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