New York — `I SEE a great danger,'' says literacy expert Carmen St. John Hunter, ``in acting as though learning to read and write will resolve what, for me, is a social and economic problem and not an educational one.'' What is needed more than literacy projects, she says, are programs oriented toward the specific needs of a community, programs that spark a desire for literacy. In 1979, Dr. Hunter co-wrote a study on adult illiteracy in the United States conducted by World Education for the Ford Foundation. The report was republished last year with the original recommendations unchanged. The updated introduction states, ``Headlines proclaiming either 23 or 65 million adult illiterates in the US gain attention but contribute little to serious analysis of the problem or the search for solutions.''
Since 1983, when President Reagan announced the Initiative on Adult Literacy, the issue has received increasing attention from many sectors. Business leaders founded the Business Council for Effective Literacy in late 1983; a year later, the Coalition for Literacy was formed, and developed a national literacy-awareness campaign with the Advertising Council. This month, proclaimed Adult Literacy Awareness Month by President Reagan, the Public Broadcasting Service and the American Broadcasting Company will begin airing a series of programs that have been developed as part of PLUS, Project Literacy US, and the American Newspaper Publishers Association will place public service ads in 1,400 member papers nationwide.
Hunter believes that many of the literacy-awareness campaigns oversimplify the problem and tend to benefit only those who have already decided to learn to read and write. At the same time, she points out that programs to help these people, such as Literacy Volunteers of America, Laubach Literacy Advance, and centers offering Adult Basic Education, do need more support because they are often overcrowded and understaffed.
Many adults labeled ``illiterate'' do not define their problem in terms of reading and writing, she says. ``The people who have literacy-related problems are the poor; and different groups have these problems for different reasons,'' Dr. Hunter says. ``You and I might say what holds them back in life is their reading and writing level,'' she says, ``but from their point of view it may be lack of jobs, or racial prejudice. It may have to do with the quality of housing they live in or the schools they attend.''
``The programs that succeed are those that approach people around what deeply concerns them, and that allow them to use their own experience to improve their communities,'' Hunter says. Through such a process, she believes people can come to decide on their own that they want to work on writing or reading skills.
She describes the experience of a Portuguese community in Toronto. The people there were very dissatisfied with the education their children were receiving, and members of the Board of Education for the city approached the parents to ask what could be done to improve the schools. ``This was their entr'ee into meaningful participation in the community,'' Hunter noted. To ensure that the community's suggestions were acted upon, many of the parents decided to improve their own reading and writing skills.
Dr. Hunter has found that this community-oriented approach also benefits programs designed to reach those adults who already want to become literate. ``The literacy programs that work the best are able to relate content [in the classroom] to the issues people bring up about their lives,'' Hunter says.
She recalled the story told by a teacher from the Mother's Reading Program of the American Reading Council, an organization working with groups of women with low literacy skills in New York City. The teacher was reading from Alice Walker's novel, ``The Color Purple,'' long before it had become popular as a result of the film adaptation. ``One of the women in the class said, `Give me that book!' '' Hunter relates.
After reading a passage on her own, the learner understood that reading was not merely a mechanical operation, but could convey an intimate understanding of her own situation.
``In this way,'' Hunter says, ``people gain skills around the questions that concern them most, not what the society thinks they need to be able to do.'' She also cited programs such as the Bronx Educational Program in New York and the Push Literacy Action Now group in Washington, D.C.
Paul Delker, director of the adult education division in the US Department of Education, agrees with Carmen St. John Hunter's analysis. ``The qualities that make a good teacher of adults,'' he says, ``are much closer to the field of community development than education.'' Mr. Delker noted that Hunter's writing and counsel were helping push both the federal government and individual state governments to support a wider variety of programs, including community-oriented ones, to fulfill the federal Adult Education Act's mandate of reaching ``the least educated and most at need.'' Today is International Literacy Day.