Ready, Set, Read! Bill Aims to Get Maryland Students Screened Early
Posted by Ann Costantino on 17th February 2019
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—– By: Ann Costantino —–

Photo Credit: Shutterstock/The Baltimore Post

Proposed Maryland Legislation Aims to Ask Public Schools to Be Proactive When it Comes to Identifying Reading Difficulties

A bill, requiring Maryland school systems to screen the state’s youngest learners for reading difficulties early, aims to take a proactive – instead of a reactive – approach when it comes to identifying reading challenges. 

The Maryland Ready to Read Act seeks to require local school systems to provide early diagnostic assessments and supplemental reading instruction for pre-kindergarteners to first graders as a means to get ahead of potential reading challenges that, if not discovered early, can rapidly get students off track academically.  

“In math, 3rd and 4th grade (classes) start to bring in word problems,” said Lutherville-based clinical psychologist Edwin Oliver, PhD. And “not being able to read with automacy is a very pervasive public health issue that effects all aspects of your life — socialization, your employment, your personal relationships, self-efficacy.”

And catching up can be difficult and cause students to lose self-esteem and develop a lack of belief in their abilities to succeed in school — and in life. 

Hollywood actor, Ameer Baraka would know.  At the age of 23 he was identified as dyslexic while serving a prison sentence after spending his school years believing that he would not amount to anything because he couldn’t read.  Now a pre-Emmy-nominated actor and advocate for early reading screening, Baraka traveled to Annapolis last month to throw his support behind the bill.  

Citing a federal law that mandates that inmates get screened for dyslexia, Baraka said in phone interview with The Baltimore Post, “Inmates get more privileges than (they do) as a child. Do people have to go to the penitentiary in order to get screened?” he said. “Airlines screen to prevent something from happening. Men over 40 get screened for prostate cancer. Women get mammograms.  I am a big proponent of kids getting screened (for reading),”Baraka said.  

Baraka, on behalf of his Dyslexia Awareness Foundation, has traveled the country bringing awareness about dyslexia, reading challenges and the need for early screening. Annapolis was one of his stops on his “50 States in 11 Months Tour.” (A tax deductible donation can be made to his foundation here, which will help fund the tour and cause, as Baraka aims to promote awareness of dyslexia and early reading screening.)

Similar moves for early literacy skill screening are being brought to legislation statewide.

Widely supported by advocates for dyslexia awareness, Maryland’s Ready to Read Act is not a “dyslexia bill,” but seeks to screen young learners early – while casting a wide net – which could flag young students who are facing reading challenges for a variety of reasons.

Although dyslexia – a disorder which makes learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols difficult – is not caused by environmental factors, early screening called for in the proposed legislation, can also identify other learning challenges that may arise due to economic disadvantages, students’ access to resources, students new to the English language, and students with other learning disabilities which may or may not include a dyslexia diagnosis.   

Supporters of the Ready to Read Act say that the earlier a reading difficulty is identified, the better.  And often dyslexic students are the easiest to spot.  But only if teachers know what to look for and how to assess them.

“We are kind of like a canary in coal mine,” said Laura Schultz , co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, an organization which provides support and resources for reading instruction and interventions. “Kids with dyslexia and reading difficulties are often the first to show difficulty learning to read and often provide an early warning to schools that their reading curriculum and instruction isn’t aligned to the ‘science of reading.” She said, “Students with dyslexia stand out early (PK, K and 1) as casualties of poor reading instruction and then again as casualties of limited/no interventions for severe dyslexia (grades 2+).”

If passed, the new law would mandate the screening for grades pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and first grade in public school systems across the state and allow educators to know early on if there is a problem.  If a reading delay or difficulty is identified, then the law would require specific interventions to ensure the young students stay on track with their specific reading needs.

Baltimore County Public Schools has been proactive in its screening of young students, focusing on kindergartners for early literacy screening since 2016.  St. Mary’s County is also working on universal screening of its students.  But if made law, the bill would require all districts to screen the state’s youngest learners.

The bill has had widespread support.  Ten senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the senate bill. And already over sixty percent of Maryland’s delegation – roughly 85 of the 141 delegates – support the bill and have cosponsored it.  

Among them, District 42B Delegate Michele Guyton, PhD, who is new to Annapolis, but not to education, said of the bill “I am grateful for the tireless work of the many Right to Read advocates and parents and am convinced that early detection of reading difficulties will positively impact student outcomes and school experiences. Early intervention is the most effective way to close the achievement gaps between groups of students, as well. I am enthusiastically supporting this legislation.” 

Guyton previously served on the Maryland State Board of Education (MSBE) where she also voted in support of a change to the instructional side of reading which will impact teacher preparedness when they teach students the skill of reading.  The proposed legislation dovetails that requirement.

Last year, Guyton and the rest of the MSBE voted unanimously to require certain teachers to pass a proficiency test on teaching the skill of reading.  

Beginning on July 1, Maryland teachers who teach early childhood, special education in grades K-12, elementary school teachers of grades K-6, and teachers of students learning to speak, read and write in English, will be required to pass the test.

“I think this is the perfect timing for this bill, said psychologist Edwin Oliver, PhD. Speaking of the timing of the MSBE decision and the Ready to Read Act, Oliver said. “Because assuming that it passes, we are going to be identifying more children.  Then… as the dust settles, be better equipped – and earlier – to prevent unnecessary frustration…” Oliver and several education advocates had advocated for years to improve teacher proficiency in reading instruction at the college and state education board level.  

Both the house and senate bills have hearings in Annapolis this week. (HB690 is scheduled for a hearing on Feb. 21, SB734 is scheduled for its hearing on Feb. 26.)

Designed to be an early indicator for all reading difficulties, if passed, the law would also require local school boards to develop and maintain a “dyslexia handbook” which would include recommendations for diagnostic assessments, instructional programs and continued monitoring.

As for Ameer Baraka, the actor has been pre-nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding actor in daytime TV drama, Bronx SIU, and has written a screenplay about his life which has substantial backing to be made into a movie.  He says he is using his celebrity platform to inform the public about the importance of early reading screening.  

Baraka’s diagnosis was late, but it is one that changed his life when he was finally able to get help.  It’s why he supports the Ready to Read Act. “When you can’t compete academically,” Baraka said, “it robs you of your visions and dreams.” 

For support with dyslexia in Maryland, see Decoding Dyslexia MD for more resources and information.

annc@thebaltimorepost.com