DES MOINES, Iowa — For the first time, dyslexia has been officially defined in Iowa law in an attempt to improve literacy among young students across the state.
Following passage by the Legislature, Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill this week that effectively establishes a definition for the reading disability in Iowa code and offers support for teachers so they can better evaluate student literacy and intervene as necessary.
Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, a group of Iowa parents dedicated to enhancing educational opportunities for dyslexic students and reducing the stigma around dyslexia, brought its cause to lawmakers last summer. Members called for the early detection of dyslexia, more focus on struggling readers and the identification of the best practices to better serve them.
"Getting this done in a year's time in both chambers and a governor's signature, as legislation goes, is remarkable," said Sen. Brian Schoenjahn , D-Arlington, who led the bill in the Senate. "I already feel that there was a great deal of support out there, a great deal of concern, and it was addressed."
Dyslexia is a reading disorder that makes it difficult for an individual to fully comprehend what is read or do so with fluency. At times, it can affect an individual's ability to correspond written words with the way they should sound.
The law defines dyslexia as "a specific and significant impairment in the development of reading," which could mean a person struggles with anything from vocabulary to fluency to comprehension. The definition makes clear that dyslexia does not correspond to reading impairments stemming from intellectual or sensory disabilities or a lack of appropriate instruction.
Schoenjahn said without an official definition, identification and treatment of the condition was nearly impossible. And Rep. Linda Miller, R-Bettendorf, who managed the bill in the House, said the significance goes beyond the definition.
"It's more than just putting a definition in the code," she said. "I think it's recognizing that this is one reason why children can't read at grade level."
Heidi Kroner, a founder of Decoding Dyslexia Iowa, said the term carries a stigma, and it's often wrongly thought of as a medical diagnosis rather than the learning problem that it is.
Kroner said she's noticed symptoms of dyslexia within her own family, and she has a child with the condition. While she said her child has worked through the situation, she doesn't want to see others struggle without any clue as to what's wrong.
"I don't want to see the problem keep going," she said. "These kids are smart, but they go to school and feel like a failure."
The law also charges Iowa's Department of Education, the Iowa Reading Research Center and Area Education Agencies with the task of developing and providing school districts with professional development services for teachers in an effort to better equip them with skills and strategies to improve student literacy and screen for problems. This provision is subject to the approval of an appropriation from the state.
Schoenjahn said $8 million for professional development in early literacy has been included in the Senate's education budget bill, along with a $1 million appropriation for the agencies to deliver reading instruction. He said lawmakers in both chambers have agreed upon this portion of the education budget, but it hasn't yet been officially approved.
A survey sponsored by the Iowa Reading Research Center and conducted by the state's public universities last year showed inconsistencies in literacy instruction. Statistics from the National Assessment of Education Progress show that nearly one in four third-graders in Iowa public schools has been deemed not proficient in reading for the 2012-2013.
"That gives us a very good picture of where we're currently starting," said Michelle Hosp, director of the Iowa Reading Research Center.
Supporters of the new law said it's a positive step forward in addressing dyslexia, but lawmakers may need to revisit the issue as parents and educators implement programs and determine how best to help children.
"Right now, I think what we need to do is, let's give it a chance to work, to get it in place," Schoenjahn said. "The concerned parents are out there. They're going to be monitoring and they've assured us that they'll be back with additional recommendations, and we'd be glad to listen to them."
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