Easing of quiet plight of nation's illiterate adults comes to light

Barbara Smith, a mother of four, scans a worksheet for the words ''collard greens'' and mutters to herself. ''I eat those every day and I never knew how to spell it.''

Across the table, a former professional dancer searches for the same words. She has traveled to Guam and Canada, but can barely fill out the travel forms. ''There would be times I didn't remember how to spell my name,'' she recalls.

These women are functional illiterates - part of a giant shadow population that includes 1 out of every 5 adults in the United States. Unlike these women, who sought help at a local adult learning center, most functional illiterates dwell in relative obscurity on the very margins of society. But this fall, their plight will be spotlighted as never before.

Beginning Sept. 6, local television stations across the country plan to air a one-hour documentary on the problem. Meanwhile, the US Department of Education is expected to launch a ''literacy initiative'' by early fall. And, if enough money is found, a new private campaign will begin to offer some solutions.

In the short term, some startling facts have surfaced:

* Some 26 million adult Americans - slightly more than the combined populations of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago - are unable to make out a check or read the directions on a TV dinner.

* The problem is growing despite several literacy efforts. An estimated 850, 000 high school dropouts add to the problem each year; non-English-speaking immigrants continue to swell the population.

* Although physical and mental problems are sometimes involved, functional illiterates are often intelligent adults who somehow were passed over in their school years. The result: Illiterate adults feel inadequate and so embarrassed that they don't seek help.

The need is felt in human terms: the San Francisco man who always ordered a restaurant's hamburger because he couldn't read the menu; the Cambridge woman who couldn't read her husband's love letters.

* The cost of functional illiteracy is vast. By one estimate, taxpayers pay $ 12.6 billion a year for welfare recipients and prison inmates who are functional illiterates. It is unknown what impact literacy would have, but one Indiana educator figures her work with an illiterate man got him a job and saved taxpayers $30,000 in welfare and other payments over a five-year period.

Much more is lost through job inefficiency. A Massachusetts educator recalls the illiterate painter who telephoned his wife every day for help in filling out work forms. He would read her each letter of each word so that she could tell him what the word was.

The new efforts to correct these problems come at a time when the very definitions of literacy are changing.

Even basic jobs, which used to require only a worker's signature, now demand a much higher reading skill, says Anabel Newman, an assistant dean at the Indiana University's education school. Adults, who used to be judged functionally literate if they completed fourth grade, need an eighth-grade education today, she says. And some now point to the 10th grade as the literacy threshold.

Ironically, the age of information, computers, and television has the potential to leave behind an increasing number of adults.

In the long term, literacy advocates hope they can begin offering solutions. Although the federal government, the military, and the private sector are carrying out literacy programs, they have only made a small dent. The major thrust should be through volunteers, says US Education Secretary T. H. Bell, who is expected to launch a ''literacy initiative'' soon, although its details have not been revealed. Many literacy advocates applaud the voluntarism concept.

''It's not something that can be solved in Washington, D.C.,'' says Robert L. Craig, vice-president of government and public affairs at the American Society for Training and Development. ''It's got to happen in every place in the US.''

Currently, there are two major literacy volunteer groups in the US - Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy Action - that serve some 67,000 adults each year. But even those groups admit their efforts have had only a small impact.

That is why many literacy advocates are excited about a new grass-roots campaign proposed by the Coalition for Literacy. The coalition - made up of groups ranging from the American Library Association to book retailers such as B. Dalton Bookseller - hopes to initiate a national campaign that would coordinate local resources so far untapped.

''We're convinced that the resources are right there, right now in the community,'' says Gary Hill, president of CONTACT, a private, nonprofit firm and coalition member. Beginning Sept. 4 CONTACT will run a toll-free hot line that will refer functional illiterates to literacy groups in the area. The hot line will also provide concrete ways for individuals and businesses to help.

Potential volunteers will be referred to local groups. Businesses, such as a hotel with concerned employees or empty conference rooms that could serve as classrooms, will be hooked up with a literacy group. Conceivably, Mr. Hill says, CONTACT could help the hotel find volunteers willing to tutor its own staff.

So far, though, the hot line has funds for only two weeks - thanks to a donation by Capital Cities Television Productions of Philadelphia, the nonprofit company that produced the illiteracy documentary to air this fall on some 150 to 175 local TV stations.

After that, money will have to be raised by the coalition, which to date has verbal commitments for only about half of the $300,000 it needs for the campaign's first year. Jean Coleman, coalition coordinator, is accepting donations through the American Library Association (at 50 East Huron Street, Chicago, Ill. 60611).

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