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State Senate considers dyslexia, early literacy bills

University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts Residential College

The Michigan Senate Education Committee is considering bills that would change early literacy instruction in public schools, and help teachers identify students showing signs of dyslexia.

Senate Bill 567 would re-tool early elementary reading assessments to screen for signs of dyslexia, while companion bill SB 568 would boost instruction about spotting the learning disability in teacher education programs.

SB 567 sponsor Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) told the Senate Education Committee this week that his bill would also herald a shift in early elementary literacy education.

“Essentially what this bill does, is it weaves the science of reading into our early elementary literacy programs,” Irwin said. “It weaves the science of reading into our system of assessments. It weaves it into our system of interventions, and it weaves it into our training for our educators.”

According to Irwin, that “science of reading,” backed by the latest neuroscience, shows that when people read, they deconstruct the basic units of language—even expert readers, who do it fluently and unconsciously. “But in fact, our brains are decoding language, and building up those decoding skills is an essential first block that we need to build all of the other blocks of literacy,” he said.

Irwin said that means teaching reading and providing literacy support services in a way that emphasizes the “foundational skills of phonics” over other methods that rely more on context clues and the assumption that reading is a process that comes naturally to most children. “Other states have passed similar laws to this,” he said. “They've seen their reading scores increase. They've invested in the literacy coaches and the methods necessary to drive greater literacy. And I think that we need to follow their lead with great haste.”

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), the sponsor of SB 568, said her bill is about “teaching the teachers about dyslexia.” It would mandate that teacher preparation programs “offer instruction regarding the characteristics of dyslexia, and underlying factors that put students at risk for difficulties learning to decode accurately and efficiently,” she said.

The committee also heard testimony from teachers, parents, and people with dyslexia, all in support of the bills’ aims. Caroline Kaganov, the mother of a dyslexic ninth grader, said helping teachers spot early signs of the learning disability will pay off.

“We can make a difference if we identify children with dyslexic traits early and give them evidence-based intervention in structured literacy,” Kaganov said. “If we wait to intervene, then we have many more issues to address.”

Testimony on the Senate bills are expected to continue next week, and the State House is expected to take up a companion bill soon. According to Senate Democrats, all the bills are “based on legislation that passed the Michigan Senate near-unanimously last session,” but faltered in the House.In the past, the concept has also received pushback from some groups representing school boards and school administrators, who questioned the need for extensive dyslexia screening and expressed concern it would put additional burdens on teachers and schools.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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