The Founding Fathers worried about the possibility of creating a nation whose majority could not read or communicate effectively and yet are meant to govern themselves. Were that the case, only a small percentage of those who vote would fully understand the laws on which they were voting. Fraud would become more prevalent for those who could not read legal documents. And the list goes on. It’s hard to imagine an America where a majority of its citizens has literacy issues — but studies indicate the problem is here ... and it’s real.
Disturbing statisticsAccording to the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy study in 2003, which officials use today, nearly half of adult Oklahomans (43 percent) needed to improve their “prose” literacy skills in order to effectively search, comprehend and use written information. Twelve percent were rated at “below basic” (having no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills, such as the ability to sign their name) Thirty-one percent were at the “basic” level (having the skills to perform simple and everyday literacy activities, such as consulting a television guide) But most (at 47 percent) performed at the “intermediate” level (having the skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities, such as identifying a specific location on a map). While 9 percent of adults performed at the “proficient” level (having the skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities, such as comparing and contrasting viewpoints in two editorials). “Considering individuals performing at ‘below basic’ and ‘basic’ levels … these statistics are significantly higher than stats derived using census or dropout statistics,” said William R. Young, spokesman for the Oklahoma Department of Libraries. The good news is that Oklahoma has taken significant steps to end illiteracy in the state. In 1983, the legislature established the Literacy Resource Office to provide financial support, act as a repository of information for volunteer groups that are starting literacy programs across the state and track the success of those programs. Other states often look to Oklahoma as a model for confronting literacy challenges.
Literacy challengesThe ability to read is not optional when it comes to functioning in society. Yet a large number of those with literacy challenges remains in the shadows, fearful and embarrassed, often victims of adverse consequences. “Across the board, illiteracy is connected to health issues because people with low literacy skills have greater visits to hospitals,” said Leslie Gelders, literacy coordinator with the Oklahoma Department of Libraries. “There’s a big connection between health and literacy. Nine out of 10 Oklahomans have difficulty understanding health information. This can be serious because medical information requires following directions correctly or understanding the risks involved with certain medications. Think about if someone can’t read and trying to communicate because of an emergency. You’re afraid to ask because you don’t want people to think you’re stupid.” And the issues for adults with reading challenges go far beyond health care. “There was a man in Eufaula who was learning to read (through a literacy program). At his job they told him to put de-icer on roads. He couldn’t read the containers and put out detergent instead,” Gelders said. “Even getting a job, most places these days have you apply online.” Not only do you have to be able to read the job application, you have to have access to a computer.
‘Modeling’ literacy at homeIn this day of increased awareness and resources, why do so many struggle with literacy issues? Is progress being made? The answer is yes and no. Improvement has been made on some levels and on other levels, the cycle of illiteracy has been hard to break. To address obstacles associated with illiteracy passed from one generation to the next, the Oklahoma Literacy Resource Office has been working with parents to “model” literacy at home. “If people don’t have role models when they’re growing up there will be no motivation to read,” Young said. “What it is going to take for them is to see things differently.” Putting books in the hands of both parents and children is one of the places the Literacy Resource Office has chosen to start. “One of the projects that we do is give books to preschoolers because many don’t have books in the home. It’s a big deal,” Gelders said. “We give these kids about 12 books during the year. We hope the parents can read to them. ... But if they can’t, we try to tell the parents that it’s OK — ‘just tell the story. You can change the story every time. Just get into the habit of holding a book,’” she said. Over the course of a year, different volunteers take books into that home and read. Some of the books are bilingual.
Surprising successIn tracking successes among Oklahoma’s literacy programs, Gelders said her office has been able to establish key motivators to get adult learners in a program and keep them there. These are to get a better job, help their children, or participate in their faith, she said. “What our Oklahoma programs have done in the last five years is that we’ve changed our approach to tutoring,” she said. “We help our students find their goals then show them how that goal is being met. If they went to get a better job, we start using materials that relate to that job. There’s a disconnect when you just do Lesson One, Lesson Two.”
How to helpOklahoma’s literacy volunteers operate with very little funding. If you or someone you know would like to donate materials, make a financial contribution or volunteer, contact your local literacy program or the Literacy Resource Office at 522-3205, or go to www.odl.state.ok.us/literacy.