The right to read

Voracious readers sometimes quip that when there are no books or magazines around they read soup can labels and cereal boxes. But for 23 million Americans , reading soup can labels is no joke. Classified as "functional illiterates," they have a hard time doing even that.

Janet London knows. As director of Literacy Volunteers of Massachusetts, she helps set up tutoring programs for adults who cannot understand even the simplest written instructions.

"Being a functional illiterate doesn't mean you can't read at all," she says."It means you cannot use what little reading you have to understand basics like . . . instructions on a box of instant cake mix, or newspaper want ads, or job application blanks . . . -- you cannot process them and say, 'Okay, now this means that I must give this information.'"

Illiteracy makes even simple tasks like comparison shopping at the supermarket difficult.

"Most people may be frustrated but aren't particularly bothered if they pick up the 3-ounce can they think is on sale then find out at the check-out counter that the coupon is only good for the 6-ounce can. But if you can't read, and know that's why you picked up the wrong can it's another story," says Mrs. London. "Even if no one else knows the reason, you're not going to take that chance of getting caught."

Often, says Mrs. London, illiteracy results from problems in early school years rather than a lack of intelligence. One extremely bright young man she tutored in prison told her he was turned off from reading by his third grade teacher.

"Obviously, he had problems that weren't being handled and was more than likely a troublemaker," she says. "But a lot of people had that kind of problem where they were in school and just did not catch on at the moment. We all learn at different rates." She points out that many people blame illness or severe winter weather for keeping them away from school when reading fundamentals were taught. Or they say hearing problems kept them from learning.

Government figures indicate one out of five Americans is functionally illiterate. An additional 34 million can read but are far from proficient, according to a 1975 study. And a recent Ford Foundation report states that attempts to conquer illiteracy are grossly inadequate.

"Very few adult education programs in the United States are reaching those with the most severe literacy handicaps," says Karen R. Norton, communications editor for National Affiliation for Literacy Advance (NALA), the larger of the two volunteer organizations fighting illiteracy in North America. "A possible explanation," she says, "is that these persons are so overwhelmed by the illiteracy-associated problems of unemployment, poor housing, and chronic poverty that they do not seek the long-term solutions literacy education affords."

Gary Eyre, executive director of the National Advisory Council on Adult Education, a group appointed by the President to advise the government on adult education, agrees that the federal and state adult literacy programs have not reached the people who need help most.He points out that not enough money has been allocated "and therefore you take those who are knocking down the doors to get in rather than perhaps going out and getting at the least educated and hardest to reach . . . ."

He adds that in recent months vigorous efforts have been made to help people who cannot read any better than the average fourth-grader and that groups such as NALA and Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA), the other national volunteer organization combating illiteracy, "do a fair job" of reaching such people.

Certainly they are reaching people who would shy away from a more formal way of teaching, he says.

Between them, NALA and LVA (with which LVM is associated) tutored about 47, 000 adults last year, including several thousand who were learning English as a second language. Both organizations work with local organizations and are, in the words of Joseph Gray, LVA's executive director, "friendly competitors." The main difference between them seems to be the way they teach -- with NALA's methods being more formal than LVA's.

According to Mrs. London, most adults come to LVA because of some crisis -- a young man must be able to read to pass a driving test, or parents discover they can't help their children with schoolwork because they read better than they do, for example. One man in the program is simply tired of having to refuse promotions to supervisory positions because he can't do the reading and math the job requires. Nor can he face admitting to longtime co-workers that he cannot read well enough to accept the new position.

When new students sign up, they are first tested to find how well they read, then assigned a tutor. The two of them work together for two hours a week, using materials that will interest the student. The would-be-driver might work on program based on the driver's manual.Parents wanting to help their children might use school textbooks. And the man who wanted to accept a promotion might use the order form and materials from his job.

Mrs. London says some students only stay in a program from six months to a year and never become fully literate. Other students stay as long as it takes them to learn to read fluently.

The NALA tutoring techniques were developed 50 year ago by Dr. Frank Laubach. It publishes its own materials, including books, directed at such specific tasks as understanding a road map, reading a newspaper, using the phone directory, finding a job, raising a family, or registering to vote. There are stories, too , like "A Dream with Storms," in which, "Rosa, wife of a migrant worker and mother of three, wants to become a teacher's aide, but her husband, Juan, objects . . . ."

Gerald Indelicato, director of Extended Services for the Massachusetts Bureau of Adult Education, says his department has worked extensively with LVA. He finds the group "pretty effective." Thanks to their volunteers individuals who would not normally be helped, are helped.

He says one reason LVA succeeds where other tutoring programs fail is the willingness of its tutors to work with students in their homes. "At home there's a less threatening environment. You can let down your guard. I think it's a pretty frightening experience to let people know that even though you may be 38 years old you don't know how to read."

Both NALA and LVA depend entirely on volunteers. (Dr. Laubach's motto was "Each one, teach one.") The volunteers don't have to have teaching experience, but they must devote at least two hours a week and go through the programs' training course.

According to Janet London, "Some of our finest, outstanding dedicated voluneteers . . . do not have more than a high school diploma, and just come to do something other than what they normally do." Many hold other jobs and arrange to tutor in the evenings or on weekends.

Why do people volunteer?

Because the realization that there are those who can "never sit down to read a good book, . . . don't have a basic access to information, . . . can't even read to their children . . . . comes as a shock to people, and they feel it just shouldn't be so." Also, many of the volunteers know somebody with a reading problem, she points out.

The successes can be very gratifying.

Mrs. London recalls "one lady . . . who hadn't been able to read or write for much of her life. She finally did write something, a beautiful letter to the editor of the local paper. She was thanking her volunteer for bringing her to a point where, although she was not yet reading as well as she'd like, she now could recognize any problems her children might run into, so the same thing wouldn't happen to them.

"That's a big point. Many times children with reading problems have parents with reading problems. We have parents now who may not be literate but who are certainly aware."

She also recalls a young man now in the program who was ashamed to admit to his girlfriend that he could not read. He said the only time they went out to eat was when he found a place where he could run in and order something without having to read anything. With the help of his tutor, he is learning to read a menu borrowed from a local restaurant. The only scholastic honors here -- the victory of being able to order whatever his date wants, by reading it from a menu.

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