Home Reading Specialists: What They Are and How to Become One

Reading Specialists: What They Are and How to Become One

One in three kids enters kindergarten without the basic language skills needed to learn how to read. If no one intervenes, they’re far more likely to become one of the 8,000 students who drop out of high school every single day and join the 93 million American adults who read below or just at the most basic level of literacy. Reading specialists dedicate their lives and careers to breaking this cycle.

What Is a Reading Specialist?

Reading specialists are education professionals who are trained to understand and address the factors that cause students to struggle with reading. Reading specialists are not aides or assistants. They’re licensed educators who are required to meet the same educational and training standards as traditional teachers. In fact, they often have to complete extra training beyond what it takes to become a classroom teacher.

Reading specialists share responsibility with primary teachers in guaranteeing that students can read at their grade level and develop the literacy skills needed to move successfully through their schooling. Although they tend to focus on younger children, for whom successful intervention is most critical and most likely, reading specialists work with students of all ages in grades K–12.

I always kept multiple copies of Shel Silverstein books and created many reading exercises and “games” with his books. Where the Sidewalk Ends was a favorite. I would read several poems and ask each student to tell me their favorite of the ones I read. Then I would give them a copy of it. When they could successfully read it aloud, they got to keep the copy. If they wanted to, they could read it to their class and they could take it home to read to their parents.

—Gwen Duzenberry, former reading specialist

Literacy is the primary building block of all education—children who can’t read or who don’t read well can’t excel in math, science, social studies, or history. Even students who are not college-bound or who won’t pursue a white-collar career will stagnate without strong reading skills. This reality makes reading specialists among the most important educators in any school.

Reading specialists are excellent communicators who understand how children learn and what barriers they face to achieving full literacy. The best ones grasp both large educational concepts that apply broadly to all children as well as the unique needs and challenges of their students as individuals.

What Does a Reading Specialist Do?

Reading specialists work with students individually and in small groups to assess and improve their reading skills. Although reading specialists often work with students with literacy-specific conditions like dyslexia, they are not special education teachers. Most reading specialists work in elementary schools, but it is not uncommon for middle schools or even high schools to employ them.

One of the first tasks of a reading specialist is to determine what issues a student is having difficulty with so they can be specifically addressed. Assessment can range from giving formal tests—such as Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (DIBELS)—to having a student read aloud and then retell or summarize what they learned from the text.

Struggling Readers Are Weak in One or More of These Areas

Phonemic Awareness
Phonemes are the separate sounds that make up a word. Phonemic awareness is the ability to separate a word into phonemes and blend single phonemes into words.

Decoding is the ability to use knowledge of existing words to sound out new ones.

Fluency in reading involves being able to move the eyes smoothly across a text.

A vocabulary deficiency can prevent students from comprehending what they read.

Reading Comprehension
Reading comprehension is the ability to construct meaning from what you read.

Reading Fluency
Fluency is the ability to read accurately, smoothly, and with expression.

Once a specialist has identified areas of weakness, they can employ a number of strategies to work on those areas. Examples include:

  • Guided reading
  • Modeling reading strategies
  • Repeated reading
  • Having students generate questions about what they read
  • Connecting what students read to prior knowledge
  • Helping students find context clues

Reading specialists might use specific literacy programs, create their own activities, or do a combination of both.

Finally, one of the most important things a reading specialist can do is to boost the confidence of struggling readers. Discouraged students need to understand that people learn differently and that the ability to read has nothing to do with intelligence.

Elementary School Reading Specialists

Most reading specialists work in elementary schools, where their skills are usually badly needed during the crucial first years of learning. At this level, you’ll assess the reading levels of individual students and work with those who are struggling.

Many schools follow a formal protocol called “response to intervention” (RTI). You might help develop an RTI program or work within one. You might float between classes or be assigned to a specific classroom. You’ll track and monitor the success of the students you teach and give reports at parent-teacher conferences.

Middle School and High School Reading Specialists

If you work as a reading specialist in a middle or high school, you’re likely to be the only one in the entire school. Here, too, you’ll work with small groups or individuals in close partnership with their teachers, but with older children, much of what you do will be geared toward preparing students for specific standardized tests. Since middle and high schools employ far fewer reading specialists, you’ll likely be responsible for a much larger group of students.

Related Careers

Reading specialists focus mainly on working directly with students on assessment and instruction. Related careers deal with developing and implementing overall programs in close coordination with teachers and administrators.

Literacy Coach

Literacy coaches work with teachers to improve individual classroom instruction as it pertains to student literacy. They can be proactive in making suggestions and offering feedback after observing the classroom or serve as a resource for teachers who approach them for guidance.

Literacy Coordinator/Supervisor

Literacy coordinators move beyond the individual classroom to develop overarching school literacy programs. They select materials, write applications for grants, and work with administrators, community agencies, parents, and teachers to create and implement schoolwide literacy programs.

Reading Specialist Salary

Reading specialists earn a wide range of salaries depending on their level of experience, the age of the children they serve, their educational backgrounds, and where in the country they work.

Reading Specialist Salaries
Median Annual Salary:$52,061 per year
Median Hourly Pay:$25.21 per hour
Annual Salary Range:$37,000 to $72,000 per year
Hourly Pay Range:$12.24 to $60.40‬ per hour

Source: PayScale.com

How to Become a Reading Specialist

To become a reading specialist you’ll have to earn a bachelor’s degree and a teaching license—but those are the minimum standards. Many schools require applicants to have a master’s degree and reading specialist certification, as well.

There’s nothing more rewarding or emotionally satisfying than watching a struggling student make progress. My goal for every student was to get them out of my program.

—Gwen Duzenberry, former reading specialist

Earn a Bachelor’s Degree

The first step is earning an undergraduate degree, which must be in education and should place a heavy emphasis on literacy and reading. The first two years of your program will focus on general education like literature, creative writing, math, science, language, statistics, and sociology.

The final two years will concentrate on education. Although state requirements vary as to specific courses of study, you might have to choose a major specific to your field, like primary or secondary education. Here you’ll study coursework like the psychology of learning, classroom management, and education technology with an emphasis on literacy and reading.

Many schools offer this kind of undergraduate degree online. However, you will need to complete a supervised student-teacher internship in person in an actual classroom.

Get a Teaching License

All public schools require aspiring teachers to first become certified and earn a state license. You’ll have to earn a license before you can pursue a separate credential as a reading specialist in the states that require it. Certification requirements vary from state to state, but all states require a bachelor’s degree and the completion of the number of student-teaching hours mandated by your state board. Some states also require you to complete a teacher-prep program.

You’ll most likely have to pass the Praxis, which is the standardize teaching exam. You might also have to take an additional exam as mandated by your state education board. Visit the U.S. Department of Education to learn more about your state’s requirements.

If you intend to continue on to get a master’s degree, you might skip the certification step and go straight into graduate school. Experience, however, is always a positive, and in many cases you can teach while you work toward earning a master’s degree—but only if you earn a license first.

Earn a Master’s Degree

Some states now require teachers to earn a master’s degree or begin a master’s program within their first five years of teaching. Even if your state doesn’t require a graduate degree to work, a master’s will make you a more competitive candidate who can command a higher salary.

Common degrees include M.Ed., M.S., and M.S.Ed. with specializations such as literacy specialist, reading specialist, elementary reading and literacy, and reading interventionist. It typically takes two years to complete a master’s program if you’re studying full-time. These kinds of programs include advanced coursework like instructional intervention, study skills and content literacy, reading diagnosis, and literacy for English language learners. To learn more, visit our Master’s in Education Degrees page.

Reading Specialist Certification

Some states require you to earn a reading specialist certification, which is sometimes called a “reading specialist endorsement.” It’s helpful to earn one even if it’s not required because the credential validates your education and experience specific to literacy instruction beyond that of a regular teacher.

To earn one, you have to have a bachelor’s degree and a teacher’s license in your state. In many cases, you’re also required to have teaching experience and a master’s degree, but as previously stated, you can often earn the former while pursuing the latter. It’s possible to earn this credential online, but certification includes a hands-on supervised practicum working face-to-face with students struggling with reading.

Reading Specialist Resources

Whether you’re a student or a professional, the following resources can help you advance and grow in your training or career:

  • Reading Recovery Council of North America: This site offers information about best practices in observing and teaching children, as well as advice on how to plan lessons. You’ll learn about developing and implementing literacy programs and researching and evaluating plans that other literacy professionals developed.
  • Association of Literacy Educators and Researchers: The information on this site includes professional growth resources, such as informative publications available only to members and industry-focused conferences and events. The site also maintains a career center with current job openings and other career postings.
  • International Literacy Association: ILA members get exclusive access to evidence-based tutorials from leading experts in the field as well as standards-based programs developed by teachers and researchers. Membership also comes with discounts on things like insurance and hotels and a subscription to “Literacy Today.”
  • National Council of Teachers of English: NCTE divides information by level, including elementary, middle, secondary, and even college, which makes it easy to connect with the right industry groups, communities, and resources. Members get access to preferred pricing on a range of materials and events, as well as members-only lesson plans, webinars, and publications.
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