You’ve likely heard the cliche “as quiet as a library.” Many readers read silently. However, others are silent because they can’t read. Leslie Gelders is the director of the Office of Literacy Resources at the state Department of Libraries. She has been involved with the fight against illiteracy in a professional and volunteer capacity since 1987. The Oklahoman recently asked Gelders about various illiteracy issues. Q: What is the situation in terms of adult literacy in our state? How many adults need assistance with reading? A: Adult illiteracy has been called a silent epidemic. There is still a stigma associated with the inability to read, and that prevents some adults from seeking help. They may have a fear of losing their job if their boss finds out, or they may fear losing respect within their family or social network. Because it is such a hidden problem, it’s been difficult to know how many people really need assistance. For many years, on both the state and national levels, we have traditionally depended on U.S. census figures and school accountability reports to get some kind of picture of the problem. From the last census, for example, we know that 20 percent of Oklahomans did not complete high school. This has been fairly consistent during the past few decades, and it’s where we get the classic “one in five” statistic, the idea that one in five Oklahomans need assistance with basic literacy. But high school completion is only one indicator. There are people who have dropped out of school who can read just fine, and there are people who have a high school diploma who are low-level readers. We needed a better assessment of the problem, and Oklahoma was fortunate to be one of six states to participate in the State Assessment of Adult Literacy in 2003. From this study, we learned that 12 percent of Oklahomans could be classified as functionally illiterate, meaning they have no skills or very simple literacy skills. That certainly beats the one in five statistic we had been using. But another finding was very sobering. Another 31 percent performed at only the most basic level, meaning they could encounter problems reading a variety of text in various formats, or in performing computations using numbers included in printed materials. That means 43 percent of adult Oklahomans could benefit from improving their reading skills. Q: What strides are being made to help adults improve their literacy skills? A: Many colleges and universities are providing remedial classes to help bring young adults up to speed so they have a better chance for success in college. The state Department of Education also has an Adult Basic Ed program. But for those adults who have a negative impression of a classroom learning environment, one-to-one tutoring can be a solution. Oklahoma has many volunteer reading tutors who are working one-to-one with adult students. We have almost 1,000 volunteer tutors working through 45 library and community-based literacy councils across the state. They’re Oklahoma’s unsung heroes, and at last count they were currently assisting more than 2,300 students. During our last annual survey, we found that 62 percent of these students had improved their reading level one grade. Also, 68 percent of the students who were learning English as a second language through these programs showed marked improvements. The Oklahoma City Community Foundation has purchased the broadcast rights for two television programs that offer another option for adult students. TV411 is a series made for adults who want help with their reading, writing and math skills. GED Connection helps adult learners prepare for the GED exam. These programs can be seen on OETA, on demand through Cox cable and online at www.GetReadingOklahoma.org. Our office also works with the Department of Human Services to offer classes for adults who are receiving TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) assistance. More than 3,200 adults have benefited from this program, which offers reading and other general education topics, as well as sessions on life skills, and health and financial information. With such high numbers of adults needing assistance in our state, these statistics may not sound like much. But this is a war that is won one person at a time. Illiteracy is a very personal problem, and for the individual who is improving his skills and opportunities, it’s a major accomplishment and worthy of celebration. It’s a problem these individuals have struggled with since childhood. Q: Let’s talk about the situation with children. What are the needs there? A: If a child doesn’t have experiences with books before he enters kindergarten or first grade, there’s a much greater chance he’s going to struggle to learn. Experts on early childhood development know that learning to read begins long before a child enters school. Oklahoma has a universal preschool program that enrolls 4-year-olds in public education, and a Rutgers University study shows this is having a dramatic impact on the verbal, math and literacy skills of these children. This is encouraging for the future and something we can be proud of, but it shouldn’t let the parents and caregivers off the hook. Literacy begins at home, and adults need to read and talk to their children beginning at a very early age. Children also need to be surrounded by reading material. Our office has served more than 16,800 children during the past 16 years through our first book program. We give books to children at risk for low literacy in the state, because statistics show that access to books and other types of reading material improve a child’s achievement in school. Q: What else is needed to make progress? A: We need to dispel the myths that surround adult illiteracy, and thus dispel the stigma. There are many reasons why an adult may have trouble reading, from lack of early exposure to reading materials, to childhood health problems, to learning disabilities. We need to acknowledge as a society that the inability to read is not a reflection of a person’s worth or intelligence. If we do that, more people may step forward for help. People need to realize that illiteracy is a problem that can be overcome. There are determined individuals across Oklahoma who have improved their skills and who are enjoying a better quality of life. It’s true that illiteracy is a personal problem, but we also need to recognize that it is a social problem. Illiteracy is directly linked to unemployment, underemployment, high health costs and incarceration rates. The costs associated with these social problems affect everyone, and if we recognize that, perhaps we’ll decide to invest up front in education to save tax dollars down the line. More than anything, though, we have to break the cycle of illiteracy. Parents with reading problems are not equipped to help their children develop and improve literacy skills. One of the best things we can do is encourage caregivers with reading problems to find other adult role models in the family or community who are willing to step in and read to the children. Storytimes at local libraries can help with this need. Churches and community organizations can help. Every individual can make a difference and contribute to the cause.