Illiteracy garners nationwide attention. Sharper awareness of issue bolsters funding, volunteer support

Suddenly, it seems illiteracy has become a hot topic. President Reagan has proclaimed September ``Adult Literacy Awareness Month.'' Television specials and newspapers are examining the issue, and volunteer efforts to eradicate illiteracy are on the upswing.

``It's really become a buzzword,'' says Susan Case, spokeswoman for Literacy Volunteers of America.

Adds Anabel Newman, director of the Reading Practicum Center at Indiana University: ``There has been a tremendous turnaround in awareness. . . . A few years ago, people would say: `Oh, you can't mean there's an adult who can't read.' ''

Now aware of the problem, Americans are responding vigorously, according to a new study by Dr. Newman, and in a variety of ways. For example:

Funding. Donations to literacy campaigns increased 94 times between 1980 and 1985. The study may underestimate the total (it documented $85.3 million given last year), but it does signal the dramatic jump in support, Newman says. Besides increased corporate and foundation donations, the study found equally dramatic jumps in volunteer and community-based giving.

Advertising. Last year, the media donated more than $24 million worth of advertising about illiteracy. And more is on the way this year with television and newspapers jumping onto the bandwagon.

Volunteers. A random sample of 716 literacy programs revealed that volunteer teachers jumped an average 29 percent last year while enrollment of illiterate adults increased 9 percent, compared with the previous fall. In the same period, the US Office of Education found a 243 percent increase in the number of federal workers serving as tutors in literacy programs.

Why this increased activity?

``It's the combination of a lot of things,'' says Joan Warrender of Lauback Literacy Action. She points to efforts by the Business Council for Effective Literacy and the publication last year of ``Illiterate America'' by Jonathan Kozol.

One of the earliest joint efforts to attack the problem was the Coalition for Literacy, formed in 1981. The coalition brought together rival literacy and reading groups for the first time and eventually raised funds to begin an ad campaign and establish a literacy hotline.

These efforts have now begun to bear fruit. Last year, the hotline handled an average of nearly 90 calls a day and referred some 8,000 new tutors and 10,000 new students to literacy programs around the country. B. Dalton Bookseller, a member of the coalition, originated an in-store fundraising program that is now backed by the American Booksellers Association, the National Association of College Stores, and a number of independent bookstores around the nation. More than 1,000 stores have agreed to have donation boxes asking their customers to ``give the gift of literacy.''

The financial support is crucial. Recruiting volunteers isn't much help if the volunteers are inadequately trained to teach reading, literacy advocates point out.

``We've got all this awareness,'' says Bette Fenton, B. Dalton's vice-president of community relations and public affairs. ``What is holding them [literacy groups] back is no money.'' Tomorrow: Since 1979, an Atlanta literacy program has vaulted from a 20 percent to 80 percent success rate in teaching adults to read.

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