You’ve decided to retain a reading specialist. Perhaps your child has been struggling in school and you’re hoping to learn why. Maybe he’s been identified as having a learning disability, and you want to ensure that he receives appropriate school supports. Or possibly you’ve simply decided to supplement her school supports privately to accelerate progress. Regardless of the reason, you need to find the right specialist to meet your objectives.
What Does a Reading Specialist Do?
A reading specialist is exactly what the title implies—a person who specializes in teaching reading. Learning to read is a complex process, involving the interplay of a variety of skills. Reading specialists can help strengthen these skills, including foundational skills such as phonological awareness (the sounds and patterns underlying our language system) and phonetics (how sounds are represented by letters and these letters arranged in words) and higher-level skills such as vocabulary and language comprehension.
Reading specialists can fill a variety of roles for your struggling child. Most provide direct remediation (tutoring) in your home, a library or at a tutoring center. These services should be tailored to the specific skills your child struggles with. If, like many students with dyslexia and other LDs, he struggles to comprehend text because he’s unable to accurately or fluently read the words, then remediation will target the skills critical to word identification.
Some, but not all, reading specialists also conduct evaluations in order to pinpoint where a child is struggling, as well as to assess progress. However, it is important to note that many are not qualified to make formal diagnoses (such as dyslexia). In general, an evaluation conducted by a reading specialist indicates where an individual is struggling and provides a disability classification (which is typically all that is required to receive district special education services). Making a medical diagnosis (uncovering the “why”) generally requires an assessment of cognitive, psychological, and companion skills, which is done by a doctoral-level psychologist via a neuropsychological evaluation.
What to Look For
Being a reading specialist does not necessarily mean that an individual has the requisite training to teach all critical reading skills; in fact, many do not. Similarly, they vary with regard to their qualifications to administer and interpret assessments. It is therefore important to inquire as to experience and qualifications. If, for example, your child needs assistance in building phonics or phonological awareness skills, look for a specialist with specific training—ideally involving a certification process that entails a student practicum—in teaching these skills to students with a learning profile similar to your child’s.
Specialized training is particularly important for foundational skills, as the programs and methods designed to teach these skills typically must be implemented with fidelity in order to achieve success. Orton-Gillingham is one such methodology, on which numerous effective programs are based (Wilson Reading, SPIRE, Preventing Academic Failure, Slingerland). However, such programs may not meet the needs of a child struggling with language comprehension.
Many training and professional organizations maintain lists of certified practitioners, available online or by request. Resources include the International Dyslexia Association, local LD groups, as well as the Academy of Orton Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and Wilson Reading. Private schools designed for students with LD can also be excellent resources for reading specialists, especially for remediation services.
Sheryl Knapp is the founder of the Literacy Learning & Assessment Center of Connecticut and a frequent presenter on topics related to literacy and learning disabilities. She has Certified Level status from the Academy of Orton Gillingham Practitioners and Educators.