Literacy teachers help students develop skills that can enrich their lives and further their goals in a vast range of professions. The need for qualified reading specialists is more apparent in our school systems than it has been in several decades. According to the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the reading test scores for fourth graders went down in every state in the US—the biggest decline in literacy since testing started in 1992.
Between 2019 and 2020, the number of students attending public schools, from prekindergarten through 12th grade, dropped from 50.8 million to 49.4 million, marking a 3% decline and disrupting a decade of steady growth.
Beyond early childhood development, literacy continues to impact the quality of people’s lives. Data from the 2022 Annual Report by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy found the impact of low literacy could cost the US economy up to 2.2 trillion—or 10% of GDP—a year. Low literacy skills often lie at the core of multigenerational cycles of poverty, inadequate health care, and limited educational achievements.
Literacy educators build their careers by helping students overcome obstacles that prevent them from becoming effective readers and writers. Teachers who follow these steps can intervene as reading specialists and take on roles with the potential to make a lasting impact:
Steps to Become a Reading/Literacy Specialist
- Complete a bachelor’s degree in education, literacy, or a related field.
- Meet all state requirements for a teaching certificate.
- Gain professional experience as a classroom teacher.
- Pursue a postgraduate credential such as master’s degree with a literacy specialization.
- Pass a state content test for reading or literacy specialists.
- Seek a role as a reading or literacy educator.
This article delves into what it takes to pursue a career in this field by examining the most valuable literacy specialist qualifications, the requirements to earn a reading specialist certification, and the career prospects available to certified professionals.
What Do You Need to Become a Reading/Literacy Specialist?
According to Pace University School of Education Professor Peter McDermott, many of the teachers who set out to specialize in reading do so because they know it’s a way to make a difference for young people.
“Literacy educators need a love for writing, reading, and for interacting with children and their families,” he said. “Many see reading and writing instruction as a way to achieve social betterment.”
Professor Francine Falk-Ross adds that “teachers know that literacy competencies underlie all content area learning and, therefore, they need to gain expertise in literacy education to serve as a foundation for all instruction and assessment.”
To excel as reading instructors, teachers cultivate the knowledge, skills, and determination to navigate through complex pedagogical challenges. Professionals in this field must be ready to help students who struggle with language differences, disabilities and a lack of resources. Innovative approaches, like employing digital storytelling tools, can help to engage and motivate students from all different backgrounds.
Based on data from job postings, Lightcast reported that the distinctive capabilities employers look for include adapting to students’ individual needs, conducting assessments, managing class data, and leading small groups. Literacy teachers and other education professionals prepare to meet those demands through both academic preparation and real-world experience.
Qualify and Work as a Certified Teacher
A specialized teaching certificate is a prerequisite for many roles in literacy education, especially if you plan to work in public school classrooms. Initial teacher certification requires a bachelor’s in education or a related field, such as English. Aspiring teachers must also complete a state-approved teacher education program, which commonly involves mentored classroom experience, a certification exam, and a background check.
The next step is garnering experience working with students. For example, reading specialist qualifications for certification in New York State include a minimum of 100 supervised hours of practicum as a student teacher in a school classroom.
Pursue Education as a Literacy Specialist
Meanwhile, a certified teacher can prepare for reading-focused roles by pursuing a Master’s in Literacy. Those who have already completed a master’s degree may work toward an advanced certificate in literacy education.
A specialized curriculum in reading pedagogy equips educators with theoretical knowledge and hands-on expertise. Teachers learn how to adapt their literacy strategies for each stage of child development, incorporate technology into their instructional practices, and address the varied needs of English language learners, special education students, or high achievers.
Meet State Requirements for Certification
Finishing your graduate program is just part of fulfilling the state requirements for literacy specialist certification. The next step is taking your state’s content area test: the New York State Teacher Certification Test in Literacy, for example, consists of multiple-choice questions and one essay. Test-takers are expected to demonstrate their understanding of literacy theory and research, best practices for a reading program, and how to assess students’ challenges in reading and writing.
All candidates must have completed their initial New York State teaching certification requirements which include completing the edTPA performance assessment for teaching, participating in the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) training workshop, and passing a fingerprint-supported criminal history background check.
Another New York certification that reading specialists in the state must have is the New York State Education Department (NYSED) Literacy (All Grades) certificate, which certifies educators to teach literacy to students from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
- 50 hours of college-supervised practicum in literacy teaching of students pre-kindergarten through grade 12.
For the practicum requirement, applicants must complete a college-supervised practicum of at least 50 clock hours in teaching literacy to students across the grade range of the student developmental levels of the certificate; this includes pre-kindergarten through grade 4, and grades 5 through 12.
- One year of paid, satisfactory, full-time experience as a literacy teacher at the elementary and/or secondary level
This may be accepted in lieu of the college-supervised practicum when such experience is verified by the employing school district by submitting the verification of experience form found on For the NYSED website.
Every state has different requirements to become a certified literacy specialist, so it is vital that you research the specific requirements in the state where you hope to teach.
Some literacy teachers may want additional certifications and/or endorsements in order to work with specific populations, such as a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)certificate or a special education certification.
TESOL training provides teachers with a better understanding of cultural and linguistic diversity, enabling them to create more inclusive and culturally sensitive learning environments. Special education certification equips teachers with strategies to work with students who have learning disabilities or special needs, allowing them to tailor their instruction to individualized learning plans and accommodate diverse learning styles.
In addition to making a greater impact on students’ lives, additional certifications and endorsements can open up career advancement opportunities and make literacy specialists more competitive in the job market.
What Does a Literacy Specialist Do?
Reading educators can make a difference in many professional contexts, including public and private school classrooms, resource and tutoring centers that offer individualized help for students, and professional development conferences where coaches provide guidance to other teachers.
These reading specialist job descriptions demonstrate how developing and updating your skills in literacy pedagogy can help you excel in a variety of roles:
Literacy specialists work in classrooms at public or private schools, including special education settings, at every level. These teachers tailor their strategies based on factors like students’ individual development and cultural backgrounds. Instructors may boost engagement by leading activities to build comprehension, asking students to share personal narratives, and introducing digital tools for reading and writing.
Literacy help may be available through academic resource centers, libraries, and tutoring centers. In these contexts, specialists provide one-on-one instruction to supplement classroom learning, assess students’ performance, and act as resources for other teachers.
These professionals are leaders in reading and writing instruction who collaborate with teachers to drive achievement. Coaches may help schools or districts reach their objectives by offering professional development workshops, contributing to curriculum development, connecting with parents, and investigating how to better serve specific populations.
Some literacy educators offer individualized assistance to children with reading disabilities. Based on the needs of each student, instructors tailor remedial lessons in the processes of decoding and encoding written communication, support vocabulary development, and pave the way for improved reading comprehension.
Experienced reading teachers can provide valuable insights to educational publishers and other organizations. In these roles, literacy specialists apply their expertise to develop effective and engaging instructional content. Consultants may also lead training sessions to help teachers put new strategies and techniques into action.
Literacy scores are some of the most crucial metrics that affect assessments of schools and districts. That means a thorough understanding of reading pedagogy can be a vital tool for administrators, allowing them to lead curriculum improvements and institute professional development programs that can result in higher test scores and greater opportunities for students.
Building literacy skills enables young people to improve their performance in school, start rewarding careers, and make informed decisions about their health and finances. Reading educators open these opportunities, making a difference for students from diverse backgrounds. If you’re a certified teacher interested in becoming a literacy specialist, a graduate program may be a vital step toward reaching your goals.
Pros and Cons of Pursuing a Career as a Literacy Specialist
Becoming a literacy specialist is a big decision to make, but it can be extremely rewarding for dedicated educators. To help you in your choice, we’ve put together some of the pros and cons of pursuing a career in literacy.
- Interact with students one-on-one and in small groups
Reading and literacy specialists have the opportunity to work closely with students and witness their progress firsthand. One-on-one or small group reading intervention allows for a deep and direct impact on a student’s literacy development. Focused, personal interaction also creates a unique learning environment where specialists can personalize instruction to each student’s specific needs, strengths, and challenges.
By tailoring their teaching methods and materials to suit individual learning styles and paces, reading specialists can implement strategies they’ve learned in their clinical training to pinpoint and address the precise areas where a student may be struggling. This tailored approach accelerates the learning process while fostering a sense of accomplishment and confidence in the student as they observe their own growth and success in reading.
- Work with people—both learners and teachers—of all ages and experience levels
Though many reading specialists choose to work with early childhood and adolescent literacy, there is an equally pressing demand for literacy specialists to support adult learners. Today, 130 million Americans—54% of adults between the ages of 16 and 74 years old—lack proficiency in literacy. About 43 million adults in the US—nearly one in five—read below a third-grade level.
Literacy specialists may also serve as a supportive figure, working one-on-one with teachers to help them meet their students’ needs. They acknowledge that the teacher is the overall expert in the classroom, and their role is to offer specific expertise in literacy to bolster the learning experience of students.
- Make a difference
Literacy education transforms lives by equipping individuals with essential skills for communication, learning, and self and community empowerment. Literacy education isn’t only about reading and writing: it’s about providing students with the critical thinking skills to navigate the world. It empowers individuals to actively engage actively with and in their communities, provides access to better career prospects, and allows them to make informed decisions about their health, finances, and civic responsibilities.
Moreover, literacy promotes personal growth, self-esteem, and confidence, enabling individuals to reach their full potential and participate positively in society. In essence, literacy education is a catalyst for personal and societal progress, enhancing the quality of life for individuals and fostering a more informed and inclusive society.
- Less breadth to the relationships with students
While reading specialists have the privilege of making meaningful connections with students during one-on-one tutoring sessions, their role differs from that of classroom teachers in that they do not spend the entire school day with students. This poses a unique challenge, particularly for educators who have spent most of their careers in traditional classroom settings. However, this change can also offer fresh perspectives and opportunities for both specialists and students to grow, adapt, and discover new ways to nurture a love for reading and learning.
- Increased administrative duties outside of teaching
In addition to teaching, reading specialists may have administrative responsibilities, such as conducting assessments, analyzing data, and attending meetings, which can be time-consuming.
Evaluating students is a fundamental aspect of developing and implementing effective literacy programs and customizing instruction for student needs. Literacy specialists can evaluate reading capabilities, identify strengths and areas needing improvement, and share this information with fellow teachers, parents, and specialized professionals like psychologists, special education teachers, or speech therapists. This collaborative effort ensures that students are getting the personalized teaching they need to succeed in the classroom, but it may cause an increase of paperwork and meetings outside of student sessions.
Pace University’s Online Graduate Programs in Literacy Education
In Pace University’s online literacy programs, certified teachers explore strategies to help children and adolescents grow into more confident and capable readers. Certified teachers who do not yet hold a master’s degree in education can enroll in our online Master of Science in Education, Literacy Specialist (MSEd, LIT). If you’ve already earned a master’s, the Advanced Certificate in Literacy Specialist (ADV CERT LIT) program may be ideal for you. Choose a concentration in Early Childhood/Childhood (birth–grade 6) or Middle Childhood/Adolescent (grades 5–12).
Our certificate and degree programs prepare educators to take on complex instructional challenges and become eligible for an advanced or professional certificate in teaching literacy to children or adolescents. Taught by our faculty of accomplished educators and researchers, the online coursework covers topics like literacy development, assessment models, and digital literacy. Teachers gain theoretical insights and explore flexible classroom practices to help students who have language or learning disabilities, English language learners, and high achievers.
To learn more about Pace University’s Online Graduate Programs in Literacy Education, fill out the fields in this form to download a free brochure. If you have any questions at any time, please contact an admission advisor at (866) 853-4658.