Dyslexia Legislation Would Deliver a Big Win for Michigan’s Youngest Readers
By Heather Eckner, Brian Love and Susan Ward Schmidt
The latest news that more than half of Michigan’s third graders have a “reading deficiency” reinforces what we have long known: Michigan is continuing to struggle with an early reading crisis.
On the one hand, the data could almost feel debilitating because it builds upon decades of similarly troubling findings — like the fact that Michigan is one of only 18 states performing worse in early literacy than it was in the early 2000s on a test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
And prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just 45.1% of Michigan third graders scored at or above proficiency in reading. The most recent data shows that since the pandemic, that number has fallen further. Varied access to in-person learning and other resources also contributed to steeper declines in proficiency for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
But our organizations, which have long advocated for improvements to early reading instruction and curriculum in Michigan, have great reason for hope.
That’s because a package of bipartisan bills could dramatically change the trajectory for Michigan’s youngest readers by addressing one of the most common barriers to reading success: dyslexia. In a state that has significantly faltered in early reading instruction, this would be a major win for all of Michigan’s students.
The bills being considered – Senate Bills 380-383 – would provide critical training for educators and support for students so that problems in reading can be addressed at earlier ages, before deficits persist.
Decades of research shows that promoting early literacy is key to improving education overall. Indeed, if students read well by third grade, they have a better chance to succeed in school, are far more likely to go to college, participate in the job market and even have greater lifetime employment earnings.
That’s not the case in Michigan. Our state is wildly missing the mark on improving reading instruction, despite the intention of the Read by Grade 3 law, which could have an unintended impact on our youngest learners by holding them back with little support. And there are disproportionate gaps in opportunity for the state’s most disadvantaged students.
These bills could dramatically change that by requiring Michigan’s young learners to be screened on an ongoing basis for characteristics of dyslexia and decoding issues. Deficits in these areas can negatively affect all children, but for those with dyslexia, it can make learning to read extremely difficult. This learning disability is said to impact as many as 10-20 percent of the population.
This legislation also supports young readers in several other key ways. For instance, the bills would establish criteria to identify children in grades K-3 using reliable and valid screeners. That step alone would provide educators with critical early notice when children are having trouble decoding words, a factor that inhibits reading comprehension.
The legislation goes even further by requiring educators to receive training about evidence-based instructional methods and interventions to teach reading based on the science of reading. These methods, detailed in the legislation, will empower teachers so they can effectively teach all children the foundational skills needed to be strong readers. The bills also require educators to learn about dyslexia, its characteristics and ways to serve those with dyslexia.
We applaud the bipartisan group of legislators who are sponsoring these bills — Sens. Jeff Irwin (D), Jim Runestad (R), Dayna Polehanki (D) and Lana Theis (R) — because we know that early literacy is a foundational skill for future academic success. It’s encouraging to see legislators and stakeholders coming together across the aisle to work jointly on an issue that is so crucial to students’ success.
In a moment of polarization, it’s noteworthy that these lawmakers have collaborated with organizations like the Education Trust-Midwest and members of Michigan Partnership for Equity and Opportunity, to pass this thoughtful and strategic legislation that would address one of the greatest barriers to early literacy.
And in a state where we are at a crisis point for early literacy, these bills deserve our support.
Heather Eckner serves as director of statewide education & outreach for the Autism Alliance of Michigan.
Brian Love is director of community outreach at the Education Trust Midwest
Susan Ward Schmidt, special education teacher, board member of the Michigan Chapter of International Dyslexia Association.
Editor’s Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Detroit Free Press.