Guide To College Majors Reading and Literacy

Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.
--Sir Richard Steele

What is Reading and Literacy?

Students who choose to pursue a major in reading and literacy will find that this exciting field offers a wide variety of opportunities for both personal and professional growth. Success in the field of reading and literacy education requires that teachers, researchers, and scholars engage in an ongoing exploration of the many factors that affect literacy in today's society.

Reading and literacy education students train to become both teachers and scholars. They develop strong communication skills that are necessary to educate students of different ages and varying cultural, economic, and educational backgrounds. Reading and literacy students will also learn to examine and analyze former and current trends in the ever-changing field of reading education. Online degree programs in reading and literacy education are available in a variety of specific concentrations.

The Importance of Reading and Literacy

In the National Literacy Act of 1991, the United States Congress defined literacy this way: "[Literacy is] an individual's ability to read, write, and speak in English, and compute and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job and in society, to achieve one's goals, and develop one's knowledge and potential."

While the basic US literacy rate hovers at 99% according to the CIA World Factbook, the 2003 National Adult Literacy Survey (the most recent available) reported that 14 percent of American adults were functioning at the lowest level of literacy. This means that they can understand basic text but are unable to perform what might seem like simple tasks, such as reading a street map, or finding particular information in a newspaper or magazine article.

The National Adult Literacy Survey also reported a strong association between low levels of literacy and economic struggle. Many American adults functioning at low literacy levels--over 40 percent--live in poverty, and comprise 70 percent of the country's prisoner population. In the years since the National Adult Literacy Survey was conducted, the U.S. Department of Education has begun the American Reads Challenge, which encourages the effort to make every American child literate.

It often happens that average approaches to reading education are not enough to meet the American Reads Challenge. Experts note that many American parents are illiterate themselves, and therefore unable to help their children read at home. This is why schools in the United States need teachers who specialize in reading education in the classroom, and administrators who work to design and implement specialized reading programs at all levels.

Degree Programs in Reading and Literacy

Most reading and literacy degrees exist at the graduate level. To enter a master's degree program in reading and literacy, you must hold a four-year bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. Some programs require students to possess teaching certification or licensure. Be sure to carefully check the requirements of your preferred degree program

The best reading and literacy education degrees encourage students to participate in activities that promote professional development. These programs require an understanding of current research and changes in the field, as well as a strengthening of prior knowledge. Most reading and literacy degree programs will expect students to understand:

  • The reading process.
  • The basic components of reading curricula.
  • Techniques for teaching reading.
  • The process of assessing students' reading progress.
  • How to research and evaluate reading and literacy data.
  • Trends and issues in reading research.

After taking courses in these basics, graduate students will be expected to:

  • Conduct in-depth research about trends in reading.
  • Be able to assess students' reading progress and develop the skills necessary to create appropriate instructional techniques.
  • Demonstrate the ability to teach reading using multiple approaches.
  • Understand the components of balanced reading programs and curricula.
  • Demonstrate knowledge and ability through practical and active application in the field.
  • Demonstrate practical and theoretical knowledge by designing and implementing reading programs.
  • Develop the ability to act as mentor for other reading teachers.

Online Degrees in Reading and Literacy Education

A significant growth in the availability of online degree programs in reading and literacy has made it possible for students in all situations to obtain a degree while continuing to maintain their lives at work and at home. Online degree programs offer students the same quality of instruction and coursework as more traditional programs, but with the flexibility and convenience that so many students need. These online college courses are especially popular among working teachers who want to boost their career prospects without stepping off the tenure track at their schools. Online M.Ed. programs that include teacher certification as part of their curriculum may require students to participate in local student-teaching programs.

Many online degree programs in reading and literacy are extremely rigorous, demanding at least 12-15 hours of study and preparation a week, per course. Some students may choose to take fewer courses at a time, extending their overall enrollment in the program, while some students may choose to take a full course load, completing the program in fewer semesters. The options for enrollment vary from program to program.

What to consider when researching on-campus and online degree programs in reading and literacy: Potential applicants should consider the following questions when choosing an appropriate accredited program:

  • Does the program require applicants to have prior degrees, licenses, or certificates?
  • Do I meet its applicant eligibility requirements?
  • May I obtain my necessary state certifications or licenses while enrolled in the program?
  • In what direction do I wish to take my career in reading and literacy?
  • Will the program help me reach my career goals?
  • What level of teaching do I wish to concentrate on?
  • What are my potential areas of focus?
  • What areas of focus does the program offer?
  • What kinds of skills and experience do I wish to gain?
  • How long is the program?
  • What is its teaching philosophy?
  • What is the program's application process?
  • Is a thesis or dissertation required?
  • Does the program require any fieldwork?
  • Does it require extensive research?
  • Will classroom observation be a necessary facet of the program?
  • Can I enroll part-time?

What Can You Do With a Reading and Literacy Degree?

In addition to regular classroom teaching, students who obtain a degree in reading and literacy may choose a career in:

  • Preschool reading education
  • Elementary reading education
  • Secondary reading education
  • Special education and remedial reading education
  • Specialized reading
  • Adult literacy
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)

Adult Literacy and English as Second Language (ESL) Education

Teachers of adult literacy and English as a Second Language should be prepared to exercise an acute sensitivity to their students' various situations and circumstances. Teachers should be familiar with and tolerant of the common difficulties and concerns that ESL students often face. Adult literacy teachers should have a particularly well-developed ability to communicate with people from a wide variety of economic and cultural backgrounds.

With strong support from American employers for literacy in the workplace, reading and literacy majors can expect continued demand for their skills. This is particularly true for those who are entering the specialized field of English as a Second Language education. As the number of people immigrating to the United States continues to grow, the career opportunities in ESL education will increase as well. There is a high demand for instruction in English conversation and literacy, both within and outside the United States. (ESL teaching is an excellent career choice for anyone who is interested in living abroad.) More and more, these populations eagerly invest in ESL schools and classes all over the world in order to develop their English language skills.

The demand for teachers of English as a Second Language and adult literacy specialists depends upon many factors, such as the immigration policies of the United States, and the attractiveness of living in the United States versus living in other countries. Currently, states such as California, Florida, Texas, and New York have the greatest demand for ESL teachers, because these states claim the largest populations of immigrants in need of English language instruction. Combined with recent surges of immigrant populations in the Midwest and the Plains states, ESL specialists can expect even stronger levels of job security over the coming years.

The demand for teachers in field of ESL and adult literacy also depends on the American economy. During times of economic prosperity, when the country is enjoying a high employment rate, employers may lower their standards for potential employees in order to meet customer demand more swiftly. During times of national economic hardship, however, employers tend to increase their demands, including testing the literacy levels of prospective employees, thereby increasing the overall need for literacy instruction.

Special Education and Remedial Reading Education

Special education and remedial reading teachers can work in a number of capacities. There is a growing need for teachers of special education at the early childhood level, in kindergartens, in elementary schools, in middle schools, and at the secondary level. Special education teachers work with students who have physical and learning disabilities, and remedial reading teachers work more specifically with students who have language and reading-related learning disabilities.

Many special education and remedial reading teachers work in public schools, while some work in private schools at the elementary or secondary level. Some teachers work for human services agencies that provide educational assistance to homebound individuals, or individuals in hospitals and residential facilities.

Because of legislation dictating improved standards for the education of students with disabilities, the job market for special education and remedial reading teachers will continue to grow. The professional opportunities in this specialized field will also expand as the standards for graduation from educational institutions become higher.

Because many special education and remedial reading teachers change careers in mid-life or make the switch to more general education, the prospects for special education professionals just entering the field are good. The job opportunities only increase as more and more school districts report difficulty in finding and keeping qualified special education and remedial teachers.

Reading Specialist

Reading and literacy education majors may choose to focus their studies on specialized reading. This focus prepares students for future careers as reading specialists, work closely with school teachers, students, and administrators to develop reading curricula and to coordinate reading and literacy programs in schools. The reading specialist will have a leadership role and will also be involved with the evaluation of student reading performance in order to more effectively strategize the approaches to teaching reading in the classroom.

Reading specialists may focus their careers on preschool, elementary, middle school, secondary, or remedial reading programs. Professionals in this field are usually a resource for the academic community in which they work, collaborating extensively with educators at all levels as well as the student body and the parents of students.

In the wake of new federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind, schools have placed greater emphasis on the development of reading and literacy programs. Teachers and administrators increasingly turn to specialists in the language arts field for guidance about how to more effectively increase and enhance students' levels of reading comprehension, writing, and general language skills.

Reading specialists who wish to pursue a career at an academic administrative level may be required to obtain additional state licensure. Certification and licensure requirements vary from state to state.

Licensure, Certification and Associations

Teachers of reading and literacy who wish to teach reading in the public school system must hold valid credentials, usually consisting of state certification or licensure. Credential requirements vary in each state and for each level of teaching. Most state education boards require:

  • student teaching experience
  • successful completion of state examinations
  • A bachelor's degree (many individual school districts require master's degrees)

Literacy and reading specialists who wish to teach in a preschool setting must generally meet state teaching credentials, though some states may make allowances for qualified teachers to teach at this level with only a provisional license or certificate.

Master Reading Teacher Certification

Some reading and literacy degree programs provide students with the opportunity to obtain Master Reading Teacher Certification. A Master Reader serves as a mentor and resource to other reading teachers. In order to obtain a Master Reading certificate, reading and literacy students must:

  • complete a specialized preparation program
  • pass the certification exam
  • acquire teaching experience, and/or
  • obtain an appropriate state teaching certificate.

More information about certification and licensure

The National Association of State Boards of Education offers information about state certification and licensure requirements, state and national teaching standards, and state school districts. The National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards is a non-profit organization that develops and upholds standards for professional educators in the United States. They provide information about education reform, state credentials, and more.

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