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 a small part of goal
Suggested Citation:
National Council on Teacher Quality. (2020). Special Education Preparation in Reading: Pennsylvania results. State Teacher Policy Database. [Data set].
Retrieved from: https://www.nctq.org/yearbook/state/PA-Special-Education-Preparation-in-Reading-69

Analysis of Pennsylvania's policies

Elementary special education candidates with dual licensure in elementary education or reading specialist will have passed the Pennsylvania Educator Certification PreK-4 test (PECT) or the Praxis Reading Specialist (5301) test. These tests address the five instructional components of scientifically based reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.  However, those candidates with dual licensure in elementary/middle do not have to pass either test.  

Additionally, Pennsylvania addresses the science of reading in its program guidelines for PreK-4 preparation programs.

Test requirements incorporate some of the instructional shifts associated with Pennsylvania's college- and career-readiness standards for students. The PECT test addresses informational texts within the cited examples for the objective, "understand assessment, instruction, and intervention for PreK-4 students in reading fluency, vocabulary development and reading comprehension." Candidates with dual certification in 4-8 will have passed a Praxis II Pennsylvania Grades 4-8 Subject Concentration test. The 4-8 English language arts assessment addresses informational texts. Candidates with dual certification as a reading specialist (K-12) will have passed the Praxis II Reading Specialist assessment, which requires teachers to "understand reading comprehension strategies for nonfiction,"  including the ability to "describe how to select and use a variety of informational, descriptive, and persuasive materials at appropriate reading levels to promote students' comprehension of nonfiction, including content-area texts."

Candidates with dual certification in a secondary area will have passed a Praxis II single-subject test. Pennsylvania's assessment for English language arts teachers, Praxis II English Language Arts: Content Knowledge test, also includes some of the instructional shifts toward building content knowledge and vocabulary through careful reading of informational and literary texts associated with the state's college- and career-readiness standards for students.

Pennsylvania's 4-8 Program Guidelines address incorporating literacy skills into other content areas, while the state's candidate competencies for secondary teachers broadly address this instructional shift. 

The needs of struggling readers are addressed at each grade level either through assessments or grade-level program guidelines.


Recommendations for Pennsylvania

Require all special education teacher candidates who teach elementary grades to pass a rigorous assessment in the science of reading instruction.
Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania's PreK-4 test addresses knowledge of informational texts, the in-depth coverage of the topic is presented as examples. Therefore, the extent to which this information is required is unclear. Pennsylvania is encouraged to make certain that its framework captures the major instructional shifts of college- and career-readiness standards, thereby ensuring that all special education teacher candidates have the ability to adequately incorporate complex informational text into classroom instruction. Further, although Pennsylvania's required 4-8 and secondary English language arts content tests address informational texts, the state should strengthen its policy and ensure that these teachers are able to challenge all special education students with texts of increasing complexity.

Ensure that new special education teachers are prepared to incorporate literacy skills as an integral part of every subject.
To ensure that all special education students are capable of accessing varied information about the world around them, Pennsylvania should—either through testing frameworks or teacher standards—include literacy skills and using text to build content knowledge in history/social studies, science, technical subjects and the arts. Because Pennsylvania's program guidelines and candidate competencies address this at the middle and secondary levels only, there is no guarantee that elementary special education teachers will be prepared to incorporate literacy skills in all the core content areas.

Support struggling readers.
Pennsylvania should articulate more specific requirements ensuring that all special education teachers are prepared to intervene and support students who are struggling with reading. With reading difficulties generally representing the primary reason for special education placements, it is essential that all special education teachers have the knowledge and skills to diagnose and support students with literacy needs.

State response to our analysis

Pennsylvania recognized the factual accuracy of this analysis, however this analysis was updated subsequent to the state's review.

Updated: September 2020

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.