Special Education Preparation in Reading:

Delivering Well Prepared Teachers Policy


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.

Meets goal in part
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2015). Special Education Preparation in Reading: Colorado results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/CO-Special-Education-Preparation-in-Reading-69

Analysis of Colorado's policies

Colorado does not require its special education teachers who teach the elementary grades to pass a rigorous test of reading instruction. However, in its literacy standards for special education teachers, Colorado requires teacher preparation programs to address the science of reading.

Colorado addresses some of the instructional shifts associated with college- and career-readiness standards. The state's K-12 special education candidates must pass the same test as elementary candidates—either the revised Praxis II Elementary Education: Content Knowledge (5018) test or the PLACE elementary education content test. The Praxis II's reading and language arts subtest includes some of the instructional shifts toward building content knowledge and vocabulary through careful reading of informational and literary texts associated with these standards. However, although the framework addresses complex texts, it does so only in the context of measuring text complexity and does not address how to also incorporate increasingly complex texts into instruction. The PLACE test only requires teachers to "understand strategies for locating, selecting, and using information from a variety of sources." 

In addition, Colorado's literacy standards require the following with regard to informational texts:

  • Teach students to summarize, make inferences, draw conclusions and interpret complex information in literary, informational and technical texts
  • Teach students to follow extended instructions in informational or technical texts
  • Teach students to analyze literary and informational texts to determine 1) text forms, literary elements, and text features related to meaning and 2) the historical period in which they were written.

Colorado's literacy standards for preparation programs require special education teachers to develop reading comprehension that incorporates content area literacy. The state outlines the following competencies: 

  • Teach the conventions, elements and text structures associated with informational texts drawn from history, mathematics, science and other content areas, including author's purpose or stance, organizational plan, etc.
  • Collaborate with school-based teams to identify, evaluate and select classroom materials that support reading within content area classrooms such as social studies, science and mathematics.
Regarding struggling readers, Colorado's literacy standards require teachers to "select, use and interpret formal and informal assessments of reading comprehension and use them to make instructional decisions and to plan instructional interventions targeted for improved student outcomes." Similar competencies exist regarding assessments of phonological and phonemic awareness; phonics surveys, writing samples and word identification assessments; and assessments of reading fluency. The state's standards also require that a teacher be "knowledgeable about learning exceptionalities and conditions that affect the rate and extent of student learning, and is able to adapt instruction for all learners."


Recommendations for Colorado

Require all special education teacher candidates who teach the elementary grades to pass a rigorous assessment in the science of reading instruction. 
Colorado should require a rigorous reading assessment tool to ensure that its elementary special education teacher candidates are adequately prepared in the science of reading instruction before entering the classroom. The assessment should clearly test knowledge and skills related to the science of reading and address all five instructional components of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. If the test is combined with an assessment that also tests general pedagogy or elementary content, it should report a subscore for the science of reading specifically. Elementary special education teachers who do not possess the minimum knowledge in this area should not be eligible for licensure.

Ensure that new special education teachers are prepared to incorporate informational text of increasing complexity into classroom instruction.
Although the revised Praxis II Content Knowledge test is a step in the right direction, this assessment still does not adequately capture all the major instructional shifts of college- and career-readiness standards—and it fails to provide subscores for each core content area. Colorado's literacy standards address complex texts, but, as with the revised test, they do not ensure teachers' ability to incorporate these texts into instruction. Colorado is therefore encouraged to strengthen its teacher preparation requirements and ensure that all candidates who teach special education have the ability to address the use of informational texts as well as incorporate complex informational texts into classroom instruction.

Ensure that new special education teachers are prepared to incorporate literacy skills as an integral part of every subject.

To ensure that special education students are capable of accessing varied information about the world around them, Colorado should also—either through testing frameworks or teacher standards—more specifically include literacy skills and using text to build content knowledge in history/social studies, science, technical subjects and the arts.

State response to our analysis

Colorado recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis. Colorado also noted the pending revisions to the state's Educator Licensing Act. Colorado further indicated that the READ Act calls upon "other skilled school professional in a local context" (e.g. special education teachers) to develop and carry interventions that support literacy and reading skills.

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.