Magazine article American Libraries

The 15% Solution: Literacy and Learning Disabilities

Magazine article American Libraries

The 15% Solution: Literacy and Learning Disabilities

Article excerpt


When we walk into a room and turn on the switch, the light goes on. When Andy flicks the same switch, the furnace goes on. Somehow his wiring works differently. Andy has a reading disability, and despite years of hard effort, his reading did not improve. But he reads now, thanks to the Lake County Literacy Program at the Waukegan (Ill.) Public Library. How many Andys live in your service area?

Of the 39 million Americans (15% of the population) with learning disabilities (LD), 60-80% have serious reading disabilities. Many adults, even those in literacy programs, avoid or bluff their way through daily situations involving reading. Their self-esteem is constantly assaulted. In ways subtle and not so subtle, they are told that they are dumb, that they cannot learn. But they are not dumb, and they still want to learn.

Unlike others in adult literacy programs, people with reading disabilities often had adequate opportunities to learn to read. They may have had good teachers or even studied phonics. Their parents likely witnessed their struggle, but didn't know what to do. They have drive and desire. And yet they're failing to learn how to read, even in literacy programs.

What can we do to help people with learning disabilities? The answers aren't simple, but some libraries are already succeeding. They offer screening for phonological awareness and skills. They provide tutor training in proven approaches such as the Orton-Gillingham method - a structured, systematic, multisensory, program focused on developing the ability to hear phonemes, the building blocks of language.

In Andy's program, Carol Morris and her literacy team serve 375 ethnically diverse students annually. They work with 350 tutors, about 10% of whom have training in tutoring people with learning disabilities. Morris estimates that 25% of their students have LD. The Lake County Literacy Program, established in 1984, has a service population of 600,000.

Early on, the Waukegan team noticed some students making limited or no progress. "Something had to be wrong, we figured, since others were progressing," Morris recalled. So they sought answers. They connected with an LD consultant who recommended using the Orton-Gillingham method. A companion Language Tool Kit, a series of cards and a manual, based on the work of doctors Samuel Orton and Anna Gillingham, is used for short drill and practice sessions in lessons for adults with dyslexia. It was introduced for students who needed work with phonemes, and tutors soon discovered how effective this method is.

If tutoring isn't going well, however, a staff person or the tutor can ask a reading specialist for help. Morris calls them "the first line of defense" for identifying strategies. "If progress is still limited, then it's on to the LD consultant, who's made available through local United Way funds," Morris explained. "The staff person or tutor discusses strategies used thus far, along with consistent problems. The consultant determines if a full-scale evaluation is needed. In some cases, the LD consultant works directly with the client. More often, she and the tutor work together to fashion an approach."

Sometimes computer software is part of the solution. One student enthused, "Having is like having her [the tutor] every night of the week." Books on tape from the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped also work for some, particularly those with dyslexia, Morris says. Andy "became a voracious reader this way, and does two or three books a week. This is a great way for libraries to be more proactive....Books on tape are wonderful tools."

They need a different approach

In California, at the Chula Vista Public Library's Literacy Team Center, director Meg Schofield has helped people with learning disabilities since 1993. …

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