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

Wisconsin Dyslexia Bill Advances Amid Partisan Disagreement

Emily Files
Augustine Prep kindergarten teacher Jessica Mathison leads students in a phonics exercise. One legislator who voted against a pending dyslexia bill thinks to help struggling readers, the focus should be on teacher training.

Legislation aimed at helping dyslexic students in Wisconsin cleared a major hurdle last month when it was approved by the State Assembly. The bill is now in the Senate’s hands. From there, it would go to Gov. Tony Evers, and potentially become Wisconsin’s first dyslexia-specific law. 

But the debate over how to support struggling readers is far from over.

The Assembly vote revealed a partisan divide. Republicans unanimously backed the dyslexia legislation. But most Assembly Democrats voted against it, including almost the entire Milwaukee contingent.

Dyslexia is the most common learning disability – affecting as many as one in five people. Those with the disorder have trouble connecting written words to spoken language, which makes reading a challenge.

Wisconsin’s student reading scores have been stagnant for years. So, Republican Rep. Bob Kulp convened a committee to study what the state could do to help dyslexic students. The bill AB 110 was the result.

Read: Reading Instruction Debate Holds Back Wisconsin Dyslexia Legislation

“Parents have shared the struggles they go through to get their kids the help they need to read,” Kulp said on the Assembly floor. “And more often than not, the local school districts do not have the tools or programs to identify or help children with dyslexia learn to read.”

The bill would require the Department of Public Instruction to create a dyslexia guidebook that schools and parents could turn to for help. 

Read: Families Call On Wisconsin Lawmakers To Take Action On Dyslexia

But Democrats have some problems with the proposal. David Bowen is one of the 10 Milwaukee representatives who voted against it. 

“Unfortunately AB 110 is a one-size-fits-all approach that narrowly defines dyslexia when consensus has not been reached among a number of reading experts,” Bowen said in an interview with WUWM.

Bowen and some other Democrats are uncomfortable with defining dyslexia in state statute. They also don’t want the bill to exclude other reading disorders.

Bowen’s critique echoes that of the Wisconsin State Reading Association, a professional group made up of teachers and literacy specialists. The reading association is the only organization that formally opposes the dyslexia bill. 

LaKeshia Myers, D-Milwaukee, also voted no. But she had a larger concern – that AB 110 doesn’t get to the heart of the issue.  

"I don't want to just put my name on a piece of feel-good legislation," Myers said.

Myers wants to focus on teacher preparation. She has doubts about whether Wisconsin colleges are giving teachers the training they need when it comes to dyslexia and reading instruction.

"I think looking at what was the larger issue was looking at how we train our educators to identify and then teach," Myers said.

Credit Emily Files
Emily Files
Kindergartners at Augustine Prep in Milwaukee work on a reading exercise with their teacher, Jessica Mathison. The instruction method Mathison uses is focused on developing children's decoding skills.

Jessica Mathison is a Milwaukee teacher who says she was unprepared to help struggling readers.

“I started teaching reading pretty blind,” Mathison said. “I had a language arts focus in college, but was not prepared to teach a child to read when I came out into the field of education.”

A few years into her teaching career, Mathison’s former employer sent her to a training where she was taught the Orton-Gillingham method. With Orton-Gillingham, students are taught explicitly and systematically about the sounds letters make. That kind of phonics instruction is supported by research and brain science.

Read: The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught

Mathison now teaches at a private voucher school on Milwaukee’s south side called Augustine Prep. On a recent morning toward the end of the school year, she led her kindergarten students in a small-group phonics exercise.

“The word is ‘get.’ Tap it with me,” Mathison said. “G-E-T. Get. G-E-T. Get.”

The children tapped out the syllables and sounded out the simple words.

This instruction method is especially useful for students with dyslexia, who have the hardest time connecting text to speech. But the phonics-heavy approach isn't the norm in many classrooms.

And that’s where Rep. Myers wants to effect change. She speaks from experience, as a former Milwaukee special education teacher.

“You always want to try to do what’s best for your student,” Myers says. “And if I’m spending five to six hours with a student who is struggling with something, I need to know what I’m looking for. I need to know how best to help the student.”

The bill currently under consideration in Madison would create a resource for teachers and families looking for answers about dyslexia, which advocates say would be a welcome first step. But the bill would not force any changes on the ground, in terms of how schools identify and address dyslexia.

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