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Libraries official lends voice to fight against ‘silent epidemic’

Oklahomans look for ways to help end the cycle of illiteracy.

BY BRYAN PAINTER Published: April 29, 2012
/articleid/3668821/1/pictures/1701644">Photo - Leslie Gelders has been involved with the fight against illiteracy in a professional and volunteer capacity since 1987. photo provided
Leslie Gelders has been involved with the fight against illiteracy in a professional and volunteer capacity since 1987. photo provided

These programs can be seen on OETA, on demand through Cox cable and online at

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.

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