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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Reading Instruction Debate Holds Back Wisconsin Dyslexia Legislation

Emily R Files
Milwaukee residents Devin and Jaclyn Gatton's two oldest sons, Kayne (left) and Aiden (right) have been diagnosed with dyslexia. The diagnosis didn't happen until the boys were 11 and 10 years old.

Dyslexia is a common learning disorder that inhibits a person’s ability to connect written text to spoken language. It’s likely one major reason why 65 percent of Wisconsin fourth graders don’t meet proficiency standards on national reading assessments.

Learning to read is not only tremendously important in school, it also affects a student's outcomes once they are adults. A study of prison inmates in Texas found 80 percent were illiterate and almost 50 percent had dyslexia.

Jaclyn and Devin Gatton didn’t know their oldest son, Aiden, had dyslexia, until last year. He was 11 years old -- past the window of time experts consider critical for learning written language. 

“He’s really quiet so he just kind of fell in the cracks,” Jaclyn says. “He didn’t make a big scene [in school,] he’d just stay quiet.”

The Gattons say after they understood Aiden’s problem, they realized their second-oldest son, Kayne, also has dyslexia. They say they wish the boys’ school had figured out what was going on sooner.

“A lot of times before, when [teachers] would say ‘Well they’re just not doing the work.’ I would be like ‘Stop being lazy and do your work,’” Jaclyn remembers. “And I just I feel awful because they weren’t being lazy at all. They were probably working 10 times harder than someone who doesn’t have dyslexia.”

The Gattons are now paying for private tutoring. They say it’s expensive, but worth it -- they saw reading improvements within months.

“It helped me a lot because now in stories with complicated words or advanced stories I can understand the story more clearly,” says 13-year-old Aiden.  

Dyslexia advocates say it is all too common for children to be diagnosed years into their education, and for families to be forced to look outside of the traditional school system for help. This puts poor children at an even greater disadvantage. 

Some state lawmakers are proposing measures they say could help kids with dyslexia. The legislation is based on the work of a study committee formed by lawmakers last summer.

But division over literacy instruction that goes back decades loomed over that committee from the beginning, preventing bold changes that dyslexia advocates called for.

Barbara Felix leads the Dyslexia Achievement Center in Elm Grove, which is where the Gattons go for extra help.

“Families are spending above and beyond their educational budget to see that their student receives services toward remediation,” Felix says.

She testified before a legislative study committee last August, on behalf of the parent advocacy group Decoding Dyslexia. Parents of dyslexic children around the country are pushing schools to be more aggressive in screening for and recognizing dyslexia.

“The tragedy is that we’ve had a system that’s really based on what we could think of as a wait-to-fail system,” says Dan Gustafson, a Madison child psychologist who is dyslexic himself.

Gustafson and Felix told the dyslexia committee that teachers should be trained in reading instruction based on science. Overwhelming scientific research shows explicit, systematic phonics instruction helps all students learn to read, especially those with dyslexia. With phonics, children learn how letters translate into sounds.

A widely-shared audio documentary from American Public Media published last year has brought attention to this issue. 

LISTEN: Hard Words: Why Aren't Kids Being Taught To Read?

But the question of how to best teach a child to read has a lot of baggage. It goes back to the decades-old ‘reading wars.’

“That was the elephant in the room,” says Republican Rep. Bob Kulp, who chaired the Wisconsin dyslexia study committee. “It loomed large at times."

The ‘reading wars’ debate is often boiled down to phonics versus whole language. Whole language emphasizes meaning and comprehension over letter-sound recognition. 

Debra Zarling warns against too much focus on phonics. She’s a literacy coordinator with the Oshkosh Area School District and a member of the Wisconsin State Reading Association.

“Instruction in phonics needs to be part of broader curriculum that includes reading for meaning,” Zarling said.

She said the best way to help struggling readers depends on the individual student and should be determined by an expert teacher.

“A common fallacy we often hear in school is that we allow students to fall through the cracks, meaning we fail to notice some students are having difficulty,” Zarling told the committee in July. “In over 35 years as an educator, I have found that be very rare.”

Rep. Kulp, who chaired the committee, said the debate made it difficult to come to consensus on what should be done about dyslexia. In the end, members agreed on two bills. One calls for the creation of a dyslexia guidebook for school districts, parents and teachers. It would be a resource for schools, but not a mandate, meaning districts would still have control over their screening procedures and curriculum.

The other bill would create a dyslexia specialist position at the state Department of Public Instruction.

Kulp says he hopes the measures are a first step toward more discussion about how Wisconsin should address dyslexia. "I think there is more work that is left to be done," he says. 

Leaders of the local chapter of Decoding Dyslexia support the legislation. But they say they’re concerned that without stronger action, children with dyslexia will continue to be left behind in the classroom.

The bill on creating a dyslexia guidebook has its initial hearing at 10 a.m. Thursday morning (4/18) before the Assembly Education Committee.

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Emily has been reporting on Milwaukee-area education for WUWM since 2018.
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