Long gone are the days when a person who could neither read nor write could still do well in society. As our world has grown more complex, and the flow of information so much greater, basic literacy has become a requirement for every autonomous adult in modern America.
When more advanced skills are measured—such as the ability to read this paragraph—about one-seventh of all Americans fall into the illiterate category. In fact, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) estimates that about one-fifth of all American adults have trouble locating information in text, or making simple inferences based upon a text. From this perspective, we still have much work to do to reach 100 percent literacy.
Historically, Americans began reading with their parents. Today, public educators are expected to teach everyone to read and write, whether or not they begin learning at home. A major component of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative is devoted to bringing all students to a proficient level of reading by the third grade.
In order to reach this goal, programs and specialists must be prepared to help all students who are struggling with literacy. It’s not simply a matter of assigning more homework and making them “try harder.” A reading specialist must be able to identify where and why students are struggling, and provide new strategies to help them overcome those struggles.
What is Certification?
Schools looking for a reading specialist need a way to know if applicants are up to the task. Certification provides a means of letting schools know that an educator has completed a standard level of training and has demonstrated success in helping students in reading. Certification standards maintain the quality of reading-recovery programs, requiring that reading specialists have the practical, personal, and leadership skills needed, as well as current knowledge of research and methods regarding reading development.
Why reading specialists are important
Children who excel early in reading tend to do much better in school than those who struggle with basic literacy. And achievement gap between these two groups tends to increase as students get older; those who do well at first tend to get even more opportunities for success, while those who begin poorly find what opportunities they have are taken away from them. Because of this phenomenon (also known as “The Matthew Effect”), early intervention is much more effective than late intervention.
While every teacher can benefit from workshops and seminars that focus on literacy training, effective intervention often requires much more specialized training and focus. Reading specialists, sometimes also called “literacy coaches,” are responsible for the literacy level of all students, especially those who struggle with reading. They apply research-based methods and consistent assessment, provide support to both teachers and parents, as well as provide teacher training. Thus, reading specialists take a leadership role, guiding the development of new teachers; as well as help established teachers to connect their subject content to reading, use their textbooks more effectively, and implement new strategies as occasion requires.
Reading specialists may work in primary or secondary schools. Schools without reading specialists tend to over-refer students to special education programs, overloading them with students who could have been better served through targeted reading recovery instruction. A lack of specialists also results in uneven assessment, as individual teachers apply different frameworks for evaluating their students’ reading ability. Secondary schools without reading specialists end up losing many students, as an inability (or partial inability) to read makes it impossible for students to succeed in any of their other subjects. Reading specialists therefore profoundly impact a school’s success.
Reading specialist certification (otherwise designated “endorsement” or “additional authorization”) establishes that an experienced teacher has been trained in specific literacy instruction above and beyond standard teacher preparation; and is capable of assessing literacy problems, providing remedial instruction, and leading other teachers in the promotion of literacy. Requirements for this endorsement vary from state to state, but most states’ requirements 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 (important for establishing their credibility as a leader)
- A master’s degree with a concentration in reading and writing education (typically, the equivalent of 21+ semester hours in reading, language arts, and related courses)
- Program experiences which establish both effective instruction with students and effective leadership among other educators
- A supervised practicum experience working with students who struggle in reading, as well as collaborative experiences with teachers
Programs and classes leading to licensure as a reading specialist (see Typical Coursework for Reading Specialist Certification) may be part of a specialized master’s degree, or taken after completion of a master’s degree. A non-degree program is usually somewhat shorter than a degree program; however, don’t expect to complete it with just a few workshops. Certification as a reading specialist is not simply an extra endorsement to add to a standard teaching license, but a preparation program for a specialized educational occupation. As with all licensed professions, the path to certification protects the integrity and value of the professional job.
Coursework in this post-graduate program will cover instruction, assessment, and leadership. Foundational instruction will include language development, how written information is processed by the brain, and how language areas are related. Specific literacy strategies and methods will be covered, including how to link them with content areas through middle and high school. Candidates for reading specialist certification will also be taught various strategies for authentic assessment of literacy level and difficulties, using both formal testing and informal methods (e.g., portfolios, teacher observations). Specialists must learn how to properly assess students of different grade levels, and of different linguistic backgrounds; how to communicate the results of these assessments to teachers, principals, and parents; and how to use the results to apply targeted instruction. Finally, coursework will include a leadership component, so that specialists will be prepared to train teachers, and coordinate programs with administration and other educators.
Many certification programs also include a component devoted to understanding the diverse cultural backgrounds of students. Since students with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds may respond differently to certain instructional programs, the reading specialist must be able to identify when this is an issue, and how to leverage these differences instead of fighting (or ignoring) them.
Finally, completing a reading specialist certification and/or master’s degree program will require passing a formal examination (in many states, the Praxis II). Check with your state’s department of education to learn which test(s) are required of reading specialists in your state.
How your training prepares you to become a reading specialist
The training obtained through a certification program will provide you with multiple assessment tools and instructional strategies, so that you can apply the right tool to the right grade level and educational environment. In many cases you’ll help students with specific, limited difficulties, for which thoroughly researched and tested methods have been developed. Because of your training, you’ll be able to take advantage of the collective knowledge of the education community, and literacy experts in particular, instead of having to invent strategies and improvise techniques.
For students with greater needs, you’ll be equipped to document progress and establish new goals for students as they make progress, as well as provide parents with strategies for supporting their children’s learning at home. Additionally, you’ll be responsible for supporting teacher learning. You’ll coach teachers in new reading strategies and help them to implement standards or curriculum components designed to improve literacy education.
Since many students will remain in some sort of reading recovery program for multiple years, you’ll also play a role in students’ transition from one classroom to the next, communicating with teachers to maintain students’ forward progress.
Your understanding of reading processes and difficulties, along with your understanding of your students’ perspectives and backgrounds, will help you to guide them to small successes and tap into their individual motivations. Using your background in literature, you can select texts that interest your students, showing them how to apply reading strategies to things they actually want to read. Your training gives you the skills and techniques you need to contribute to your students’—and your school’s—success.
How your role as reading specialist impacts your students and your school
School districts with reading specialists tend to have higher student achievement in reading, as well as higher graduation rates. Because of your role as reading specialist, literacy instruction is consolidated and standardized. One program of assessment and instruction can be consistently used throughout the district, instead of a piecemeal attempt made by diverse teachers of different educational backgrounds.
Also, the simple act of assigning responsibility for literacy to a specific position increases the level of accountability—and frees teachers to concentrate on classroom instruction. In short, your presence as a reading specialist ensures that more appropriate and more consistent action will be taken in addressing students’ literacy problems.
With a reading specialist in the school or school district, teachers have access to more training and support. Specialists can answer questions from teachers about irregularities in student achievement—for example, a student who shows high reading ability with fiction, but low reading ability with non-fiction texts, or vice versa—and share techniques to help address these concerns. A reading specialist can also work with grade-level teams or lead teacher study groups to implement literacy programs that can be sustained and improved year to year. Additionally, they can work to accomplish systemic change where established incentives present a barrier to improvement.
Improvements in literacy education do not happen simply by trying harder; educators must know how to apply effort in an effective way. A reading specialist is trained in exactly that. And with the right person in the position, a school’s literacy goals become that much more attainable.
Literacy Coaches: Supporting Your Administrators at the Start of the Year
In my work I am incredibly fortunate to work with truly amazing school leaders. Honestly. They are amazing–and I’m not just saying that because I know they’re probably reading this. The best principals, assistant principals, directors, and heads-of-school I have worked with are the kind of school leaders who:
- visit classrooms frequently
- learn alongside the teachers and students
- embrace innovation
- are excellent communicators
- are fair, earn their teachers’ trust, and are approachable
And most importantly to my work:
- have a crystal clear philosophy and vision for literacy instruction in their building that is based on what is best for kids
- have the skills to bring the staff together to take action around common goals (they can get people to do stuff and be successful, even if people are reluctant at first)
- they believe every student has the right to excellent literacy instruction, no matter which teacher in the building the child is assigned to
Being a school leader tends to be lonely work. Often they are literally they only administrator in their building. So what can we do, as literacy coaches and teacher leaders to support them at the start of the year? I asked a group of principals I work with what their thoughts were, and here is what they told me:
- HELP THEM KNOW WHAT TO LOOK FOR AT THE START OF THE YEAR
Administrators tell me that the most helpful thing I can do for them is to help them “see with my eyes.” During the first few days of school, I’m careful not to bombard people with too many emails or resources, but after the first week, one or two gentle reminders of a few key things to look for can be helpful. Depending on the nature of your writing curriculum, the amount of experience your teachers have, and the culture in your building, you might want to gently nudge your administrator to walk the building (with or without you) to look for and compliment:
- Writing centers are set up and accessible to children
- Student writing is on display by the end of the first full week of school
- Independent writing is happening every day, and student stamina is steadily growing, even just one minute more each day
- Anchor charts reflect that routines AND writing strategies are being taught, even in the first few weeks of school
A great administrator need not be an expert in the teaching of writing, but each of these (as you know) are indicators that a lot of other great things are happening, so they are powerful tools for an administrator to have. Of course, in my mind there is a list of 100 more things to look for–but selecting just a few that are tailored to the school will be more helpful than trying to do everything at once.
2. YEAR-LONG WHOLE-SCHOOL GOAL SETTING
You can help the administrators you work with by gathering input from all the teachers you work with to help your administrator set meaningful, attainable goals for your school’s literacy instruction. As a coach, you probably see teachers and students in action across all the grade levels in your building and probably can name 2-3 things (easily) that would support every teacher and student. Perhaps these are based on the 2-3 things you suggested looking for at the start of the year. For example, some of the goals in different schools I work with include:
- Displaying student work more often and more publicly, especially work in progress, and work that celebrates the writing process — with evidence of revision and editing
- Using conferring notes during data team meetings along with on-demand writing scores and other assessment information (which also means studying conferring in general, and note-taking in general)
- Revamping the approach to word study and phonics entirely to be more connected to students’ reading and writing; more transfer from word study to reading and writing
Once the dust settles from the school year, you may want to schedule a meeting with your administrator to discuss year-long literacy goals for your school and come up with a tentative plan for professional learning opportunities to support the whole school. Even if you did some goal setting at the end of last year, a check in is always a good idea at the start of the new year.
3. SUPPORT ADMINISTRATOR CLASSROOM VISITS
Depending on the culture of your building, administrator visits might be either totally NBD (No Big Deal), or might cause people to have anxiety attacks, or maybe somewhere in the middle.
The truth is, an administrator who is regularly present in classrooms has more information to work with when making important decisions. As the literacy coach, you can support these visits in a number of ways.
- Visit classrooms together, with a clear focus, and a plan ahead for how you will celebrate the work you will see in the classrooms. Maybe you’ll write hand-written notes to the teacher, or send a joint email, or just have a quick group chat with the teacher while kids are writing. At the start of the year especially (but true all year long) it’s important that any classroom visits you do together are a positive experience for all involved. These visits should be kept strictly separate from any kind of evaluative observations.
- Invite administrators to visit classrooms to do specific things:
- Read aloud a mentor text for writing workshop
- Sit with one student at a time to have the student read their writing
- Confer alongside you
- Teach a minilesson (!!)
- You can provide resources, like simple checklists or handouts, that an administrator can use as a “cheat sheet” during visits. If you share a checklist, make sure it’s based on something you’ve already studied together with teachers. Here’s a classroom environment checklist that I often use first during a training/workshop–and then can give to administrators to use in follow-up visits to compliment the work everybody is doing. I also love to share photos of great classroom examples whenever I find them (which is constantly).
Classroom Environment Checklist
The important thing, I think, is that you reach out to your school leaders often to offer up support in any way you can – just as you do with teachers. The start of the year only happens once, and getting off to a great start with your administrator can set the course for the rest of the year.