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At the Washington Literacy Council, our volunteers have a passion for teaching. Tutor recruits come to us from all walks of life; few are teachers by profession. What they have in common is a love of reading, the desire to give back to their community, and the conviction that literacy is essential to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
The WLC provides all its tutoring and classes at no charge to the adults who seek our services. To make this possible, we rely entirely on volunteers. Since becoming a beneficiary of the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, WLC has grown from a handful of volunteers to an organization that’s more than 500 strong.
We have also learned that the best way to ensure success for our adult learners is to support their tutors. New tutors are trained in small workshops that provide an innovative and structured teaching method, designed to serve the specific needs of low-literate adults. New tutors also receive individual mentoring by experienced tutors. All tutors have at their disposal ongoing support from a knowledgeable staff.
The low-literate adults we teach are difficult to spot as they go about their lives trying to provide for their families and participate in their communities. Their problem has remained a hidden one despite the Education Department’s finding that 62 percent of Washingtonians fall into the two lowest literacy levels (out of five). The impact of low literacy is not invisible — U.S. prison populations are overwhelmingly illiterate, and American businesses bemoan the lack of literacy skills in the workplace — but low-literate adults devise and maintain elaborate facades that make them hard to detect.
Most of our adult students do not characterize themselves as having difficulty reading, but rather as needing help with spelling or pronunciation. Understandably, people with poor reading ability are not forthcoming about it, but in fact there has been real confusion. Typically, when they first come to us, our adult students can read some things some times. The same individual may be able to read and spell frequently used words like “beautiful” or “Wednesday,” yet not be able to read or spell “pretty” or “wed.”
Traditional methods of teaching adults have emphasized memorization and guessing from context, both important secondary skills. But what our students need to learn first is that the letters of the alphabet stand for sounds. Having failed to master this “code,” adult students look upon the language as randomly organized and never pick up the sound and letter correspondences. Every attempt to read is a labor-intensive, chaotic grasping for what a word looks like or for another that looks similar. Strangely, the student who dredges up “cat” in order to figure out “chat” will often not understand that the two words rhyme.
The inability to distinguish and manipulate sounds in language is called a phonological deficit. Four years ago, the Washington Literacy Council identified phonological awareness as the common “missing link” among all of our students — accounting for their widely varying abilities. It explained why students who were good at figuring out meaning from context could still make odd mistakes, like reading “turkey” for “chicken.” And students with a high sightword vocabulary could nonetheless completely ignore the endings of words, thus failing to recognize plurals and tenses. And students who had memorized certain problematic words that all readers must memorize, like “though,” “thought” and “through,” still might not be able to sound out “mat,” “math” and “mash.”
In spite of lip service given to the cause of literacy, few people actually want to hear specifics. Taking an adult reader back to learn the sounds of the letters of the alphabet seemed counterintuitive and was not a widely accepted strategy for teaching adults. Without the funds provided by the Congressional Baseball Game, the WLC would not have had the financial resources to do research, to experiment with methods, to track findings and to systematically implement the necessary changes.
Our adult learners themselves showed us the way. First, they consistently told us that no one had ever shown them before that letters represented sounds. And second, those of our students who are parents reported almost immediately that they were able to help their young children by drilling them in sounds, and for the first time they could instruct an older child in sounding words out.
After four full years of using phonological techniques, WLC students are graduating and moving on to success in the GED programs that referred them to us in the first place. Phonological awareness is not a quick fix. In fact, it is important to understand that there is no speedy solution. After all, those of us who learned to read without any problem had many years to do so. Our adult students have to go back and learn something that many kindergartners already know.
Student retention in the WLC program has quadrupled. And many hundreds more tutors are needed to address the adult literacy problem in D.C., if even a portion of the Education Department statistics are correct. If you are looking for the volunteer experience of a lifetime, something that will effectively change someone’s life for the better, we invite you to join us.
Robin Diener is executive director of the Washington Literacy Council. For more information on the WLC, visit www.erols.com/washlc or call (202) 387-9029.