Newspaper `textbooks' lend incentive, self-respect to adult illiterates

In Kansas City, they are using newspapers to fight a war -- a war against illiteracy. Project Literacy (PL), a local adult-reading program here, has found that by using the local newspaper as an instructional tool, adults learn to read more quickly than with standard texts. Furthermore, 30 to 40 percent more students have applied to this program per capita than to textbook-reading programs in other American cities, according to the project figures.

Project Literacy volunteer teachers say using the newspaper to teach reading has two main virtues: It's relevant to adults, and it offers self-respect.

PL director Joan Williams first hit upon the idea while teaching a graduate education course at the University of Missouri on how to use newspapers to teach English, history, sociology, and government in secondary schools. It occurred to her that the newspaper would also be an ideal vehicle for teaching adults to read. ``It's an adult tool,'' she says.

Volunteer instructors at the two-year-old program, which is sponsored and funded by a host of private charities, say their students are ``eager'' to learn how to understand the classified section and sales ads. The sports page is also a big draw. A newspaper, they say, offers an immediate learning payback -- and a constantly changing textbook.

``It offers reading experiences in the real world -- most texts don't do that,'' PL staff member John Cyprus says.

Further, these instructors stress, a newspaper is not a humiliating text to be seen with; it's not ``juvenile material.'' Readers can buy the papers anywhere and read them everywhere.

The problem of illiteracy in the United States has received much attention lately, largely due to Jonathan Kozol's book ``Illiterate America.'' Mr. Kozol estimated that there are nearly 27 million Americans who could not, for example, read or comprehend this article.

According to both Kozol and Project Literacy officials, the illiterate population is largely ``invisible.'' This is mainly because illiterates, extremely sensitive about their lack of learning, seek to hide it. Some spouses, for example, do not know their husbands cannot read. One PL pupil, a data processor, typed in information letter by letter, rather than word by word, before her employers discovered she couldn't read. A high school diploma is no longer a guarantee of literacy.

In Kansas City alone, according to PL, there are an estimated 100,000 functional illiterates; these are people who cannot read want ads, bus schedules, or voting ballots -- let alone enter the imaginative world of books.

The process of learning to read as an adult is often an emotional one. PL staff members say that in some ways illiterates have been living in the dark. For them, literacy can often be comparable to entering a new world -- where signs, instructions, headlines, menus, and so forth are understandable. Employment possibilities also change considerably.

John Lee (not his real name) is an auto mechanic in his late 30s. Mr. Lee, a shy man with slicked-back hair and a sleeveless T-shirt, says he ``fought'' learning to read for months before finally applying at one of the Project Literacy offices. He had paced back and forth in front of the office for an hour before stepping in, he says, finally deciding that he ``couldn't go back home and face my wife another night.''

PL people say that when Lee first came to the office, he was ``all hunched over, closed up, and would only talk about cars.'' Now, they say, ``he's straightened up, comes in swinging a briefcase, and wants to talk about books.''

Director Williams says, ``It's always a special thrill when they bring in a newspaper or magazine of their own for the first time.'' Lee has been learning to read the auto sales page of the newspaper, his instructor says.

One distinguishing feature of Project Literacy is the commitment ``readers'' -- as students are called -- must make. Volunteers take their work seriously, Mr. Cyprus says, and readers must go through several interviews before committing themselves to the six-month to one-year program. The 120 volunteers -- each of whom has a pupil -- spend two hours a week with their readers; there is a waiting list.

Another part of PL's approach is to tell readers from their first day that they will be reading by the time they leave. ``We take an assertive, positive approach,'' Cyprus says.

PL officials point out that it costs the US government $8,000 to teach someone to read. With volunteers and low-cost community centers, they say, PL does the same job in less time for $800.

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