Bringing Literacy Home for Adult Learners

Article excerpt

When he was in kindergarten, Don Hable's mother was told he would have trouble reading. He did, and he was eventually sent to a special-education school where he says he did nothing but "goof around" all day. Eventually, he left, and began working with his father in the family heating and cooling business.

In February, his sister brought Don, now 18, to the Literacy Council of St. Louis - a bustling room off a side street in a hard- luck corner of town. Inside, amid folding tables and chairs, recent immigrants from all corners of the globe mix with native English speakers and tutors. It's here that Ruth Korte, a volunteer for eight years, took Don under her wing.

He tested within a normal intelligence range. And after six months of morning sessions with Ms. Korte, Don is reading at a second grade level.

"It's a little embarrassing, having to come in," he says. But his dad has promised him a car if he succeeds. And, he adds, "It feels good to be able to read a lot of the signs out on the street now."

To Korte, the key is much-needed individual attention. "The one- on-one really gives them what they need," she says. "A lot of them didn't get that in school, and they fell through the cracks."

A seminal 1993 literacy survey may have significantly overstated the number of low-literate adults in the United States, according to a recent follow-up report by the survey's director. A reinterpretation of the data shows that closer to 10 million Americans, rather than 40 million, are functionally illiterate.

But literacy professionals say that whatever the correct number, millions of adults in the United States couldn't read a "One Way" sign if it weren't for the arrow, and relatively few of them are being helped. "We are a drastically underfunded field," says Marsha Tait, president of Literacy Volunteers of America, a national network of programs.

Even given the smaller figure of 10 million low-literate adults, "we are still - on a per capita basis - spending dramatically less than we spend on children in the K-12 system."

She points to a study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last year that listed the Top 100 most popular charitable organizations. No adult basic-skills agency made the list. Very little federal and state money goes to such programs. Yet most observers agree on the growing importance of basic literacy.

"Our society has gotten so much more complex, that merely to be able to perform some basic literacy tasks is not enough to make it in life," says Sharon Darling, president and founder of the National Center for Family Literacy. "The level of education required on the average job has escalated dramatically.

An estimated 60 percent of students in adult-literacy classes nationwide are recent immigrants. Indeed, Bosnians, Croats, Eritreans, Somalis, and Haitians populate the council office here.

Among native English speakers, there are few completely illiterate adults - those who fit the pre-Civil War image of people who scratched an X in place of their name. Instead, millions of 'low-literate' or 'functionally-illiterate' adults sign their names, drive cars, and survive the grocery store, but can't read the headlines in the morning paper.

Today's low literates are often people who have substance-abuse issues or have been diagnosed with learning disabilities or mild retardation. …