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MMSD changing curriculum to brain-based letter sound approach as Wisconsin readers fall behind

MMSD changing curriculum to brain-based letter sound approach as Wisconsin readers fall behind
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MMSD changing curriculum to brain-based letter sound approach as Wisconsin readers fall behind

MADISON, Wis. - Wisconsin's young readers are falling behind as other states embrace the science of reading. The Madison Metropolitan School District said it's taking a big step toward a focus on phonics in an effort to help their students who are struggling.

Currently, many school districts in the state, including MMSD, use cueing techniques to teach young readers. This means when a student comes to a word they don't know, they're often encouraged to guess the word, try to figure it out by looking at a picture, skip it or replace it. 

"There're different ways of figuring out the word, but only one of them is reading. And what we know about reading is skilled readers, beginning readers who go on to be skilled readers, use letters and sounds to figure out words," said Steve Dykstra, who is part of the Wisconsin Reading Coalition, a grassroots movement pushing for the state to embrace the science of reading. 

He said research in the '90s showed that children learn best when they are taught to match sounds to words, training their brains to develop that skill.  

Dykstra said learning other strategies, such as guessing the word from a picture, often distract young readers from really learning to read.

"They think they're grabbing a lifeline, they think they're grabbing something that's going to work better for them, but they're not," Dykstra said.

Meet the Perez family

Celo, 11, Jazzy, 9, and Dira Perez, 7, all struggled with the way they were taught to read in Madison schools. 

Their mother, Angela Kowieski, tried to address the problem with her eldest son, but his teachers couldn't tell her why he was behind or how to help him.

"We would keep meeting and trying to figure out ways to get him caught up, and they couldn't tell us any type of strategy that they were doing, other than just pulling him out and reading with him," Kowieski said. "The techniques they were using were more, he would be responsible for memorizing the words or 'Look at the picture and tell me what the picture is,' and I can only imagine what some kids say it could be."

Kowieski was forced to look for help outside of the school district, but local free programs had long waitlists because of the growing need. 

"It's kind of heartbreaking to feel as a parent that my child's going to have to wait two years to get help. If I had waited two years with my girls, they probably still wouldn't be reading, which is really sad to me," Kowieski said. 

She took on the responsibility of paying for a tutor and removing her children from MMSD. After a year of working with Priscilla Gresens at the Arnold Reading Clinic, the Perez kids are reading at grade level. 

"After years of interventions to not have any results, and then a year of one hour a week of tutoring to have such excellent results, to me it's kind of mind boggling. Like what's going on in that time during school?"  Kowieski said. 

Kowieski said her kids are not alone in this struggle, and she knows many other parents don't have the resources to get help.

​​​​"The phonics, I believe, is the first step that pretty much unlocked in their brains what needed to be unlocked,"  Kowieski said.

Wisconsin is falling behind

In 1994, the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed Wisconsin's fourth graders ranked third for their reading scores compared to other states. In the most recent report from 2017, Wisconsin is ranked 34th. 

"We're not really doing any worse than we were doing then, but other states have started to embrace the science of reading so states that we were kind of in a tie with, like Massachusetts and Connecticut, have rocketed ahead of us. States that were well behind us like Florida have moved past us by a wide margin. States that were far, far far behind us like Mississippi have passed us," Dykstra said. 

Dykstra said many of the states that have improved had policymakers strongly endorse the science of reading and give districts and teachers the resources to make the transition. 

In Wisconsin, the Department of Public Instruction doesn't provide a statewide reading curriculum. 

"Wisconsin statute allows each school board to make local decisions about instruction, curriculum and academic standards. Our department does offer recommendations and guidance about reading and other subjects," said DPI Communication Officer Benson Gardner. 

Madison is making a change

The Madison Metropolitan School District is currently working with DPI to adopt new materials, acknowledging research about the importance of a brain-based letter sound approach. 

"Our materials were last adopted almost a decade ago. This is a chance for us to refresh those materials and really think about what's out there and how has research changed since then, and what are we thinking about as best practices now," said Teresa Morateck, MMSD's director for literacy and humanities. "It's that concept of you know better, you do better." 

During this process, MMSD leaders will be consulting reading experts and teachers. They hope to get recommendations for new materials by the end of this school year so they can roll out a more research-based approach to phonics next school year. 

"We want to hear from teachers and students who have been telling us for awhile that the materials that they've been using aren't meeting their needs," said Lisa Kvistad, superintendent for teaching and learning at MMSD. 

Kvistad said MMSD's focus will be on both a "standards-aligned structured approach to phonics that's based on the brain research" and on giving students better access to grade-level vocabulary and text.

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