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Cover Story: Improving Adult Literacy

Wed, Jun 8, 2011

By Amanda Elliott and Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Volunteer and Editor in Chief

Harold Barnes and his wife were a normal couple. They both had strengths and weaknesses and relied on each other for their capabilities. When Mrs. Barnes died, however, Harold could no longer rely on his literate wife. Aloof to the world of reading, he walked around quizzically in grocery stores, mistakenly overdosed on medication and remained amiss when writing checks.

Growing up, “[Conversation] was as good as reading or writing,” Barnes said. At 62, Barnes signed up for the Literacy Chicago program and proudly testified to the number of books he has devoured in the process during the 20th Annual on the Road to Literacy Conference on April 9.

Literacy Chicago is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping adults learn how to read. Tutors are paired with students who need help with basic literacy, with GED preparation or with English as a Second Language.

“Reading Against the Odds” was a Literacy Chicago workshop at the April 9 conference focused on 15 to 25 people reading between 1st and 5th grade level. A mix of individuals with learning disabilities and others who didn’t learn to read until they were adults, the students read challenging books such as The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez.

“Some of the books we are reading are the first books that they’ve read,” said Amina Egiekhor, Literacy Chicago volunteer.

Students start by reading a biography on the author and characters written for a second grade reading level. Next, they learn about the cultural context of the book. Then they are ready to listen to a tape of someone reading the first chapter, after which they begin group reading aloud, helping each other to tackle the complex vocabulary. Students take field trips to bring the literature to life. “We like to culturally immerse people in what they are reading,” Egiekhor said. The students meet twice a week for two hours.

1 in 5 can’t read consumer labels.

One in 5 Illinois adults is unable to read the back of a tube of toothpaste, according to Literacy Volunteers of Lake County (IL).
Adult illiteracy is a hidden problem, however, because many people have a spouse helping them or manage to be “without their glasses” when friends press them to read, said Cyndy Colletti, literacy program manager for the office of Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White. Up to four million of 12 million Illinoisans have low skills in reading and math, according to a national adult literacy survey done in 2003.

The Secretary of State’s office administers grants for more than 200 programs in adult volunteer literacy tutoring (including GED preparation), family literacy and workplace skills enhancement. The latter might involve a business such as a hotel, for example, “in partnership with a community college, which brings in instructors on the company’s time and the company’s dollar” to teach job-specific vocabulary, Colletti said. Workers would then be able to respond when hotel guests ask where to find the restaurant.

New immigrants who do not know English and undiagnosed learning disabilities are factors in a state’s low literacy rates, Colletti said. For native-born Americans, poverty is the biggest cause of low literacy.

“If you don’t have a home as a child, going to school is a lot less important,” she added. “If you have younger siblings, you might have to take off school to babysit so your parents can work.”

Social factors also come into play. “A young man may have gotten into the wrong crowd and didn’t finish high school. When he finds that the working world is not welcoming to him and he hits the point where he says ‘I am not getting the job I want,’ he will go back to school,” Colletti said.

“It was my fault because I got distracted easily and wasn’t staying focused,” said George Chester, 20, who dropped out of Marshall High School in his junior year and spent two months incarcerated for narcotics possession. Chester was looking to enroll in the Job Corps when he passed the sign for free GED classes at DeLaSalle Institute’s Tolton Center, based at Henry Legler branch library, 115 S. Pulaski Road. He said he tested at 11th grade reading but realized he needed to brush up on his math. He wants to take classes in heating and air conditioning, then computer science, and ultimately become a pastor.

Retraining for new job

Willie Davis, 58, moved around four high schools and dropped out at the end of four years just short of graduation credits. A trade school certificate, however, kept him successfully employed for nearly 40 years as a front end mechanic, punch press and forklift operator.
Davis retired in 2009 after his company offered him a buyout. Last September, he came to the Tolton/Legler program because his wife had lost her 22-year hospital job and he wanted to step up again as breadwinner. A Secretary of State “Spotlight on Achievement” winner there, he mentored other students and took his GED on April 30. He said he hopes to continue in engineering at a community college.

Candace Turnipseed, 27, is another Tolton/Legler “Spotlight on Achievement” winner who quit high school when she became pregnant junior year. She found Tolton/Legler over a year ago when her now-8-year-old daughter was attending a nearby Chicago public school. She said she has gained an outgoing personality from the program and stayed there despite moving farther away four times this year because it’s her “home away from home.”

Turnipseed lost both grandmothers and a brother in 2009, and skills from her first year in the literacy program enabled her to assist her mother with the arrangements. Besides her daughter, she takes care of three sisters and a brother. She wants to study heating, ventilation and air conditioning, then auto mechanics, and build her mother a house in eight years.

The Tolton motto, “Everybody teaches and everyone learns,” is a factor in their success, students say.

One-on-one learning

“We all help each other,” said Blanca Santiago, 30, who dropped out of school in 1999 when her parents were getting a divorce. “Other schools just give you work, explain it to you but don’t give you that one-on-one. Some schools have drama between students. We don’t have that here. I learned a whole lot I didn’t learn when I was in school. They broke everything down step-by-step.”

“If you don’t get it, they explain some more and if you still don’t get it, they stay after school [with you],” said Christine Lugo, who has improved five grade levels since January 2011. “Everybody is at a different level but they’re not embarrassed.” Lugo came in reading at fifth grade level although she graduated from a Chicago public high school.

Lugo saw the Tolton GED sign on the library as she was driving to her job as a caretaker for disabled people (having passed the driver’s test by memorizing the questions). Now that she has a grandson, she wants to read to him. She plans to spend a year more in the program until she feels confident enough to go into medical billing.

Janet Wright, Tolton/Legler director, says that the program works because her dynamic teachers “will do whatever it takes to achieve goals.”
First, Wright said that she interviews students. “I am really honest with them. I look for student motivation, not excuses, why can’t they get to school.” Teaching methods are evidence-based, working hand-in-hand on phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension.

Teachers are on a first-name, home-phone number basis. When Turnipseed was studying for her GED, Wright worked with her every night and offered her home the week of the exam so she could stay focused.

“We go to court with them and when they die we go to funerals as a group,” Wright said. A student committee was planning the June 10 yearend event and had formed a choir. Some individuals were learning to lead through planning this celebration; as some graduate, others were getting ready to take their place.

ESL program also builds community

The Tolton ESL program at Toman Branch library, 2708 S. Pulaski Road, is also about building community, said Marge Cribben, a volunteer tutor and a 2011 Secretary of State “Spotlight on Service” winner.

A teacher for over 40 years and now retired, Cribben started six years ago; children and parents were at opposite sides of the room, learning the same material and then going home to reinforce each other. It’s OK that she doesn’t know Spanish, she said, because the students need to speak to her in English.

Lessons are fun – and practical. A garage sale with play money made students ask, “how much is this?” or “What size is it?” and “Do you think it will fit?” Another time they took weekly food ads in newspapers and compared four or five items across several stores.
Starting with simple “I am, you are” phrases, students simulate talking on the phone or with a doctor.

One of Tolton/Toman’s proudest success stories is more than academic: a woman who went to the hospital with a medical emergency. Although other women had gone to the ER with tales of waiting six hours for an interpreter, “this year one woman said because she had learned English in class she was able to go to the hospital, give her symptoms and talk to the nurse, tell her what was wrong and get help quickly.”

Teaching ESL as a volunteer is rewarding because “I am not the boss, I can use my grandma skills, Cribben said. “I am able to watch them increase their ability to speak English and to handle situations like going to the school and talking to the teachers, whereas before they had been hesitant. It’s like watching your own child grow. I want to see them succeed, get ahead.”


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