Volunteers are Working To Eliminate Illiteracy

By Paul Rivas
Step into the shoes of a functionally illiterate person for a moment. You need to go grocery shopping, but you don't have any cash and you do not know how to write a check. Your daughter is struggling to complete a book report, and you can't help her. At work you used the wrong cleaner on the floors and your supervisor is threatening to fire you. These are the plights of a functionally illiterate adult

Functional illiteracy is defined by Literacy Volunteers of America as "the inability of an individual to use reading, writing, and computational skills in everyday life."

There are more than 40 million functionally illiterate adults in the U.S. That's 40 million adults who cannot fill out a job application, write checks on their own, read a magazine, follow written instructions, or read to their children. Chances are you know some of them. They may be the parents of your child's classmate, or the people down the street who just moved here from Bosnia; they may even work along side you.

Illiteracy is not a problem for just a select group of people. According to the National Education Association, 41% of illiterates are white, 22% are English-speaking African Americans, 22% are Spanish speaking, and 15% are other non-English speaking peoples. Fifty-one percent live in small towns, 41% in cities. Forty percent of these adults are between the ages of 20 to 39, showing that illiteracy is a problem that is not going away. Though found in all classes, the majority are among the poor and those dependent on public financial support, according to a study done by the Educational Testing Service.

While some people who are illiterate have mental or emotional problems, people are functionally illiterate for a variety of reasons. Some dropped out of school. Others came to the U.S. from another country. Still others had ineffective teachers, or were not ready to learn reading when it was taught. The problem, however, does not begin at school, but in the home. The majority of children with illiterate parents become illiterate themselves. Conversely, preschoolers whose parents read to them are better prepared to begin school and perform at higher rates than those not exposed to reading, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The Center for Literacy based in Philadelphia combats this with programs called "family literacy." The programs are designed to help parents of young children become enthusiastic about learning. This enthusiasm is passed to the children and the cycle of illiteracy is broken.

Illiteracy affects not only the individual's life, but society as well. Sixty percent of prison inmates are illiterate and 85% of all juvenile offenders have reading problems. According to Nation's Business Magazine, there are 15 million illiterate employees in the United States today. American businesses pay for this deficiency in a variety of ways: remedial classes given to employees, low productivity, accidents and errors due to illiteracy. The cost runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Congress officially recognized illiteracy as a problem when it enacted the 1991 National Literacy Act and established the National Institute for Literacy. The institute works on establishing policy, does research and sponsors promising initiatives. The government is not alone in its fight against illiteracy. There are several organizations in the United States that work with illiterate adults. Most libraries offer some form of literacy programs and several universities have programs as well.

One of the oldest and largest programs is Literacy Volunteers of America. Founded in 1962, it has been working since then to end illiteracy in America, has helping more than 350,000 people so far.

Other organizations are also working hard, and each has its own style and methods. One agency may offer group classes; another individual tutoring. Some focus more on math skills, others on reading or English as a Second Language.

Whatever the method, most groups would agree the success depends on the student. Women are usually more willing to seek help from the Center for Literacy than men. Students range in age from 16 to 73. They hear about the agency through word of mouth. Most come to earn their GED. Others come to be able to read to their children, get a better job, or get a driver's license. They are not forced to come to the organization, and this make for higher motivation. Tutoring lasts as long as the student wants. Most students stop when they have reached their goal, but this is not always the end of the students' relationship with the organization.

Literacy centers not only want students to learn, but become involved. For example, Ramona Mercer was a former drug addict who decided to turn her life around. Two years after she came to the Center for Literacy she accomplished her goal of getting her GED. She became a worker in the Mayor's Commission on Literacy and now serves on the board for the Center for Literacy. While her story may be more dramatic than others, she is not alone in her success or her subsequent service. Many former students return to volunteer as tutors, or help in some other way. Others volunteer their time elsewhere, as one ESL woman in Colorado has. After learning English from the Adult Literacy Network, she now teaches English to the non-English speaking parents of school-aged children.

To continue running these organizations need money. Most receive funding from the government and charitable organization like the United Way. Some also receive funding from individuals and corporations.

But even more than money, they need volunteers. While the majority of tutors are retired teachers or college students, volunteers do not need to be a genius to tutor. Most organizations provide the needed training (volunteers at the Center for Literacy receive 10 hours of instruction) and the only requirement is a willingness to help others. If you would like to help, but still feel uncomfortable teaching, volunteers are needed in other areas, as well. Simply check your yellow pages (try under tutoring) or contact your local library.

See These Related Stories on Books and Literacy--

  • Learning to Read in the Name of Love
  • Volunteers are Working To Eliminate Illiteracy
  • Novel Approach to Sentencing Has Criminals Hitting the Books
  • Madeleine L'Engle Reflects on Her Writing and Faith
  • Some Reading Suggestions on The Subject of Literacy
  • Some Ways You Can Help Make a Difference.

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