Special Education Preparation in Reading

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy

Special Education Preparation in Reading

The state should ensure that special education teachers know the science of reading instruction and are sufficiently prepared for the instructional shifts related to literacy associated with college-and career-readiness standards.

Best practices

California meets this goal by ensuring that all special education teachers are prepared to meet the instructional requirements of college- and career-readiness standards for students, and by requiring that all special education candidates pass a comprehensive assessment that specifically tests the five elements of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. California‚Äôs test frameworks go further than most states and ensure that special education teacher candidates have the ability to not only build content knowledge and vocabulary through careful reading of informational and literary texts but also to challenge students with texts of increasing complexity. Candidates are also required to incorporate literacy skills as an integral part of every subject and are prepared to intervene and support students who are struggling.

Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2015). Special Education Preparation in Reading National Results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/national/Special-Education-Preparation-in-Reading-69
Best practice 1


Meets goal 0


Nearly meets goal 9


Meets goal in part 4


Meets a small part of goal 11


Does not meet goal 26


State requires a test that fully measures special education candidates' knowledge of the science of reading instruction.

Figure details

State requires a test that fullly measures candidates' knowledge of the science of reading for licensure. : CA, CT, IN, MN, NC, NY, OK, TN, VA, WI, WV

State requires a test, but it does not measure candidates' knowledge of all components of the science of reading for licensure. : AL, ID, LA, MA, MO, NJ, RI

State does not require a test that measures candidates' knowledge of the science of reading, or it allows some candidates to bypass the test. : AK, AR, AZ, CO, DC, DE, FL, GA, HI, IA, IL, KS, KY, MD, ME, MI, MS, MT, ND, NE, NH, NM, NV, OH, OR, PA, SC, SD, TX, UT, VT, WA, WY

DE: Delaware's K-12 special education license must be added to a general education elementary or secondary license. Therefore there is no guarantee that special education teachers teaching at the elementary level will have passed an elementary content test which partially addresses the science of reading.
MA: In addition to the Foundations of Reading test, candidates in Massachusetts have the option of meeting this test requirement by passing the MTEL Reading Specialist test. This test assesses the components of the science of reading instruction, but includes references to standards that are not aligned with the science of reading.
NC: Teachers may have until their second year of teaching to earn a passing score on this test, provided they attempt to pass it during their first year.
PA: Only special education candidates adding their license to a PreK-4 license or reading specialist license are required to pass a test that adequately addresses the science of reading instruction.
TN: Tennessee allows teachers to delay passage of content and pedagogy tests if they possess a bachelor's degree in a core content area.

Research rationale

Reading science has identified five components of effective instruction.
Teaching children to read is the most important task teachers undertake. Over the past 60 years, scientists from many fields have worked to determine how people learn to read and why some struggle. This science of reading has led to breakthroughs that can dramatically reduce the number of children destined to become functionally illiterate or barely literate adults. By routinely applying in the classroom the lessons learned from the scientific findings, most reading failure can be avoided. Estimates indicate that the current failure rate of 20 to 30 percent could be reduced to 2 to 10 percent.

Scientific research has shown that there are five essential components of effective reading instruction: explicit and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Many states' policies still do not reflect the strong research consensus in reading instruction that has emerged over the last few decades. Many teacher preparation programs resist teaching scientifically based reading instruction. NCTQ's reports on teacher preparation, beginning with What Education Schools Aren't Teaching about Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning in 2006 and continuing through the Teacher Prep Review in 2013 and 2014, have consistently found the overwhelming majority of teacher preparation programs across the country do not train teachers in the science of reading. Whether through standards or coursework requirements, states must direct programs to provide this critical training. But relying on programs alone is insufficient; states must only grant a license to new special education elementary teachers who can demonstrate they have the knowledge and skills to teach children to read.

Effective early reading instruction is especially important for teachers of special education students. 
By far, the largest classification of students receiving special education services are those with learning disabilities. Based on data from the U.S. Department of Education, it is estimated that reading disabilities account for about 80 percent of learning disabilities. While early childhood and elementary teachers must know the reading science to prevent reading difficulties, special education teachers, and especially elementary special education teachers, must know how to support students who have already fallen behind and struggle with reading and literacy skills. That some states actually require less from special education teachers in terms of preparation to teach reading than they require from general education teachers is baffling and deeply worrisome. 

College- and career-readiness standards require significant shifts in literacy instruction.
College- and career-readiness standards for K-12 students adopted by nearly all states require from a teachers a different focus on literacy integrated into all subject areas. The standards demand that teachers are prepared to bring complex text and academic language into regular use, emphasize the use of evidence from informational and literary texts and build knowledge and vocabulary through content-rich text. While most states have not ignored teachers' need for training and professional development related to these instructional shifts, few states have attended to the parallel need to align teacher competencies and requirements for teacher preparation so that new teachers will enter the classroom ready to help students meet the expectations of these standards. For special education teachers, preparation and training must focus on managing these instructional shifts while also helping students who may have serious reading deficiencies.

Elementary Teacher Preparation in Reading Instruction: Supporting Research
For evidence on what new teachers are not learning about reading instruction, see NCTQ, "What Education Schools Aren't Teaching About Reading and What Elementary Teachers Aren't Learning" 2006) at:http://www.nctq.org/nctq/images/nctq_reading_study_app.pdf.

For problems with existing reading tests, see S. Stotsky, "Why American Students Do Not Learn to Read Very Well: The Unintended Consequences of Title II and Teacher Testing," Third Education Group Review, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2006; and D. W. Rigden, Report on Licensure Alignment with the Essential Components of Effective Reading Instruction (Washington, D.C.: Reading First Teacher Education Network, 2006).

For information on where states set passing scores on elementary level content tests for teacher licensing across the U.S., see chart on p. 13 of NCTQ "Recommendations for the Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Removing the Roadblocks: How Federal Policy Can Cultivate Effective Teachers," (2011).

For an extensive summary of the research base supporting the instructional shifts associated with college- and career-readiness standards, see "Research Supporting the Common Core ELA Literacy Shifts and Standards" available from Student Achievement Partners.