Bringing literacy home for adult learners

When he was in kindergarten, Don Hable's mother was told he would have trouble reading. He did, and he was eventually sent to a special-education school where he says he did nothing but "goof around" all day. Eventually, he left, and began working with his father in the family heating and cooling business.

In February, his sister brought Don, now 18, to the Literacy Council of St. Louis - a bustling room off a side street in a hard-luck corner of town. Inside, amid folding tables and chairs, recent immigrants from all corners of the globe mix with native English speakers and tutors. It's here that Ruth Korte, a volunteer for eight years, took Don under her wing.

He tested within a normal intelligence range. And after six months of morning sessions with Ms. Korte, Don is reading at a second grade level.

"It's a little embarrassing, having to come in," he says. But his dad has promised him a car if he succeeds. And, he adds, "It feels good to be able to read a lot of the signs out on the street now."

To Korte, the key is much-needed individual attention. "The one-on-one really gives them what they need," she says. "A lot of them didn't get that in school, and they fell through the cracks."

A seminal 1993 literacy survey may have significantly overstated the number of low-literate adults in the United States, according to a recent follow-up report by the survey's director. A reinterpretation of the data shows that closer to 10 million Americans, rather than 40 million, are functionally illiterate.

But literacy professionals say that whatever the correct number, millions of adults in the United States couldn't read a "One Way" sign if it weren't for the arrow, and relatively few of them are being helped. "We are a drastically underfunded field," says Marsha Tait, president of Literacy Volunteers of America, a national network of programs.

Even given the smaller figure of 10 million low-literate adults, "we are still - on a per capita basis - spending dramatically less than we spend on children in the K-12 system."

She points to a study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year that listed the Top 100 most popular charitable organizations. No adult basic-skills agency made the list. Very little federal and state money goes to such programs. Yet most observers agree on the growing importance of basic literacy.

"Our society has gotten so much more complex, that merely to be able to perform some basic literacy tasks is not enough to make it in life," says Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Family Literacy. "The level of education required on the average job has escalated dramatically.

An estimated 60 percent of students in adult-literacy classes nationwide are recent immigrants. Indeed, Bosnians, Croats, Eritreans, Somalis, and Haitians populate the council office here.

Among native English speakers, there are few completely illiterate adults - those who fit the pre-Civil War image of people who scratched an X in place of their name. Instead, millions of 'low-literate' or 'functionally-illiterate' adults sign their names, drive cars, and survive the grocery store, but can't read the headlines in the morning paper.

Today's low literates are often people who have substance-abuse issues or have been diagnosed with learning disabilities or mild retardation. Most literacy training of adults is done in centers like the St. Louis Council, and staffed by volunteers - so students with disabilities can present a real problem.

"We're increasingly getting students with a need for multiple services," says Mike Reid, who runs the Literacy Council office here. "They don't just need to learn to read, they need to find a home, too. Our tutors are specialists in reading, but they're having to become para-social workers also."

Korte is a retired customer-service representative for the local gas company. She first got interested in literacy on the job.

The same customers, she noticed, would come back again and again with the same problems, despite the pamphlet she handed them to answer their questions. When she saw them trying to memorize her instructions, it dawned on her: They didn't know how to read.

The approach to helping such individuals used to be to focus strictly on them. But in the past 15 years, a new strategy has emerged that emphasizes the family. "It's a whole different approach ... because it looks at the parent and child as equal partners," says Darling, who pioneered the technique. "Everything we know about how well a child succeeds in school has to do with the educational attainment of the parent in the home. If you can educate the parent, the parent starts to feel better about their life and their chances, then they start to be more open to wanting to know what to do for their children."

She points to research that has shown the vocabulary of an average 3-year-old from a stable, middle-class home is better than that of a typical mother on welfare. Darling estimates that there are now 6,000 family-literacy programs nationwide, including some in which the parents accompany their children to the classroom to learn to read.

"We're reaching a population that needs not an occasional intervention but very intensive support," says Darling, who started teaching adults to read in a church basement 30 years ago. "We talk about wrapping a cocoon around a family, as opposed to putting a safety net under it."

Darling says the public and policymakers tend to "write off" illiterate adults and focus on their children. But children will become readers only when parents do, she maintains.

Experts say there are three kinds of low-literate adults: those who can be helped, those who want to be helped but struggle with learning disabilities, and those who refuse help. "The hardest part of the process is for them to come in here and say 'I can't read.' " Korte says.

And low-literate adults can sometimes find a comfort zone that is difficult to break out of. "Let's face it," Mr. Reid says, "some of them have been pretty much babied all their adults lives. Their spouse usually reads for them, takes care of the bills."

Reid and Korte - who have taught police officers, politicians, and members of the clergy, as well as helped those who simply needed eyeglasses - tell of a retired General Motors auto worker who spent decades on an assembly line but was illiterate. His brother-in-law filled out his employment application and covered for him on the job. The man has grown children, and now a 12-year-old with a second wife. "When he couldn't help his child with his homework, that's when he finally came over here."

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