Brian Byrne: scientific champion of children’s literacy

Published 21 January 2010

bbyrneBrian Byrne has contributed more than most researchers to an understanding of why some children have difficulties in learning to read.

Professor Byrne’s contribution has been so significant that several of his research colleagues flew to Armidale from the United States last December to honour him at the announcement of his retirement from the academic staff of the University of New England.

Although he retires at the end of this month, his research funding will allow him – for at least the next year – to continue with the analysis and compilation of data on the 1,000 sets of twins in Australia, the United States, Norway and Sweden that he and his international colleagues have followed through the early years of schooling. With funding from the Australian Research Council and the US National Institutes of Health, the research team – led by Professor Byrne – has recorded thousands of observations on each of those 2,000 children over the past 10 years.

This work with twins, which has enabled the disentanglement of genetic from environmental factors, has shown that a child’s genetic inheritance is the dominant factor influencing progress in the acquisition of literacy. From this new understanding, carefully-designed curricula (including intervention and support strategies) for literacy learning emerge as being all the more important in enabling children to realise their literacy potential. “We already have some ideas of how the reading curriculum should be designed to help children who are likely to encounter difficulties,” Professor Byrne said.

“There are a lot of parents who think they must have done something wrong because their child is encountering difficulties in learning to read,” he said, “but this is often not the case.” In his retirement, he plans to do some reflective writing that will help take this message of encouragement to parents and educators. “I want to draw out the implications of this for the education system,” he said – “what it might mean for education policy and for parents. I’d like to turn the basic science to some practical good.”

Both of Brian Byrne’s parents were teachers. “My father had charge of classes (known as ‘general activity’ classes) for boys who were struggling at high school,” he said, “and he taught a lot of them to read. After his death, my mother kept getting Christmas presents from some of those former schoolboys in thanks for the fact that they were now leading successful lives. That got me interested in reading and some of the problems associated with it.”

That specific interest in the psychology of language acquisition re-emerged during his postgraduate studies at McMaster University in Canada. Most of his subsequent research has been on children’s literacy. “The problem that sparked my interest,” he said, “was why some children, after mastering the extremely complex business of spoken language by the age of three or four, have trouble with the apparently small additional step of learning to read.

“I think I’ve helped make a contribution to solving that mystery. Part of it is that learning to talk is natural and biologically grounded: children don’t have to be aware of the components of language or think about sounds as they must do when learning to read. Children acquire spoken language spontaneously – but not reading and writing.” Professor Byrne is the author of an influential book on this subject: The Foundation of Literacy: The child’s acquisition of the alphabetic principle (Psychology Press, Hove, UK, 1998). His other scientific publications include about 70 journal articles and 15-20 book chapters.

Brian Byrne (pictured here) joined the staff of the University of New England as a Lecturer in Psychology in 1972. After promotion to the levels of Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor, he was appointed to a Personal Chair in 1997.

As a lecturer, he experienced the pioneering work of UNE in distance education. “That was a splendid innovation,” he said – “an addition to the educational landscape of Australia. It was a privilege to be part of that enterprise.” He was able to develop a course on the psychology of language at a time when there weren’t many such courses in Australia. “It was fun and rewarding to do that,” he said. And the students – particularly the many PhD students he has supervised – have been “a joy to work with”.

As a researcher, he has enjoyed the opportunity to follow his deep interest in the psychology of language, attracting research funds totalling about $5.5 million. He has twice been the recipient of the UNE Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Research.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of his career, he said, had been the opportunity – as in the work on reading ability – to combine theory, basic science, and practical application. In retirement, he hopes to be able to facilitate the practical application of some of his research findings.

At last month’s “research day” celebrating Professor Byrne’s achievements during his 38-year career at UNE, eight of his research colleagues – from Australia and abroad – presented the results of their work in the field of literacy and language. That event, with its focus on the continuing research rather than the “retiring” researcher, was a fitting tribute to a dedicated scientist.

Clicking on the photograph of Professor Brian Byrne displayed here reveals a photograph of him – taken during last month’s “research day” in his honour – with  Professor Stephen Crain from Macquarie University, Sydney, and Professor Janice Keenan from the University of Denver in the United States.