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

Families Call On Wisconsin Lawmakers To Take Action On Dyslexia

Screenshot/Wisconsin Eye
Fourth grader Leila Smiltneek and her mother Molly testify before the Assembly Education Committee. "I know I’m a smart kid. I just have a hard time learning to read and write," said Leila, who is dyslexic.";

Families of children with dyslexia want Wisconsin lawmakers to do more to help struggling readers. Dyslexia is a common reading disorder that makes it difficult to connect written text to spoken language. Children with dyslexia are at risk for reading failure if they don’t get early interventions.

At a hearing before the Assembly Education Committee last week, mothers (and one father) of dyslexic children shared their pain with legislators. The testimony lasted more than five hours.

“Research has shown that by the end of third grade, 74 percent of struggling readers will never catch up,” said Kathy Kline. “My son’s in third grade and he hasn’t caught up.”

“I didn’t think I was gonna cry because I’m a tough mom,” said Bonnie Moreland. “But I’m crying because it hurts my child so much.”

“We all are complicit in this and you have to act,” Susan Garcia Franz said.

The three mothers said their dyslexic children did not get the help they needed in school.

In an interview with Lake Effect's Joy Powers, Reporter Emily Files goes into more detail about the issues raised at a public hearing on dyslexia legislation.

Research shows students with this disorder benefit from explicit, systematic phonics instruction. That is, learning how to decode the sounds that written letters represent. But many schools use methods of instruction that don’t emphasize phonics. Parents repeatedly said their children did not make progress reading until they received private tutoring that utilized a phonics-heavy, 'structured literacy' approach.

READ: Reading Instruction Debate Holds Back Wisconsin Dyslexia Legislation

Donna Hejtmanek said teacher education is a big part of the problem. She sought additional training after earning a reading specialist certificate from a UW school.

“During my coursework of two and half years, the word ‘dyslexia’ was used once in one course, in one chapter, out of nine graduate courses,” Hejtmanek said.

The education committee was taking testimony on a bill to create a dyslexia guidebook. It was recommended by a study committee made up of legislators and members of the public.

But some lawmakers said a guidebook might not be enough to address systemic problems.

“The longer I sit here and the more heartbreaking stories I hear, it makes it clear this is a battle so entrenched in the education establishment,” said Rep. John Jagler. “That is heartbreaking and it’s making me irritable.”

It remains to be seen whether Wisconsin lawmakers will push for legislation beyond a dyslexia guidebook.

Some other states have enacted mandatory dyslexia screenings in public schools or paid for teacher training on the instruction methods that help dyslexic students.

Editor's Note: Audio courtesy of WisconsinEye.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.
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