The Varied Roles of a Reading Specialist

Reading specialists are coaches, tutors, interventionists, coordinators, and more—all with the express intent of making sure children can read and succeed.

Who Becomes a Reading Specialist? People Who Love to Read and Want to Help Children Succeed

Reading specialists are licensed educators trained specifically to work in K-12 schools in all aspects of student literacy. In their many roles as coaches, literacy specialists, reading interventionists, tutors, and coordinators, reading specialists support the development of reading and writing by working with students—many of whom are struggling readers—classroom teachers, administrators, and parents/guardians. For 40 years, we have been preparing candidates for all aspects of this high-need role through our Specialist Teacher of Reading licensure programs.

Margery Staman Miller, professor emerita and past director of graduate literacy programs, says that often, people who become reading specialists are “individuals who love to read and have a deep personal connection to children's literature. They talk about how reading literature—in its many genres—as a child or young adult connected them with others in their family, gave them an outlet during a time of personal challenge, or opened up new horizons for them, especially through nonfiction. They understand the influence and impact of literature, and want literacy to be accessible to all.” Valerie Shinas, director of literacy programs, adds, “Literacy teachers support the development of students' reading, writing, and learning, and share tools they need to learn, dream, imagine, and inspire others.”

Five Ways Reading Specialists Are Vital to Schools and Student Success

How are reading specialists used in schools and districts? Though many positions have different names according to the school district, below are several roles:

  • As a reading/learning specialist working directly with students. They plan, teach, and evaluate instruction for students having difficulty with reading or writing. They work with students in small groups and in classroom settings from elementary through the secondary level.
  • As a reading interventionist. They work with specific children who have been identified as needing more literacy support than can be provided by the classroom teacher. They design interventions tailored to each child’s needs. One-to-one instruction is extremely beneficial for students who may feel lost in whole-group settings.
  • As a literacy coach. They support teacher learning and professional development and facilitate literacy program efforts, collaborating to improve classroom, grade-level, departmental, and school-wide literacy.
  • As a literacy coordinator. They evaluate, develop, and lead, or collaborate with other educators or community groups to lead, a school’s or district’s literacy program.
  • As a staff developer. They are in charge of leading professional development for schools and districts, supporting current teachers in maintaining their professional knowledge base and responding to new initiatives. Staff developers often work for educational consulting groups or as private consultants.

A (School) Day in the Life: Licensed Reading Specialists

Erin Yang (alumna, '01, '13) is a literacy specialist in a K–8 school in Brookline, Massachusetts. She became a specialist, she says, “so that I would know how to teach students to read, especially those who struggle. I didn't intend to be a literacy specialist, but I am so glad that my path led here.”

Half of her day consists of pull-out intervention for struggling readers, one-to-one intervention; during the other half, she does small-group intervention as well as coaching and creating professional development for teachers in her school. She describes as most rewarding “working with students and seeing the amazing progress they can make when given targeted instruction designed specifically for them.”

“You think about how a student succeeds in school,” she says, “and so much of it comes down to reading and writing well. If you don't have those foundational skills and don't enjoy them, you are going to be turned off from school at an early age. I'd like to think that I play a part in shifting that at an early age for the kids I see. At least that's the goal...to intervene in an interesting, joyful, and effective way, accelerate their growth as readers, and get them on a better track in terms of their literacy development. The hope is that they can continue their development without you, toward becoming life-long readers, writers, and learners.”

Gia Sunderland (alumna, ’99 and ’14) is a K–3 reading specialist in Norton, Massachusetts. “I decided to pursue a career as a reading specialist after teaching for over 10 years and observing how struggling to read affects all areas of student learning. Then, after staying home for several years with my children and watching how they learned to read in such different ways, I was hooked. I wanted to help struggling readers because I felt if they could get control of the reading, then everything would fall into place for them. Of course, that is not always the case, but pretty close.”

Her day is on a tight schedule. Specialist intervention periods are scheduled five days a week. “I break a 30-minute block into 3-4 activities. For a first-grade group, I always start with reading books students are familiar with, then we move to word work on a new skill, then practice the new skill, and then back into a new book for more reading and/or writing. Activities include building and practicing sight words using magnetic letters, or using sound boxes to practice hearing sounds in words, sentence strips/magnets for phrasing and fluency, and games to reinforce sight word knowledge, develop vocabulary, and increase comprehension.

“In my school I attend PLC (professional learning community) meetings, data meetings, and Title I meetings. We work to improve upon our reading incentive programs every year. We have created and maintained a Leveled Book Room for teachers and staff to use with students.

I have always thought of learning as being an endless journey with many adventures along the way. There are back roads and side roads, peaks and valleys. Along the way you pick up the tools you need for the next part of your journey. It is like that when you teach reading, too. I try to provide as many tools as possible for their tool boxes."

After graduating from her program in 2013, alumna Juliana Schneider taught fifth grade and began teaching adjunct in the language and literacy program at Lesley. She is currently an assistant principal in a K–6 school. "Though I'm not currently working as a reading specialist, my background has been invaluable. I feel that my knowledge allows me to support teachers in more meaningful ways. I also feel that it contributes to who I am as a leader.

“I'm teaching a week long course for teachers in my school on the integration of Readers Workshop and Project Based Learning. I am involved in much of the visionary work for our school, particularly around curriculum and instruction. I'm also involved in coaching teachers, supervision and evaluation, handling discipline, facilitating projects, running meetings…

My background in literacy has opened many doors and been incredibly engaging. I've grown and learned and had the freedom to be more creative as a teacher because of my solid understanding of student development in the area of literacy. Though I'm not entirely sure where I'll end up, I know that this path will have many meaningful chapters, each building upon the last. I also believe that completing a reading specialist program, though can move you away from the classroom, can also provide you with the skills that are needed to reach every child.”