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Promote Adult Literacy by Teaching Reading Skills

by Sandra Bynum
The Challenge

Adult illiteracy can have a devastating effect on a person’s quality of life. Imagine the frustration of not being able to perform basic literary tasks such as reading the newspaper, deciphering a bus schedule, understanding a drug label, completing an order form, or balancing a checkbook. Besides making everyday life extremely difficult, an inability to read may cause depression, stress, and a lack of self-respect.

Furthermore, adult illiteracy can impact the entire family because inadequate reading skills usually result in limited earning power. Approximately 50% of the chronically unemployed are functionally illiterate, and over 80% of unemployed parents lack a high school diploma.

Nationally, one in five people have difficulty with very basic reading skills. Improving reading skills and achieving a higher level of literacy can result in more effective functioning in society and a better quality of life. Because of social stigma, however, many adults go to great lengths to conceal that they are non-literate and fail to seek the help they need.

Fortunately, you can help, because it is never too late for a person to improve his or her reading skills. Even individuals who have never learned to read can attain an acceptable level of literacy with the one-on-one help of a caring volunteer tutor.

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Without realizing it, you may already know an adult who cannot read. Non-literate adults are often very adept at concealing their lack of reading skills. If someone you know regularly "forgets" his or her glasses, or never "has time" to fill out a form or to read instructions, it is possible that this person is unable to read. Help him or her acquire literacy by offering personal tutoring.

Do you know any recent immigrants or low-skilled tradespeople who speak English as a second language? They may welcome your offer to help them improve their English and reading skills.

Be sensitive that your future student may be embarrassed and self-conscious, or may even deny having a reading problem. Do not make any quick assessments or judgments. Remember, your goal is to determine what you can to help this person achieve a higher level of literacy, a new measure of self-esteem, and a more fulfilling life. Here's how to get started:

  • Be a friend. Let the person know that you are interested in him or her. Discuss reading and literacy issues, mentioning your interest in volunteering your time to help someone improve his or her reading skills. Encourage your friend to talk about his or her opinions and ideas about reading. Your interest and accessibility may inspire your friend to disclose any reading problems with you. Offer your support and willingness to help, eventually making a mutual commitment to work together.
  • Download a free copy of the Reading Helpers handbook for teaching tutors. Familiarize yourself with the general information for new tutors. Learn about goal-setting, assessment strategies, and the lesson-planning process. This will help you to prepare for your first meeting so that you will know how to assess your student's needs.
  • Decide upon a place and a time that is convenient for both of you. Encourage your student to talk openly and honestly about reading and what types of difficulties he or she is having. Use the Training Manual to decide together what level of reading to begin with and how you will proceed from there. Help your student to set step-by-step, attainable goals.
  • Meet regularly, at least once or twice weekly, always working towards helping your student set and meet goals in his or her quest for literacy. Refer to Project Read for more information and resources including tutoring tips, online reading games, and helpful links.

If you would prefer more structure and support, you can find literacy centers and reading skills programs available in nearly every community. Usually sponsored by the local library, these adult literacy programs depend on volunteer tutors to help a broad spectrum of students 16 and older learn to read. Most of these programs provide professional training and all of the materials you will need. Once training is completed, a volunteer usually makes a time commitment of 1½ to 2 hours per week working with an adult student.

You can also help improve literacy in your community in many other ways, such as:

  • recruiting or referring students to local literacy programs
  • providing space or facilities for tutoring
  • requesting an adult literacy program speaker to explain the program to your organization
  • promoting jail and prison literacy programs in your area
  • collecting used paperback books to donate to libraries, jails, prisons, and shelters; or giving them to homeless people on the street
  • donating goods and services to your local literacy program

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