Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Testimony - Reading bill doesn't address dyslexia

To: House Education Committee
Re: E2SSB 5237 - Establishing accountability for student performance in reading.
(To comment on this bill, click here)

WSPTA position: Mixed support, with mixed feelings

Dear Chairwoman Santos and committee members,

Washington State PTA absolutely supports investments in preschool, full-day K, and professional development, particularly if that professional development educates staff on instructional strategies for children with reading disabilities.

Likewise, making sure “the system” gives children necessary reading remediation before they move onto the middle school years is laudable, and we support that.

But fundamentally, passing a reading bill that doesn’t address dyslexia is an odd thing. For many children, if not most, learning to read is neither easy nor natural. But rather than make adjustments, we wait until kids fail before stepping up. This isn’t a Washington thing, it is nationwide. Thirty-six percent of fourth-graders register below basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Imagine, struggling and failing for five years. A child’s reading disability is not related to her cognitive ability, but try telling a third-grader who can’t decipher a Biscuit book that she isn’t dumb.

About one in five children are dyslexic or have a related difficulty with reading and language.  Educators, whether they realize it or not, have these children in their classrooms. The heartbreaking reality is that too often, they do not realize it. These children are not being identified and are not being taught appropriately – and how they are taught to read is absolutely critical to these children’s academic success. For these children, phonological awareness and emphasis on phonemics is critical. They struggle to differentiate sounds and this greatly impacts their ability to recognize symbols and learn to read with fluency. And just to set the matter straight, many children who struggle with reading, including dyslexic children, will not qualify for special education. They depend on instruction in the regular classroom.

So while this bill has great components for general education (early learning and professional development) it remains reactionary to the status quo and makes the child fail before we intervene. We could do so much more for these children.

So, our recommendations for a reading bill remain:

  • Ensure all schools use appropriate, evidence-based materials – that is, direct, explicit, multi-sensory, and systematic literacy instruction that includes phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling, and writing. (And, yes, it needs to be this detailed.)

  • Administer phonological screenings biannually, kindergarten to grade 3.

  • Support professional development in evidence-based reading instruction. Develop the capacity of educators to use data to guide instruction, and support ongoing work to make sure student growth data is used responsibly to assist all learners.

  • Better assess teacher applicants -- Expand the section of the Professional Educator Standard Board examination that addresses specified facets of reading development and reading instruction. Such examination needs to be founded on evidence-based literacy instruction – that is, direct, explicit, multi-sensory, and systematic literacy instruction that includes phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling, and writing.

This is a proactive, evidence-based approach. I strongly encourage you to read this paper on knowledge and practice standards from the International Dyslexia Association. In particular, I want to call your attention to this excerpt (from the “Are Teachers Prepared” section):

“Regrettably, the licensing and professional development practices currently endorsed by many states are insufficient for the preparation and support of teachers and specialists. Researchers are finding that those with reading specialist and special education licenses often know no more about research-based, effective practices than those with general education teaching licenses. The majority of practitioners at all levels have not been prepared in sufficient depth to prevent reading problems, to recognize early signs of risk, or to teach students with dyslexia and related learning disabilities successfully. Inquiries into teacher preparation in reading have revealed a pervasive absence of rich content and academic rigor in many courses that lead to certification of teachers and specialists. Analyses of teacher licensing tests show that typically, very few are aligned with current research on effective instruction for students at risk.”
(The International Dyslexia Association recognizes just nine teacher training programs, none in Washington State, even though we have preeminent researchers in the field at the University of Washington. More info here.)
Quality early learning involves more than access to preschool and full-day kindergarten and more than class size. It involves effective, appropriate instruction. The Senate reading bill addresses general education needs that we support. So we do not oppose this bill. And we truly appreciate the intent to prioritize reading in the K-3 years. But there is nothing in this bill that addresses phonological screening and appropriate instruction for dyslexic children, and nothing that addresses the shortfall in educator preparation.

At the end of the day the bill overlooks our dyslexic learners and what we know about their needs. It fails to promote practices that will make the biggest difference for these struggling readers.


Ramona Hattendorf
Government relations coordinator
Washington State PTA
Our work. Their potential.
Invest and commit to public schools and a million-plus kids. Our priorities

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