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Push To Rethink Reading Instruction Gains Momentum In Wisconsin

Emily Files
A first grader at Milwaukee's Auer Avenue School follows along during a reading event sponsored by The Milwaukee Urban League.

In early February, Gov. Tony Evers signed Wisconsin’s first dyslexia law. It requires the Department of Public Instruction to create a guidebook about the common reading disability. 

But that’s not the end of the road for advocates who want Wisconsin to do a better job helping struggling readers. Only 36% of Wisconsin fourth graders are proficient readers, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). Reading scores on the NAEP and Wisconsin Forward exam have stagnated, adding fuel to the debate about whether schools are adequately teaching kids to read.

What else is being done to improve reading education in Wisconsin schools? Here are some other recent developments: 

DPI superintendent endorses 'explicit phonics' instruction  

Research known as the science of reading shows that for many children, reading is not a natural process. The research indicates these children need to be systematically and explicitly taught how to decode the sounds that letters make, also known as phonics.

But phonics has fallen in and out of favor with the education establishment over the years, a debate sometimes called “the reading wars.” Some schools use curriculum that includes phonics, but not enough for kids to whom reading does not come naturally, including those with dyslexia.

READ: Reading Instruction Debate Holds Back Wisconsin Dyslexia Legislation

DPI has remained on the sidelines of the debate until recently, with Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor announcing at a state education convention in January that DPI endorses explicit phonics instruction. 

New group calls on DPI to take stronger action  

A new coalition of local education leaders, researchers who study the science of reading, and dyslexia advocates is calling for DPI to go further in pushing schools to make changes. Members of Wisconsin Call to Action for Reading Excellence, or Wisconsin-CARE, held a press conference in the capitol laying out their demands.

They are asking DPI to create a new assistant superintendent position focused on the science of reading, to offer more evidence-based resources, including training for teachers, and for DPI to stop giving schools with poor reading outcomes passing scores on state report cards.

John Humphries, superintendent in the rural district of Thorp and a former candidate for state superintendent, helped form Wisconsin-CARE. 

“Our request is simple,” said Humphries. “We know what works. Let’s start doing it. We don’t want any more money, any new mandates, or new requirements. We simply ask that Wisconsin starts teaching our children to read proficiently.”

DPI sent WUWM a statement saying the department is committed to improving instruction in schools, and that DPI is proposing stronger English language arts standards that include foundational reading skills like phonics.

Adding to the pressure on DPI, Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette, have called for an audit of DPI’s handling of reading instruction in Wisconsin schools.

Four more dyslexia and reading bills get a hearing

Also in the capitol last week, the Assembly Education Committee held a hearing on a new package of reading-related bills. AB 604, the bill that families of dyslexic kids were pushing for the most, would require local school boards to adopt policies about how districts identify and help students with dyslexia.

"Dyslexia? They don't mention it. They avoided that word like the plague." - Jonathan Haigler

Jonathan and Heather Haigler of Delavan testified in favor of the bill, sharing the story of their dyslexic 7-year-old son’s education experience. Like many families dealing with dyslexia, they had to go outside of their child’s elementary school and pay for private tutoring.

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

“We right now see a tutor, which costs us a couple hundred dollars a month,” Jonathan Haigler said. “And that’s just bare bones. I mean, to get the help he needs, it’s a couple thousand dollars. But why should he do that after school, when he should be learning in school?”

Jonathan Haigler also said staff at the school were resistant to recognizing their son’s dyslexia in IEP meetings, where families talk to school staff about the plan for educating a student with a disability.

“Dyslexia? They don’t mention it,” he said. “They avoided that word like the plague.”

The Haiglers moved their son to the Delavan School District, where they say they’ve had a better experience. They testified that AB 604 could make it easier for families like them to get help for struggling readers.

It is unlikely that the new dyslexia and reading bills will make it through the state Legislature this session, which is expected to wrap up by the end of February.

But the legislation is adding to the conversation about whether Wisconsin needs to reevaluate the way students are taught to read. Some school district leaders, including in Madison, are taking matters into their own hands and reconsidering their curriculum and instruction.

If you are a teacher, parent or student with a story to share about this issue, you can contact reporter Emily Files at files@uwm.edu.

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Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.