Pioneering dyslexia researcher named Lawton Distinguished Professor

Richard K. Wagner

A psychology professor who has helped establish The Florida State University as one of the nation’s premier institutions for research into learning disabilities such as dyslexia is set to receive the university’s highest faculty honor.

Richard K. Wagner, Florida State’s Alfred Binet Professor of Psychology and a Distinguished Professor of Psychology, now adds the title of 2009-2010 Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Psychology. University President T.K. Wetherell will present him with the honorific on Friday, May 1, during the first of three spring commencement ceremonies.

"I could not have been more surprised and delighted to learn of this award," Wagner said. "It is incredibly humbling for three reasons. The first is what I know about the contributions of some equally or more deserving colleagues who have yet to receive it. The second is what I know about the contributions of previous recipients, including Jim Smith, who has been a mentor to me since I arrived at Florida State fresh out of graduate school. The third is how much of a role my colleagues and friends have played in what we have accomplished."

Dyslexia is a learning disorder marked by impairment of the ability to recognize and comprehend written words. Although once thought of as visual disorder, researchers now know that the condition’s manifestations — misspellings, reversing letters and words, even writing backwards — spring from an inability to recognize sounds, not visual cues. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 15 percent of American students may have dyslexia.

Led by Wagner, a team of nearly two dozen Florida State researchers, as well as four from Yale University, are in the third year of a five-year research project funded through a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The grant has allowed for the creation of a prestigious NIH Multidisciplinary Learning Disabilities Center at Florida State — one of only four such centers in the nation. Through the center, Wagner and other researchers have been conducting behavioral and genetic studies involving thousands of Florida children with dyslexia.

"Our hope is to develop ways of diagnosing dyslexia and other learning disabilities at a younger age so that these children have greater chances of leading a happy, productive and successful life," Wagner said when the NIH grant was announced in 2006.

In addition to his current research, Wagner has won the admiration of peers for his high levels of scholarship over the course of a 25-year career at Florida State. Among his many accomplishments, he has been awarded more than $17.5 million in research funding as a principal or co-principal investigator; has published 125 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters or books; and has delivered 50 invited presentations and 150 peer-reviewed or paper presentations at conferences all over the world.

He currently chairs the Advisory Board of the National Institute for Literacy, a presidential appointment that required U.S. Senate confirmation. The institute advises the secretaries of the U.S. departments of Education, Labor, and Health and Human Services on literacy-related matters.

Praise for Wagner poured in from colleagues upon the announcement of his selection as this year’s Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor.

"Rick Wagner has been a pioneer in understanding how we read and how we learn to read," said Joseph Travis, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Florida State (and himself a Lawton professor). "He is one of the rare scientists whose work has been critical for advancing basic science and at the same time invaluable for the innovative practical applications it has made possible."

"Not only has Rick achieved excellence in the research domain, but he is also an outstanding teacher," said Janet Kistner, a professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. "He is the recipient of several teaching awards and is reliably among the top-rated instructors in our department. His ability to make even the most complex phenomena understandable for audiences that may have limited background in research methods is remarkable. He also enjoys helping students outside the classroom; for example, he is a pilot who serves as faculty adviser to the Seminole Flying Club."

The Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor award is the highest honor that Florida State University faculty can bestow on a colleague. It is named in honor of the late Vice President for Academic Affairs Robert O. Lawton. A longtime and highly esteemed member of the Florida State faculty, he died in 1980. For more information on Lawton and a list of previous recipients of the award that bears his name, visit