No matter whether they learn to read at home or in the classroom, children who excel early in reading do better in school overall than those who struggle with basic literacy. Perhaps it’s because once students transition from learning to read to reading to learn, those who have a good grasp of the mechanics can absorb more from their classes. Since the gap in achievement between these two groups tends to widen as students get older, early intervention is much more effective than addressing it later on.
But who should intervene? It’s true that every teacher can benefit from workshops focusing on literacy training, but effective intervention most often demands more specialized training and focus. That’s where the certified reading specialists come in. They’re responsible for the literacy level of all students, but especially those who struggle with reading. They use research-based instructional methods and consistent assessments, provide support for teachers and parents, and provide teacher training. And they help teachers learn to link their subject material to the reading process, use their textbooks more effectively, and implement new strategies when indicated.
When the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative began in 2002, one of its goals was for students to reach a proficient reading level by the third grade, when students typically make the change to reading to learn. It was supplanted by the “Every Student Succeeds Act” on December 10, 2015, but the goal remained the same.
To reach this goal, it falls to reading specialists to identify where and why certain students are struggling with their reading skills, and provide new strategies to allow them to overcome those struggles.
Schools that lack reading specialists tend to refer too many students to special education programs, students who could have been better served through targeted reading recovery instruction. These schools also see uneven skills assessment, as individual teachers apply different frameworks for evaluating reading ability. And secondary schools without reading specialists lose many students because their partial or total inability to read makes it impossible for them to succeed in any of their other subjects.
Not every teacher can become a reading specialist: it requires special certification that includes training in specific literacy instruction above and beyond standard teacher preparation. Specialists must be able to assess literacy problems, provide remedial instruction, and encourage teachers and the school to promote literacy. Requirements for certification vary from one state to another, but most are consistent with the framework provided by the International Reading Association Standards.
Reading specialists must have:
- A valid teaching certificate, as well as previous teaching experience
- A master’s degree with a concentration in reading and writing education (equivalent of 21+ semester hours in reading, language arts, and related courses)
- Program experiences for both effective instruction with students and effective leadership among other educators
- Supervised practical experience working with students struggling with reading, and collaborative instructional experiences with teachers in literacy
Coursework for the certification process includes instruction, assessment, and leadership, as well as language development, how the brain processes written information, how language areas are connected, and specific evidence-based literacy strategies and methods for improving student reading skills. Also covered are formal and informal testing methods, appropriately assessing students at different grade levels and from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, and communicating results to both educators and parents.
In short, a reading specialist serves an important purpose in the educational system. Not only do school districts with dedicated reading specialists have higher student achievement in reading, they also tend to have higher graduation rates. Literacy instruction becomes consolidated and standardized, with a single program of instruction and assessment used consistently throughout the school district. There’s also an increased and more precise level of accountability for achieving results, helping to ensure that literacy issues are addressed in a widespread and effective manner.
Interested in becoming a certified reading specialist? Contact your state board of education to learn more about specific requirements.
 n/a. (2021). “Reading Specialist Certification.” Retrieved from https://www.teaching-certification.com/reading-specialist-certification.html.