Will Morton was a happy, creative and enthusiastic child until he went to kindergarten.
As his classmates sounded out letters, and began reading words and simple sentences, he fell behind. His teacher was perplexed by Will's lack of progress because he was clearly bright and had plenty of exposure to books and language at home. And his parents were worried, because Will's older brother and sister had learned to read easily.
"We knew nothing about reading problems because we hadn't ever had any experience with them, but I remember wondering in kindergarten if he was dyslexic because he seemed to have trouble recognizing letters and associating them with sounds," says Chris Morton, Will's mother. "His teacher told us not to worry, that it was a little developmental delay and we needed to give him time and he'd be fine."
But she was wrong, experts on dyslexia say.
Students like Will - who have persistent trouble reading because the neural pathways in their brains do not decode letters and sounds in the ways that make reading and writing natural - need specific help, they say, and the sooner the better. Without that kind of help, they will never catch up, and even if they manage to disguise their different learning style, they are likely to continue to struggle with reading, spelling, language and sometimes with math; in short, they won't ever achieve their full intellectual potential.
That's why Rep. Keith Ripp, R-Lodi, has introduced two bills to the Wisconsin Assembly aimed at helping schoolchildren with dyslexia. One bill would require that schools screen all students in kindergarten through second grade for dyslexia as well as all students in third, fourth and fifth grades who do not perform well on reading tests. The other bill requires that Wisconsin elementary reading teachers, special education teachers and reading specialists be trained and tested in instructional techniques proven to help dyslexic children learn to read. Both of Ripp's bills have bipartisan support, with Senate co-sponsors including Sens. Alberta Darling, R-Menomonee Falls, Julie Lassa, D-Stevens Point and Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee. The bills are currently in the Assembly's education committee but have not been scheduled for a hearing.
With the Legislature slated to finish its regular business in April, a local parents group, the Learning Differences Network, is hoping for a hearing and vote on the bills in the next two months. Members of the group, which was founded in 2006 by two Verona area moms and counts Chris Morton as a member, are writing letters to their representatives, urging quick action.
Dr. Julie Gocey, one of the founders of the group, says as a pediatrician, she had little training or knowledge about dyslexia until her son was diagnosed with the reading problem. She wants to change that, both in her profession and for teachers, who she says are also largely unprepared to recognize or help dyslexic students. She says she gets calls every week from parents across Wisconsin who need help figuring out what to do about their children who aren't learning to read. "Other states are ahead of us on this issue," she says.
Ripp has personal interest
A freshman assemblyman from rural Wisconsin, Ripp has a strong personal interest in dyslexia.
"My youngest son, who's very bright, had all kinds of trouble learning to read. My wife and I knew almost from the beginning there was an issue, but we didn't know what it was," he says. In fact, he says, as he analyzed the troubles his son was having, he recalled his own difficulties learning to read and write. "I've always preferred working with my hands, and I suspect today I'd be diagnosed as dyslexic. But back in the day when I was going to school there were several different styles of learning that were taught. Eventually it kind of clicked so I could get along," he says.
Ripp estimates testing and private tutoring for his son's severe dyslexia have cost his family more than $8,000 in out-of-pocket expenses. He says the expense is well worth it, but wishes that his son's school had offered help earlier. He also believes the cost of screening for dyslexia and training teachers to help dyslexic students would be public money well spent.
The testing and training would be based on methods recommended by the Wisconsin Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. According to the organization, one in five Wisconsin students have some degree of dyslexia, ranging from mild to severe cases that can preclude a normal life.
Advocates for identifying and treating dyslexia say that 74 percent of students who struggle with reading in first grade will still be non-proficient in ninth grade. They note that poor reading skills are strongly correlated with depression, substance abuse, delinquency and dropping out of school, and that almost 50 percent of prison inmates read below a high school level.
"Let's try and reach these kids early and give them a better life," Ripp says. "And let's give the teachers the tools they need, too. I'd hope these bills could kind of nip dyslexia in the bud. Students who can read well are better, more productive citizens."
There's little debate that proficient reading is a skill that students must master to be successful, in school and in their lives beyond the classroom. But when it comes to treating, diagnosing or even acknowledging that dyslexia exists, there's plenty of controversy.
Ripp's bills, in fact, face stiff opposition from the 3,000-member Wisconsin State Reading Association, a powerful professional organization of teachers, reading specialists, administrators, reading professors and parents. Susan Schumann, the group's legislative committee chair, says her organization has fundamental concerns about the very definition of dyslexia.
In talking points about the bill, the organization uses quotation marks around the word dyslexia, noting that there is no agreed-upon definition. Because of the absence of a firm definition, the group says experts in special education and literacy can't even agree on how common the disability is.
The group also takes issue with how testing for dyslexia would be done, saying that the screening methods known as rapid naming and phonemic awareness have misidentified students as having the disability and missed others who really do have the disability. Schumann says they also unduly simplify the complex process of understanding why a child is having trouble learning to read.
"As a teacher, it's your responsibility to watch the child carefully," she says. "You need to give them time and a lot of observation to see how they're doing. If it's inexperience with language, they can often catch up, especially with one-on-one help. You want to tailor what you do to what each child needs and not narrow the focus of instruction," she says.
Dan Gustafson, a local child psychologist and neuropsychologist, is frustrated by the WSRA's unwillingness to acknowledge the term dyslexia.
While he agrees that treatment for reading difficulties should suit the child and that there should be a diagnosis of a specific problem, Gustafson says that problems in decoding the written word are all too real for plenty of children, adolescents and adults.
"I believe you have to provide the right medicine, at the right dose to cure a problem," says Gustafson, who has struggled with dyslexia himself. But before you can help anyone, he adds, you have to be willing to recognize the problem as well as willing to do what works to solve it.
For dyslexic students, he says that means early intervention and a teaching method that's got a solid, scientific track record in helping children figure out the code of reading and writing through understanding how letters and sounds go together to form words.
Gustafson believes early screening and intervention for dyslexia is critically important, and it would have an impact on his work as a child psychologist. "I know I'd see a lot fewer bright, capable kids who are extremely anxious and don't feel they can do what's being asked of them. That would be a good thing," he says.
Diagnosis helped Mortons
For young Will Morton, things got worse before they got better. In first grade, as his classmates began reading fluently and easily, he was still guessing at letters and mostly unsuccessful in puzzling out words. He began to dislike school.
By second grade, his inability to read made trying to do class assignments a nightmare. When he got a worksheet he couldn't understand, he often crumpled it up or threw his pencil. His behavior landed him in the principal's office, sometimes on a daily basis. "I hardly recognized my child," his mother says.
He was frustrated and angry, yelling in class and telling his mother every day that he was stupid because he couldn't read and write like his classmates, sometimes even saying he wanted to die. Finally, a teacher explained that if the Mortons formally requested an assessment from the school that they would do an evaluation to see if Will had a reading disability.
It was no surprise to the Mortons that the school's evaluation showed that Will had a significant problem with reading, and they followed that diagnosis up with a private evaluation from a neuropsychologist.
That diagnosis showed that he had well above average intelligence but that he did not decode sounds and letters and words in the ways that are necessary for easy, fluent reading. He began getting extra reading help at school, and last summer he began working privately three times a week with a reading tutor familiar with dyslexia problems like Will's.
Now in third grade, Will is still working with a reading specialist at school and is also seeing the tutor several times each week, with his parents paying the cost. He is reading, and even volunteers to read aloud at school. Best of all, he is back to his sunny, imaginative self with lots of friends and growing confidence at school.
"It's still a lot of work because the way his brain processes letters and words requires a different pathway for reading than for most people," his mother says. "What I wish is that he had been diagnosed earlier and that his teachers had known how to help him decode the written word from the beginning. It's heartbreaking to see your child suffer. And, you know, he's one of the lucky ones, because now he's getting help."