Nonprofits Address Needs of 40 Million 'Functionally Illiterates'

Village Life News: December 1996

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 beside 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. 51% live in small towns, 41% in cities. 40% 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, according to a study done by the Educational Testing Service, the majority are among the poor and those dependent on public financial support.

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. More than 60% 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. In addition, companies paying for remedial classes and costs due to low productivity, accidents and errors due to illiteracy run into hundreds of millions of dollars.

Congress officially recognized illiteracy as a challenge when it enacted the National Literacy Act of 1991 and established the National Institute for Literacy. The institute works on establishing policy, doing research and sponsoring 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 and has helped more than 350,000 people so far. Happily it is not alone in it success.

Every organization has its own style and way of doing things. One agency may offer group classes; another individual tutoring. Some focus more on math skills, others on reading or English as a Second Language. Take the Center for Literacy. They use easy readers and writing assignments similar to those given to children in schools. But, 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 get their GED. Others come to be able to read to their children, get a better job, or get a driver's license. 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 stay up and 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.

Even more than money they need volunteers. While the majority of tutors are retired teachers or college students, you do not need to be a genius to tutor. Most organizations provide the needed training (the Center for Literacy gives 10 hours) and the only requirement is a willingness to help others.

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