Michigan Senate hears the case for requiring the “science of reading” in early literacy curriculum

A wide view of the Michigan State Capitol building with a cloudy sky behind.
Hearings began Tuesday for two dyslexia bills that would require Michigan public schools to incorporate practices from the science of reading into early literacy instruction for all students. (Elaine Cromie / Chalkbeat)

The Senate Education Committee Tuesday began hearing testimony in support of two proposed bills that would require schools to weave the “science of reading” into Michigan’s early literacy education.

The bills, which are aimed at better identifying and teaching students with dyslexia, would also likely benefit all early readers, supporters say. The legislation would mandate school districts and colleges use practices from the science of reading, or literacy instruction that emphasizes phonics along with building vocabulary and background knowledge, in assessments, interventions, and teacher education programs.

One bill introduced by Sen. Jeff Irwin, a Democrat from Ann Arbor, would add standards to existing screeners to identify students who have trouble decoding language and whether they are mastering foundational literacy skills. It would also call for interventions to be informed by the science of reading.

“We need to make sure that that pendulum is swung a little bit back toward those foundational skills of phonics in those early grades by making sure that our educators are bringing the science of reading into our classrooms – in the general ed classroom, in small groups, in individualized help, all the way throughout that classroom environment,” said Irwin.

Another bill introduced by Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a Democrat who represents parts of Canton and Livonia, would set standards for teacher preparation programs to train future educators on methods based on the science of reading as well as best practices to identify and support children struggling to read and students with dyslexia.

Currently, there is no set reading curriculum in the state and districts decide on their own under local control. The state does provide some guidance on using reading programs backed by research, but the proposed bills would provide more explicit direction on which methodology to use.

Michigan has long struggled to achieve literacy proficiency for its students and currently ranks 43rd in the country for reading for fourth graders.

Dyslexia is a common hereditary reading disability that can cause affected students to struggle in school. Studies show most people with dyslexia who get early high-quality intervention become average readers.

“Middle school is where I started figuring out that my brain was different from my peers,” said Deon Butler, now an adult who attended school in Inkster, during testimony in support of the bill. “I couldn’t read or write like them. When the teacher would call on me to read aloud, I would struggle. When I was struggling, everybody would laugh at me.”

Butler said though he managed to graduate with a 2.5 grade point average and got a football scholarship to attend Central Michigan University, he was still reading at a fourth grade level. The star athlete was signed by the Detroit Lions, but was eventually cut because he struggled to read the team’s playbook.

Butler said though schooling failed him, he learned to read from a tutor trained in Orton-Gillingham, a highly structured multisensory literacy program.

“This is urgent,” he said of the bills. “Changes need to happen. Don’t let anymore kids down, especially the kids in my community who have so much against them.”

Caroline Kaganov, parent of a ninth-grader with dyslexia, said during the hearing that students’ ability to access curriculum starts with their ability to read.

“Access to literacy should not depend on if your parent can pay for outside tutoring or if your parent has the knowledge to fight a school district to ensure the correct intervention,” she said. “We as a state are required to provide a free and appropriate public education for every child. We need to ensure that every child can read at a proficient level.”

Alyssa Henneman, an elementary school teacher in Centreville Public Schools, spoke in favor of the bills Tuesday, saying educators need training grounded in the science of reading.

“This training would improve my instruction as well as other teachers’ instruction to know where to focus our interventions to meet the needs of our individual students,” she said.

Those opposed to the bills have concerns there will not be enough funding to implement the requirements it would impose on school systems that are already struggling to hire teachers and combat learning loss.

Irwin said he would push for funding to back the bills in the upcoming school aid budget.

While best practices for reading instruction have evolved over the years, phonics has won over previously popular methods. Current research suggests effective literacy instruction should include five core pillars: phonemic awareness, phonics and word recognition, fluency, oral vocabulary, and text comprehension.

If the bills pass, Michigan would join at least 30 states that have enacted laws requiring instruction based on the science of reading.

Irwin and Polehanki have previously introduced similar legislation and have advocated for years for more help for students with dyslexia. In 2022, the bills passed the Senate nearly unanimously, but the House Education Committee never moved the bills forward.

Last year, a handful of House representatives took up the issue and co-sponsored two proposed dyslexia bills.

Rep. Carol Glanville, a Democrat from Grand Rapids, introduced legislation that would create a dyslexia resource guide and advisory committee within the Michigan Department of Education.

Rep. Kathy Schmaltz, a Republican from Jackson, co-sponsored a bill that would require schools to have at least one teacher trained in Orton-Gillingham. Both have been referred to the House Education Committee but have not yet had hearings.

Testimony on the Senate bills will continue at the next Senate Education Committee meeting on Feb. 13.

Hannah Dellinger covers K-12 education and state education policy for Chalkbeat Detroit. You can reach her at hdellinger@chalkbeat.org.

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