Most kids have received a “Happy Birthday” card with a handwritten note from a loved one.
But for about 20% of children who have dyslexia, like Anri Haglund, now 14 and a seventh-grader, reading birthday messages often comes with anxiety and stress as they try to decipher them or read them aloud at parties.
“There was one birthday card,” Haglund recalled to the Advance. “It was a word that I think I’ve seen, but I just never read it because I would just kind of mumble it and sometimes get away with that. And I was just kind of sitting there sweating and thinking, ‘What if I screwed this word up?’”
So what is dyslexia? According to the International Dyslexia Association, it is”a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities.” Problems with reading comprehension are common.
In the classroom, Haglund struggled without many systems in place to help him work through his literacy issues.
“Something that was difficult with school when I was younger was reading, spelling and writing,” Haglund said. “And one of the strategies my teachers told me that really didn’t work for me was, if I didn’t know a word, or if I couldn’t sound it out, they would say, ‘Reread and reread it.’ And that was just not working. … I just kind of felt like, ‘Oh, I’m stuck at the same spot.’”
Dyslexia poses significant threats to many elementary children learning to read but can affect adults, too. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has estimated that about 15% of Americans have dyslexia. It is also estimated that only one in 10 children with dyslexia will receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and get the services they need to learn how to read.
But a bipartisan bill package making its way through the Michigan Senate would create systems for identifying and intervening to better assist students with dyslexia.
Runestad told the Advance the bills will empower students with dyslexia and equip them with the interventions necessary to thrive in a school environment.
“If these kids don’t get early help and early intervention, they’re never going to be good readers; they’re gonna have all kinds of learning issues,” Runestad said. “It’s been proven over and over and over if you get these kids the resources, the intervention early they can be absolutely fabulous students.”
Irwin said the bills would address an issue in the 2016 third-grade reading law mandating students who are more than a grade level behind in reading levels to be held back. He said this package will “make sure that they include a component that will help our educators identify kids who have characteristics of dyslexia” and then use “multi-tiered systems of support interventions in the classroom to bring those kids up to speed.”
The bills last month were reported out of the Education and Career Readiness Committee and are now on the Senate floor. A similar package was previously introduced in 2020, but was not taken up for a vote.
Irwin touted bipartisan support for the bills.
“Sometimes it doesn’t matter what party they’re from, you know, this is about literacy,” he said, adding that “this is about doing the right thing for reading.”
Susan Schmidt, a former teacher and current tutor to kids for dyslexia, including Haglund, helped bring the idea for the bills to the attention of lawmakers and helped in crafting the legislation. She told the Advance that throughout her time teaching, she saw numerous colleagues who “didn’t have the training” needed to help students with dyslexia.
Schmidt said the bills could help relieve stress for parents and children. Some parents are left to turn to expensive tutoring to help their child, which can be even more difficult for low-income families.
“All these parents, you know, they’ve sort of been waiting for some answer for the dysfunction of what they’ve gone through,” Schmidt said. “It’s as simple as let’s train our teachers, let’s get them screened, let’s intervene early. I mean, it’s dead simple, but it’s very complex in the outcomes of what happens.”
If these kids don't get early help and early intervention, they're never going to be good readers; they're gonna have all kinds of learning issues. It's been proven over and over and over if you get these kids the resources, the intervention early they can be absolutely fabulous students.
– Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake)
Elyse Presnell-Swenson, who has with dyslexia and is the parent of a child with dyslexia, has also been a vocal advocate for the bills. She helped lead the website, Michigan Dyslexia Laws, which aims to boost visibility for the legislation and the issue of dyslexia in schools.
“I don’t think any parent should have to go through what we’re going through, or any child,” Presnell-Swenson said. “Every child has a right to learn how to read.”
Shannon Koenon, a board member of the Michigan Chapter of International Dyslexia Association, told the Advance that the bills “get at the root” of the issue and will ensure that steps are taken to help students in the classroom who have dyslexia.
“They’re all going to be impactful,” Koenan said. “Educating those teachers, I think, is key. Because once they know the correct methodology and the science behind it, then they will start teaching differently in the classroom. … People are going through school and are not able to read. This will correct that.”
Haglund, who spoke in favor of the bills in the Michigan Senate committee in November, said they will ensure other students get the help they need.
“I’m quite happy to have dyslexia because it comes with so many amazing things,” Haglund said. “I think [the bills] would be very helpful, especially for younger kids who, like myself, who didn’t get the opportunity to work with a tutor who knew about dyslexia, and didn’t give me the same strategies over and over.”
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