READING SPECIALISTS have been around for a long time, though their roles within a school have changed dramatically throughout the years. According to research, a principal’s philosophy toward reading and reading specialists has a direct link with student achievement in reading.
And if you think a reading specialist is just an aide for a classroom teacher, think again. If anything a reading specialist (who MUST have a master’s degree in reading and be certified as a reading specialist K-12) has one of the most flexible and important roles in a school’s reading program.
A principal, along with the input of teachers and reading specialists. can create a customized reading program not impeded by special education laws or overpowering federal grant regulations. A clever staff can use a reading specialist’s skills in many ways.
So What Can a Reading Specialist Do?
First of all, reading specialists support students and should provide instruction that does not SUPPLANT the regular classroom education. All this means is that students should not be pulled from their regular education classes and miss out on regular classroom instruction. Of course, the irony of all this, is that most students in need of title 1 services (those provided by a reading specialist) are usually overwhelmed by the content presented by the teacher anyway, so in reality it’s actually counterproductive to have them sit in class! Hey, I don’t make the rules.
Other than not supplanting the regular education of students, there are very few rigid rules of how a reading specialist’s job can be configured. Reading specialists can teach the entire classroom, parallel teach, team teach, and pull out needy students in small groups. The more flexible your administrator’s vision of a reading specialist’s role, the more likely students will experience success.
When teaching the entire classroom, a reading specialist plays a critical role in the education of the children, by removing the “stigma” of being pulled out of a classroom or working with the reading specialist. All students see the specialist as another teacher and often want the help and guidance if they need it. Some reading specialists feel uncomfortable being in front of the classroom, but if they challenged themselves they would find how rewarding this role can be. Of course there are classroom teachers who do not want any other teacher in the room–so that’s another barrier to making this happen.
Reading specialists can coach and help teachers with interventions, ideas, and teaching. Some classroom teachers love this; others are offended. It requires a tremendous amount of tact, confidence, and know-how to take on the role of a “coach”. Reading specialists are not better teachers, they simply have studied the art of reading more. Classroom teachers appreciate reading specialists who have lots of materials and ideas for them as well as constructive feedback–done in a safe environment. Many teachers I have worked with have absolutely loved the resources I have given them and the ideas I shared with them. Some wanted nothing to do with me! Find the professionals in your building–and work with them first!
Reading specialists can also adapt and modify materials and the curriculum (if allowed) A colleague and I worked together with an all title 1 classroom and we adapted the curriculum to meet the students’ needs. It was a lot of work–but I created a much needed phonics and phonemic awareness component not found in our regular curriculum, and adding this played a critical role in our students’ progress. Of course we discussed this first with our principal who gave us permission to make adjustments and adaptations while still covering the regular curriculum.
Reading specialists can create cool school wide programs to instill a sense of enthusiasm and excitement about learning. The programs can last one week, the entire school year, or whatever the school is ready to handle and the reading specialists are comfortable with. Taking a leadership role in the school is a valuable part of being a reading specialist. Once again, some reading specialists are not comfortable with this role and that’s fine. However, they are missing out on reaching a wider audience of students.
When I was in grad school, I heard about many special education professors scoffing at the education of the reading specialists, feeling that special education teachers were far superior. Once again NOT TRUE. I have yet to work with special education teachers who have an in-depth knowledge of how to teach reading. In fact, they often just modified guided reading groups–but that doesn’t teach a student to read. Don’t get me wrong–these special education teachers were good ones, but to downgrade the role of a reading specialist really misses the point of the unique role reading specialists play in teaching reading.
If you are a parent, ask the principal about the school’s philosophy toward reading. If he or she can’t answer this–the school has a weak reading program. If you are a reading specialist who wants to try different approaches, instructional models, or start school wide programs, approach your principal. If he or she doesn’t take you seriously, you know that you are not in a progressive school dedicated to teaching reading. Hang in there … maybe lagging test scores will motivate your principal to change his or her attitude at a later date!