Fighting illiteracy in Atlanta

For the past two weeks, the nation's communications media have focused on the problem of adult illiteracy in America. Experts agree that, for most programs, the success rate in teaching adults to read is about 30 to 50 percent. In Atlanta, however, the success rate for a program called Literacy Action (LA) has leaped, in only six years, from 20 up to 80 percent.

Literacy Action's upward climb began in 1979 when Verne Pulling and his staff made a crossroads decision. With Jane Pulling, his wife, Mr. Pulling had been running an Atlanta literacy program since 1967. The problem was that people in their program weren't learning to read.

``We were doing a lot of counseling,'' says Pulling, ``the staff was helping people with personal problems -- with getting food stamps and so forth.'' But it was a ``band-aid approach'' to reading, and the success rate was very low.

``We couldn't identify any positive results,'' he says. ``People were getting `good vibes' and saying, `Gee, I like the program,' but nothing concrete was happening.''

Finally, Pulling and his staff asked a critical question: ``Are we going to be a reading program, or a social service program?''

Some reading experts say adults can't learn to read unless the reading program confronts the whole complex of social problems that illiterates often face -- low income, cultural differences, poor housing, or other community-related issues.

But LA chose to concentrate on reading, and the results have been better than anyone imagined.

``I felt like, for 10 years, we'd been in a swamp,'' Pulling says. But the decision to refocus entirely on literacy brought about a new clarity of purpose -- and a major overhaul of LA's approach.

The most immediate change was to set up the program as a school. Students can no longer ``drop in'' on the program, as before. They must now make a commitment to attend at least 80 percent of the classes.

Associate director Lunette Hayes says that the new ``academic'' approach hasn't turned students away, as some staff members predicted, but has actually given them a feeling that learning to read is a serious business -- ``something to respect.''

But the biggest change has been the fact that, unlike most adult reading programs, LA teaches students in groups, rather than one on one.

The group approach allows members of the class to support each other. Experts point out that illiteracy is often a way of life, not simply an inability to read. Class members, in a sense, ``mute each other's frustrations,'' says Pulling. As one student put it, ``We become sort of a family after a few months.''

Many of the ``life management'' and ``survival skills'' problems they had previously handled when Literacy Action was in its ``social-service phase'' are handled by fellow students before and after class.

Literacy Action also differs from programs that simply have students identify and repeat words -- the classic ``look-say'' method. From the start, students learn to think about what language means and how sentences are built. Pulling says the ``look-say'' method often leads to students who can laboriously mouth words in a sentence, but who often read with no comprehension. Pulling wants students to learn not only to identify words, but to think about them: In each class, students discuss categories of words that relate, for example, to time, space, or quantity.

Pulling also has students write for 15 minutes during class -- even though many cannot write at the start. This familiarizes them with both the sound-symbol relationship of letters in words and the construction of sentences.

As in many successful programs, LA students read ``grown-up'' materials: newspapers, magazines, and specially designed weeklies for adult learners, rather than children's books -- a boost for self-esteem.

Usually, after six months of steady, systematic work in reading and writing, students begin to ``break the sentence code,'' as it's known. Students come to realize that all writing and reading is based on the sentence as a basic unit of thought.

Pulling says that, in a very real sense, students learn to think in a new way. During this time, a student's clothing, eye contact with speakers, and posture often changes -- sometimes drastically -- for the better.

Even with tougher standards, maintaining an 80 percent success rate (confirmed by the US Department of Education) is a constant battle. Whereas William E. Brock, secretary of labor, has been doing TV spots this week, telling the country that ``learning to read is so easy,'' Pulling says, ``To be honest with you, for most adults, learning to read takes a lot of sweat.'' It's a matter of breaking ingrained patterns and self-images, he says.

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