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New challenges for school literacy specialists

Role expands to instructional coaching, assessments and working in classrooms
Districts nationwide have more than 10 different titles for “literacy specialist."
Districts nationwide have more than 10 different titles for “literacy specialist."

Districts must navigate a larger number of titles and skill sets when hiring qualified literacy specialists to implement new learning standards and to improve students’ reading and writing performance.

Traditionally, a reading specialist worked in small groups or one-on-one with struggling students.

But more recently, the role of literacy professional has expanded to include instructional coaching, assessments and working directly in the classroom with the teacher, according to the International Literacy Association’s 2015 research brief, “The Multiple Roles of School-Based Specialized Literacy Professionals.”

The Common Core presses students to comprehend and evaluate complex texts across all disciplines, including science and math, says Rita Bean, professor emerita in the University of Pittsburgh School of Education and lead author of the research brief.

“That’s new for our teachers,” Bean says. “Districts are recognizing that they have to help their teachers understand literacy instruction to meet those expectations.”

Districts nationwide have more than 10 different titles for “literacy specialist,” Bean says. The ILA brief distinguishes between three primary roles:

Reading specialists provide specialized instruction for students experiencing difficulty with reading and writing. These professionals also need leadership and facilitation skills—which they may attain through certification courses or PD—to work effectively with classroom teachers, Bean says.

“You want someone who has in-depth knowledge of literacy and assessment, and you want them to serve as a resource to teachers, to be able to co-plan and co-teach with them,” she says. “You can’t just pull the students out for 30 minutes and really make changes in overall learning.”

Literacy coaches train teachers on best practices to improve instruction and, ultimately, a school’s overall literacy learning. These educators should have advanced coaching skills and be able to motivate teachers to reflect on their work and learn new instructional practices, Bean says.

“It’s not about telling teachers how to make changes, but actually working with them together to solve the instructional problems they have,” she says. “Otherwise, it won’t be effective.”

Literacy coordinators oversee reading and writing programs in multiple schools or a whole district. These individuals may evaluate teachers, programs and other specialists. They need to have administrative experience, as well as extensive literacy knowledge to manage literacy programs at a systemwide level, Bean says.

Districts tend to add reading specialists more often than they hire coaches or coordinators because state and Title I funding tends to cover positions that aid students, not those that assist teachers, Bean says.

Research shows that literacy professionals design and sustain programs that yield higher reading achievement for students. And principals from high- performing schools with specialized literacy professionals report that the specialists were vital to the success of their reading programs.