crippling the development of their cognitive infrastructure and it’s creating a self-shaming loop that’s causing them to want to avoid being confused which decapitates their learning.
Robert Sweet: Yes.
David Boulton: We’ve got to find a different way, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
English is a Global Issue:
Robert Sweet: Well, this is a global problem because English is the language of commerce. Places like England, Australia and New Zealand and many of the other countries where English is an official language, (I think it’s something like sixty or seventy countries), are all influenced by what we do here in America. What you’re addressing is something that ultimately can affect the world, and that’s a pretty powerful task.
David Boulton: I did spend quite a bit of time with a linguist in China and consequently I have some understanding of the legal and political machinations going on there relative to English. What we’re talking about is a planetary issue. With the series we want to confine it to the United States in terms of relevancy and traction for what we’re doing, but ultimately the number one issue is there’s nothing more precious on this planet than how well our children learn. We’ve got to steward the health of that process and there’s a difference between the way they naturally learn and the kind of artificial learning requirements necessary to function in today’s culture. Reading is at the interface between them.
Robert Sweet: I cheer you on, my friend. I’m honored to be able to talk with you and I think you’re doing a wonderful job. I applaud you for it.
David Boulton: I’m honored to talk with you as well. Thank you very much.
Robert Sweet: Thank You.