Improving Literacy among Adults

Just a few comments about literacy from another lover of the written word:

Older adults need to have strong motivation to keep working at a difficult new task long after the initial self-improvment rush has passed. That motivation could be a sampling of books that contain information about a favorite hobby, or it could be a reminder that being able to read to one’s grandchildren can be a source of great joy.

There is, of course, shame associated with not being able to read and write. Laubach tutors are encouraged to tutor learners in the learners’ homes for the sake of privacy. Every effort must be made to get past that shame and reassure the learner that being able to function in our society without being able to read is no small feat. In most instances, if we readers suddenly lost our ability to read, we would be very reduced in our ability to cope with our world and would fare far worse than someone who has never been able to read.

Older learners should not be presented with material that is poorly written (newspapers) or confusing (tax returns) until they have mastered the basics. Success should be built in when trying to change the habits of a lifetime. A few publishers print books that are written for adults but written with controlled language. The books are staged so that the learner actually learns rather than merely memorizing. This success builds confidence and keeps motivation high, just as it does with young learners.

Learners, like all of us, need tangible proof of success. A word of praise is fine as long as it does not sound patronizing. Putting ourselves in the position of the learner, and thinking about how we enjoy a bit of sincere praise but abhor artificial comments, should make us sensitive to how to encourage the adult learner. Certificates or pins should be given for achievement. A collection of certificates reminds the learner of how much of the road has already been traveled. Certificates also recognize that the learner has met a given set of criteria just as others have done. The learner has, in fact, joined a group of higher achievers.

Learners need community support. ALL libraries should carry a selection of Laubach books, both in order to support learners and to encourage learners to become library users. Raising funds for purchasing mainstream books is fine, but those who are marginalized need to be recognized by special fundraising efforts to provide books that meet their needs.

Schools need to have full-time library staff who are trained to meet the needs of children who have difficulty reading. Training is vital. Simply slapping an “ABC” sticker on a book to indicate that the book is easy to read is NOT sufficient. In fact, that practice should be banned in school libraries because that practice stigmatizes the children who borrow books with those labels. A properly trained library staff person should be working with reluctant readers to help them choose books that they can eaily read and books that challenge them to move to the next level.

More and more, publishers are recognizing the need for high-interest, graphics-heavy, controlled language books to supplement the curriculum and to entice the student to read for pleasure. Colorful books by publishers such as Crabtree, and sports-heavy short novels by authors such as Laban Hill, are offering reluctant readers a very large selection.

Sustained silent reading programs in schools (daily periods during which everyone, principal included, must read something above the level of a magazine for 15-30 minutes) are becoming more popular.

Comic-style nonfiction books that have instant appeal to reluctant readers are appearing on school library shelves. The reluctant reader no longer has to face a row of colorless books filled with nothing but small-text fonts.

The birth of Harry Potter turned many reluctant readers into kids who love books. Suddenly, reading became “kewl”. Those children whose only reading challenge was lack of focus on reading in the home were suddenly clamoring for more wizard-type books. By the time that children had exhausted the wizard selection, they were so hooked on reading that they chose other subgenres to explore. I do hope that another series emerges that will capture the imaginations of children the way that the Potter series did.

Authors who do not moralize or “talk down” to teens are experiencing great success. Kids LIKE books in which social issues such as teen suicide and incest are explored. They live in a world that we could not have imagined in our youth, and they are simply not interested in reading most of what we read as children. Authors such as Lurlene McDaniel and Cecily von Ziegesar are hot! Authors who tackle the tough stuff lure children into the world of print. Those authors plant the reading seed, and their fans go through life as readers (although one hopes of more complex works).

Literacy involves so much more than just learning how to put letters together into words or how to read a medicine label. Literacy at all ages involves motivation, the recognition of success, a wide selection of reading material, support from the community as well as the family, and excitement at the thought of spending hours in Harry Potter’s world. We owe it to everyone in our community to help in any way we can. A literate community enriches every inhabitant.