Nation's 1 in 5 adult illiterates will get new attention next month

An estimated 1 in every 5 adult Americans cannot read this sentence. A job application is beyond their ability; a recipe is unintelligible. These are America's functional illiterates. They live their lives on the margin of society, out of sight of the mainstream. Relatively few people know about their plight.

But next month, America's literacy problem should get a little more attention. That is when the Coalition for Literacy plans to launch its television and print advertising campaign.

Its message: The nation's illiteracy problem is vast and costly, but it can be cut down to size.

In small ways, the problem already is being addressed.

Here in Chicago, for example, public libraries offer reading courses; literacy volunteers tutor students one-on-one; and a host of programs are aimed at special illiterates - for example, the Safer Foundation's basic literacy classes for men and women convicted of a crime.

The trouble is twofold:

Too few resources devoted to adult basic education. Of the 74 million adult Americans estimated to be either marginally or fully illiterate, only 2.3 million are getting literacy training each year, according to the federal Department of Education. Those gains are offset by 2.3 million new adults with such needs each year - mostly high-school dropouts or non-English-speaking immigrants.

''We're just basically keeping level,'' says Don Snodgrass, deputy director for the division of adult education at the Education Department.

Very little cooperation among literacy groups. ''It's one of the most turf-riddled efforts I've ever encountered,'' says James Nelson, state librarian and commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives.

The Coalition for Literacy hopes to begin correcting these problems.

The coalition is made up of 11 organizations - including the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education, the American Library Association , and the two major literacy volunteer groups, Literacy Volunteers of America and Laubach Literacy International. The aim is to coordinate already existing efforts and attract support for even more literacy initiatives.

Already ''there's been a lot more awareness,'' says coalition coordinator Jean Coleman.

Public awareness was boosted last January when a television documentary on the nation's literacy problem was aired.

The showing of ''Can't Read, Can't Write,'' hosted by country singer Johnny Cash, generated 7,300 calls to the coalition's toll-free number in January.

Nearly 60 percent of the calls were from people interested in volunteering. The rest came from people seeking literacy help.

The Coalition for Literacy had hoped to kick off its advertising campaign at the same time as the documentary. But fund raising and logistical problems caused delays.

To date, the coalition has raised about $575,000 - some $10,000 in individual donations alone. That is enough to get the ad effort going, and services are being donated by the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

But the coalition says it needs $1.7 million for its full-blown, three-year campaign.

In some ways, the delay has helped, says Anabel Newman, an Indiana University professor who is International Reading Association's representative to the coalition.

In the interim a group of businessmen have formed the Business Council for Effective Literacy, dedicated to drawing support among corporations. Meanwhile, literacy coalitions at the state level have begun popping up. These state-level efforts are needed to support the national campaign, Dr. Newman says.

In California, for example, state librarian Gary E. Strong allocated $2.5 million of his federally funded budget to give to public libraries setting up literacy programs.

''Our hope was to challenge public libraries to become involved,'' Mr. Strong says. So far, 27 library jurisdictions serving more than 100 communities around the state have rallied to the cause.

Some 3,000 to 4,000 literacy tutors have been trained and 5,000 to 6,000 students enrolled, he says. ''And it's growing every day.''

Strong hopes nearly to double the state libraries involved. Earlier this year , the state Legislature agreed to pick up the funding of the program.

Kentucky, meanwhile, is in the process of redirecting its state literacy coalition - the first of its kind in the country.

The state, which leads the nation in the percentage of adults not finishing high school, originally set up a nonprofit corporation to coordinate local efforts. But that has been scrapped, in part because it failed to raise its own funds.

''A lot of people don't want to fund cooperation,'' says Mr. Nelson, the state librarian. ''They like to fund projects.''

Now, the state library and education department are responsible for funding and coordinating various literacy initiatives. A statewide toll-free number is in place to support the national coalition's hot line when the advertising campaign kicks off.

''I'm optimistic. It's about as much attention as we've ever seen on the (literacy) problem,'' Nelson says.

''I think people are going to rally to the call.''

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