Rita Legace, an avid believer in education, wanted to share her love of reading with someone.
Ronnie Bryant wanted to improve his reading and writing skills. At 65, he still dreams of getting his GED, a high school equivalency program, and “maybe even going beyond that.”
Project Literacy for Every Adult in Dade (LEAD), under the auspices of the Miami-Dade Public Library System, brought them together. Since 2003, the two have been meeting almost weekly for about an hour, Legace as tutor, Bryant as adult learner. As part of the long road to literacy, Bryant is now writing his life story.
“It’s been a challenge,” Bryant admits of his years-long struggle to improve his literacy skills, “but I love a challenge.” Along with the satisfaction of improvement, he’s proud that “another person took the interest to help me learn.”
Legace is also filled with pride.
“He’s become quite good at reading and comprehension. It’s a great feeling to know that you have in some way helped someone learn.”
Bryant was once one of an estimated 36 million U.S. adults who cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level, according to ProLiteracy, an international nonprofit based in Syracuse, N.Y., that supports programs to help adults learn to read and write. The group estimates that less than 10 percent of adults in need are receiving services.
What’s more, children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.
These worrisome numbers make volunteer efforts very attractive for people who strongly believe in the value of reading, people who know that improved literacy skills can translate to better job and lifestyle opportunities.
Legace, for example, finished her bachelor’s degree in public administration at the age of 67, while still working as an executive assistant. She fulfilled a lifelong dream.
She wanted to help someone else with his own dream. Yet organizations that deal with adults’ low literacy are few and far between, especially when compared to literacy programs for children.
“People just aren’t aware of the extent of the problem,” says Greg Smith, executive director of the Florida Literacy Coalition. “It’s simply not on the radar.”
In fact, the percentage of U.S. adults who lack basic literacy skills — about one in six — has remained about the same for more than a quarter century, making the problem one of those intractable issues that doesn’t go away. Yet forging a life — and finding a job — in a society that increasingly demands reading, math and even computer skills can make for undue hardship.
“Life becomes a day-to-day struggle for these people,” Smith adds. “Most of us take for granted that we can read a sign or a manual or just instructions. “
For more than three decades, Project L.E.A.D. has been providing free, one-on-one tutoring to help English-speaking adults improve their reading and writing skills. Last year, 62 active tutors assisted 70 learners for at least one hour a week at a local Miami-Dade library, racking up 2,500 tutoring hours.
The typical learner, says Amanda Valdespino, who oversees the project, is 50 years or older, a person who didn’t graduate from high school and is in a low-paying job or unemployed. Many hear about the program from a friend or family member.
All take a diagnostic test that assesses their skills, from the ability to read common sight words to reading comprehension. Once they’re matched with a tutor, some learners must start at a very basic level, learning the alphabet and the sound of letters. Others might be more advanced.
“Some come because they want their GED or a better job or event just a driver’s license,” Valdespino says. “They want to improve their lives.”
Many LEAD tutors are surprised by the number of adults who can’t read at all or read below a third grade level. They’re also touched by their learners’ struggle, adults who often had to drop out because of family responsibilities.
“We take literacy for granted, but not everyone has the same opportunities and upbringing,” she adds.
Valdespino applauds the learners who take the big step toward literacy.
“A lot of people who come to the program admit they’ve hidden it, even from their family. They carry that shame and embarrassment for years.”
Once they master the basics, however, pride shines through, for both learner and tutor.
“When they write a card to their son for the first time, it’s very rewarding,” she adds.
TEACHING A CHILD TO READ
Literacy programs targeted at children are more numerous.
The Children’s Trust, along with the Miami-Dade Family Learning Partnership and the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade/Monroe, sponsor the Read to Learn Book Club, a service that sends a free book to a registered 3-year-old every month in the language of choice, English, Spanish, or Creole.
The idea is to start children on the road to reading early, while also encouraging families to build their own home libraries and create a bond between children and parent.
“There have been many studies showing that when you start a reader at an early age, they do better in school, not only in vocabulary but also in math,” says Sandra Camacho, a spokesperson for The Children’s Trust. “It’s a way of instilling a love of reading.”
Another well-known program is the United Way of Miami-Dade’s Reading Pals which pairs adult volunteers with children at prekindergarten classrooms in neighborhoods across Miami-Dade for about an hour of reading a week. Last year, the program paired 140 children with volunteers who read an average of 16 hours to each child. In the past five years, 650 adult mentors have provided 8,410 hours of reading to 1,644 young children.
“We want to plant the seed,” says Yanet Obarrio-Sanchez, a United Way executive. “If we get a child to reach for a book instead of a toy, we are winning.”
HOW TO HELP
▪ To become a Project L.E.A.D. tutor or an adult learner, call 305‑375‑5323 or e‑mail Project L.E.A.D. at email@example.com or visit www.mdpls.org/services/projectlead
▪ The public library has several other literacy programs and online tools. Visit https://www.mdpls.org/databases/databases.asp.
▪ Career Online High School (COHS) offers adults a chance to complete their high school education and gain career training through a self-paced and accredited online education program. More information: www.mdpls.org/cohs.
▪ For Read to Learn Book Club, email your name, email address, phone number, and your question or comment to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305.891.7323. Also visit www.thechildrenstrust.org/content/read-learn-book-club
▪ The Florida Literacy Coalition also lists several other adult literacy organizations. It has a directory by county at https://floridaliteracy.org/search/volunteer.html
Online learning tools
Tutor.com is a one-on-one online tutoring that offers homework help, writing help, help studying for tests and more.
Lynda.com offers video courses taught by technical, creative and business industry experts on a variety of topics and subjects.
By the numbers
36 million Americans cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level.
43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty
75 percent of state prison inmates are classified as low literate or did not complete high school