Monday, May 11, 2009

Recognizing the presence of adult illiteracy

Adult illiteracy plagues our society, yet it is a problem that we are often unaware that exists. Each year I meet or hear about a handful of adults who cannot read, many of whom have graduated from high school.

The adults I know learn to function. Some may find jobs that don't require reading; others may manage by living off of governmental assistance, too ashamed to seek out a job and be exposed.

The solution may seem evident: take classes and learn to read. However, it is not always that simple.

Recently, we worked with a grandparent who is raising her grandson. After much talking, encouragement, and coaxing, she got the courage to enroll at the only adult literacy program we could find in Dallas...only to be told that there was a long waiting list. We were then asked to see if we could provide volunteers who could teach reading.

After finally moving up on the waiting list, she was assigned a volunteer tutor. Yet, after only a month, the volunteer tutor decided not to tutor any more. The change and inconsistency was too much for the grandparent, who simply stopped attending instead of re-orienting and starting over with another volunteer.

Adult literacy...and so many other social programs...are too important for us to leave to volunteers. Volunteers can be a great asset to an already existing program, but their jobs, families, and other time commitments often take priority over their volunteering ability. The people and the services that use volunteers need more consistency than a volunteer can offer.

A newly released report "Basic Reading Skills and the Literacy of the America's Least Literate Adults: Results from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) Supplemental Studies" produced these key indings:

* Seven million adults, or about 3% of the adult population, could not complete even the most basic literacy tasks in the main assessment and were given the supplemental assessment.

* Nearly 1 in 5 adults in the nonliterate in English group had a high school diploma or GED. Among them, more than half (representing roughly 600,000 adults) had earned their high school degree in the US.

* For those for whom Spanish is a first language, a delay in learning English is associated with low basic reading skills. Those who learned English before age 11 had basic reading scores similar to average native English speakers (97 words read correctly per minute); however, for those who learned English after age 21, average scores were 35 points (or about one-third) lower. Due to the correlational nature of these data, it is impossible to make causal attributions, i.e., to say that a delay in learning English causes low basic reading skills.

* Adults who took the main literary assessment were able to read, on average, 98 words correctly per minute (wpm), in comparison to 34 wpm by those in the supplemental assessment.
We cannot leave volunteers to solve the ills of our society. If we are truly serious about the impact and if we truly believe that raising all people up to their potential is important, we must commit to dedicating consistent funding and ensuring quality. Volunteers should be an augmentation of a successful program...not the program itself. The people who take the huge step of courage to enroll in these programs deserve that. If our society is to become healthy, we deserve to have people who are able to work to their capacity.
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