One Man's Crusade to Heal Illiteracy Ills L.A. Preacher Coaxes Students to Overcome Anger, Confusion by Teaching Themselves to Read

By Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

One Man's Crusade to Heal Illiteracy Ills L.A. Preacher Coaxes Students to Overcome Anger, Confusion by Teaching Themselves to Read


Daniel B. Wood, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


The Rev. Alfreddie Johnson says the problem with inner-city America is not the usual litany of woes: drugs, crime, gangs, teen-pregnancy, domestic abuse.

All of the above are deeply rooted in something far more fundamental, he says. In a word, illiteracy.

"If you go into any American city and look into the eyes of young people, you will see anger and alienation," says this nondenominational preacher. "Why? They are surrounded by a wealth of opportunity in this country yet are convinced such opportunity is not for them. This is the result of illiteracy." Mr. Johnson should know. He grew up in this Los Angeles-area inner city, which has the nation's third-lowest educational level, with a 40 percent school dropout rate. Joblessness is three times the national average (at 20 percent), and nearly half of those of high school age are considered "functionally illiterate" - unable to read a map or menu. In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which devastated this community, Johnson planted seeds to change that. Already active in the neighborhood with an eight-year-old outreach program for youths, he founded the Compton Literacy and Learning Project. A year later, it was named the World Literacy Crusade (WLC) and has since become so successful that chapters have been cloned in 30 other cities around the world. The curriculum Johnson uses is a simple system from a controversial source. In the 1930s, L. Ron Hubbard, who later founded the Church of Scientology, designed a way to help potential readers of all ages overcome their own barriers to learning: He stressed that readers must know where, when, and how they become confused. In the WLC program, students are urged to look up any unclear words in dictionaries before proceeding in schoolwork or reading. They are taught to backtrack to lesson areas where their comprehension derailed or attention waned, to continually monitor their own understanding, and to construct ideas and concepts in materials like clay so they may literally grasp them. "The concepts are incredibly simple, which is partly why they are powerful and why they have been overlooked elsewhere," says Sandy Chapman, a 20-year reading specialist and curriculum writer in San Diego. Born in Birmingham, Ala., and a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.'s belief that individuals can make a difference in their communities, Johnson was led to the cause of literacy by a lifetime of church activism. "St. John said, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,' " says the preacher, in a clerical collar and jeans. "I always knew that the spirit of God was bound up in words. I knew there was power in words." How it all began He launched WLC in a local church hall, then expanded it to a small storefront for several years before moving recently to much larger offices in a warehouse next to a local school. Students there get one-on-one attention with trained tutors, sitting at large tables spread around the perimeter of several quiet rooms. A volunteer staff of 20 to 40 tutors works with up to 70 students for six days a week. The program has graduated about 700 local youths in Compton during the past five years. One of those, DeShawn Washington, entered the literacy project five years ago, reading at a second-grade level. Now he is studying to tutor at the center, reads at a college level, and is writing a book of poetry. "When I came in I was really angry and frustrated because I thought I was stupid," says the young adult. "They taught me to calm down, to laugh, to take things at my own speed. It has opened up a whole world for me. …

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