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The Changing Role of the Reading/Literacy Specialist
The role of the reading literacy specialist developed as a result of Title I—Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged. According to Janice Dole, author of “The Changing Role of the Reading Specialist in School Reform,” under Title I of the ESEA of 1965, a federal initiative was constructed to designate funding for literacy education in schools in the United States. Funding designated by Title I was specifically earmarked to improve reading achievement in low socioeconomic schools. Title I served as a funding source for schools, allowing schools to determine the best practices for increasing literacy for at-risk students. Over time Title I became a particular program where a Title I teacher, or a reading/literacy specialist, worked with struggling readers in pullout programs. Students were pulled from the mainstream classroom to receive explicit instruction from the Title I teacher or the reading specialist, who typically had additional training in reading instruction. Researchers determined, unfortunately, that this model produced limited results (Dole, 2014). Specifically, despite showing growth in the intervention setting, students fell behind once mainstreamed in the regular classroom. Additionally, this model relied on the skills of the Title I/reading specialist to improve literacy and did not focus on the quality of instruction implemented by the classroom teacher. Further, it was determined that a factor preventing success was the lack of communication between the classroom teacher and the Title I/reading specialist regarding assessment, instruction, and progress.
As a result, the ESEA of 1965 was revised in 2000 (Dole, 2004). The initial goal remained the same: to improve reading and academic achievement for all students with supplementary resources designated for low socioeconomic districts and schools. However, rather than allowing schools and districts the freedom of choosing the intervention model, the following strict guidelines were set forth by the ESEA. First, teachers need to be highly qualified. Second, instructional strategies and programs must be scientifically based and include the five essential components of reading instruction, as outlined by the National Reading Panel (2000): phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Finally, quality informal classroom assessments should monitor progress and drive instruction. Based on research, the ESEA also determined that the classroom teacher is the most crucial factor in student success (Dole, 2004). In other words, strong teachers produce students who make significant progress.
With these significant findings and changes, the role of the reading/literacy specialist evolved. The specialist role began shifting from that of primarily an interventionist to a mentor, reading coach, and provider of professional development. Dole specifies “that among the most important kinds of reading coaches’ activities are teaching demonstrations and modeling of lessons” (2004, p. 466). As such, reading specialists began to play a critical role in the professional development of teachers. Because reading specialists have in-depth knowledge about the reading process and implement high-quality reading instruction, they are in the position to serve as coaches and mentors to help teachers apply effective literacy strategies and practices in their classrooms. Research demonstrates that feedback and in-class coaching are powerful tools in assisting teachers in taking ownership and successfully implementing new strategies and teaching techniques learned (Joyce & Showers, 1995). Reading coaches are in an excellent position to provide that feedback and in-class coaching to teachers.
The reading/literacy specialist role has evolved to include numerous responsibilities. The specialist remains up-to-date on current research practices and provides training and on-going support for classroom teachers. Additionally, the specialist identifies areas of need through assessment tools. Using assessment data, the specialist administers explicit small group instruction to address ELA deficiencies. Finally, the reading/literacy specialist liaisons with the administration at the site and district level to ensure that the vision for each is upheld (Kelly, 2019). Although the role can differ at each site, the reading/literacy specialist provides much-needed foundational support for districts, schools, principals, teachers, and students.
Grand Canyon University: REA-500