NEW IPO Logo - by Charles Larry Home Search Browse About IPO Staff Links


Adult illiteracy: a stumbling block to the American dream

This is the first in a series of three articles dealing with the problem of adult illiteracy in Illinois, The other two articles will appear in the November and December magazines.

For someone still in his early 20s, Andre Dukes was doing just fine. A thin, goateed man, he managed a Taco Bell outlet, earning a good salary.

No one knew his secret. Despite a diploma from a Chicago high school, Dukes could barely read. He lived in fear that an employee would get injured on the job and he'd have to fill out an accident report, a document he was unable to make sense of. The daily newspaper was totally inaccessible to him.

Then Dukes lost his job at Taco Bell (for reasons unrelated to his reading level). He quit a subsequent job as a truck driver, prompting a self-examination. "I wanted to do something to better myself," Dukes says. "I was sick of my elevator life, where one minute I'm at the top and the next minute I'm at the bottom. I felt if I could do a job and read and write I could go anywhere."

In August of 1989 Dukes called an 800 number for help and was linked up with the Literacy Council of Chicago, where he is now being tutored by a retired choral music professor. His ambition: to take out a library card and use it productively.

A simple dream, but one beyond the grasp of many Illinoisans. The state is home to at least two million adults who read at a sixth grade level or below, estimates Judith Rake, literacy program coordinator for the Secretary of State Literacy Office. The only firm (and many say conservative) estimate by the U.S. Department of Education identifies between 17 and 21 million adult Americans as functionally illiterate.

As daunting as those numbers seem, the goal of forging more adult readers does have its well-known advocates, both nationally and in the state. Andre Dukes has friends in high places, though he may not have enough of them to quell a crisis of the proportions of illiteracy.

Barbara Bush, who made literacy her pet project when she was Second Lady, has embraced the cause with renewed vigor since her husband was elected president. On March 6, Mrs. Bush announced formation of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, of which she is honorary chair. "We all know that adults with reading problems tend to raise children with reading problems," she said at a White House ceremony. So far Mrs. Bush's foundation has published a book highlighting 10 family literacy programs, run a symposium for foundations and prepared to offer small grants.

Since 1985 the ABC television network, along with PBS, has been airing regular public service announcements on literacy in an exercise of corporate responsibility. Earlier this year Jane Fonda and Robert DeNiro starred in the romantic film Stanley and Iris, a paean to the power of a tutor to effect miracles in the life of the tutored. The movie (a box-office dud) had Fonda as a factory worker instructing DeNiro by using the Laubach instructional method, a phonics-based technique named for its founder Frank Laubach, which conveys the alphabet through objects that mimic letters; for example, a cup is fashioned to resemble a "c."

For several years now various states have embarked on new literacy campaigns. In California Gary E. Strong, the state librarian, has turned local libraries into tutoring centers. Julie Mabus, the wife of Mississippi Gov. Ray Mabus and an adviser to her husband, has sparked a broad-based effort to elevate adult reading levels in a state where more than a quarter of those 25 and older never got to high school.

In Illinois it has been Secy. of State Jim Edgar who has dedicated himself to the issue of literacy. In the spring of 1984 Gov. James R. Thompson named Edgar, who is state librarian by virtue of his position as secretary of state, to head a 36-member commission created to study how best to attack the growing problem of Illinois' nonreaders.

"The big void seemed to be on the adult end of things," remarks Edgar. Ultimately, the commission concluded that the state effort consisted only of funneling federal and state adult education funds to classes at schools and community colleges. In other words, community and literacy agencies were being cut out (except where services were subcontracted), so Edgar and his staff originated a program to involve these agencies. The program also called for one-on-one volunteer tutoring, which many authorities argue is a more effective teaching method for the adult illiterate than classes; obviously, it's cheaper as well.

In 1986 the secretary of state's office started awarding community grants amounting to $2 million in the first year. The level of funding has now grown to more than $5 million annually, with 92 recipients receiving stipends of up to $75,000 apiece. (The average grant amounts to $50,000.) Through the secretary of state's office 18,851 students were tutored in fiscal year 1989 and 24,346 students in 1990.

October 1990/Illinois Issues/23

Ethnic distribution of literacy students, by region, in secretary of state-funded programs, fiscal year 1990


Under these community grants, the students — a representative mix of whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asians — come for instruction to a wide variety of settings. There is, for example, the Literacy Council of Chicago, which Andre Dukes attends. The council, headquartered in a Loop office building, is affiliated with Laubach Literacy Action in Syracuse, N.Y. Laubach, as a missionary in the Philippines in the 1930s, pioneered adult literacy instruction by teaching native Filipinos to read and write. Literacy Volunteers of Chicago, an affiliate of Literacy Volunteers of America — the rival of Laubach Literacy Action — features a more eclectic approach to fostering reading and occupies a rambling, cluttered downtown office.

The Albany Park Community Center, which includes a literacy program, is located in a north side Chicago neighborhood awash with immigrants from Mexico, Southeast Asia, India and the Mideast. At the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the PACE Institute serves students awaiting trial or sentencing for every offense except murder and sex crimes. The students attend class, get tutoring and work on computers. The Lawrence Adult Center (complete with a library designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) is housed in an old elementary school on Springfield's south side where it caters to poor, native-born adults in need of basic education.

Then there are workplace initiatives sponsored by businesses around the state — from the Snap-On Tools Corp. in Mount Carmel and the Elgin Sweeper Co. in Elgin, a maker of street sweepers, to Marshall Field & Co., the Chicago department store. The workplace drives encourage employees to receive tutoring or take classes on site; for their commitment, the companies become eligible for a matching grant from the state.

Notwithstanding such private strikes at illiteracy, public institutions continue to play a significant role in the war. Libraries, for instance, offer classes and tutoring bolstered by some $650,000 in literacy support from the secretary of state, the Illinois State Library and directly from the federal government.

Most significantly, the State Board of Education dispensed about $12 million in state and federal money in fiscal 1990 to help underwrite 88 programs at state schools and community colleges, serving 58,790 students (up from 53,957 in fiscal 1989). Participants include inmates in state prisons: Those who read poorly must attend small-group classes for three months; after that, they decide whether to continue. There is some overlapping of students served by the State Board of Education's programs and those of the secretary of state.

By and large, instruction underwritten by the state board occurs in classrooms, which advocates of the tutor-based approach criticize. "People in these classes are at 20 different levels, and they need hand-holding and guidance," maintains Jeffrey Bright, tutoring director at the Albany Park Community Center. "There's no way one teacher can provide that."

Take the experience of Annie Sills, a poor reader who enrolled in a literacy class at Kennedy-King Community College in Chicago. The class of 20 dwindled to seven or eight as

24/October 1990/Illinois Issues


students dropped out, but even then Sills had trouble. The teacher explained the lessons poorly; he called out words he expected members of the class to know, only Sills didn't. "It was nerve-racking to me," she says.

On the other hand, "some people do better in group settings," contends Talmadge Guy, associate vice chancellor for basic and continuing education at the City Colleges of Chicago, which includes Kennedy-King. A traditional class may undergird an illiterate adult through ''support and involvement with other students.'" says Guy.

Another argument about what constitutes the best type of teaching method— whether a regimented textbook technique or a looser approach centered on life experience — seems to have been settled in favor of life experience. The Literacy Council of Chicago, once strictly geared to Laubach materials, now has its tutors deviate from this approach regularly. "We recommend that tutors bring in other materials," says executive director Myra Johnson, pointing to short fiction, recipes, the sports page and forms that students' children bring home from school.

Nonaligned agencies go even further. The Blue Gargoyle, an unaffiliated agency situated near the University of Chicago, relies on phonics but also believes in the "whole language" strategy of teaching reading — enabling a student to understand a word by seeing it in context. Great attention is paid to finding material that a student will want to master, says administrator Barbara Sklar. "Say a person wants to read the newspaper," explains Sklar. "We'll come up with creative ideas to help him do that." Tactics, says Sklar, run to breaking apart headlines, keying in on a dateline by finding the city on a globe, circling words that begin with one letter — "w," for instance — or rewriting an article at a more elementary level.

A study by the secretary of state's office has found that a tutored student will progress one grade level for every 50 hours of instruction. The big difficulty comes in netting and retaining students.

In attracting the illiterate, programs have to combat "feelings of hopelessness and embarrassment" on the part of potential students, according to Barbara Sklar. "Part of the problem is ours," she adds. "We talk about combatting illiteracy, like we are in a war and the student is the enemy." Once signed up, many students drop out. The attrition rate for the Blue Gargoyle is fully 45 percent. The Literacy Council reports a 50 percent dropout rate.

"True, a lot of people won't come in, and lots drop out," concedes Edgar, who contends the problem is greatest down-state and in the Chicago suburbs, where there exists "more shame" about not reading well, Edgar admits that the small number of people served by his program constitutes "a drop in the bucket, but we've still been very effective." The secretary of state computes that the cost per student since the inception of his program amounts to only $380. "Compare that," he says, "to what you spend on a child in school.'' (According to the State Board of Education the annual average per-pupil expenditure in Illinois for elementary and high school combined comes to $4,215, but that cost includes much more than just reading.)

Edgar deputy Judith Rake hopes literacy is not just a hot-button issue for the '90s. "It's too important for that," she says. "Literacy is the basis on which all participation in society is grounded — it has to do with citizenship, the family unit, the economy. I'm afraid, though, that with school dropout rates and the population increasing the problem's just going to get worse."

U.S. Sen. Paul Simon (D-Makanda, Ill.) says he has been troubled by the pervasiveness of illiteracy since the late '70s, when he was a member of the House and saw his constituents unable to understand — or even sign — consent forms authorizing him to look into their federal records, such as Social Security files. "A wife or husband would have to sign," says Simon, who is still vexed by the problem: "I see the lack of literacy as a massive deterrent to people enjoying the richness of life and taking advantage of the economy."

As a consequence, Simon has co-sponsored a bill called the National Literacy Act. Among other changes, it would enable nonprofit agencies to more readily access federal adult-education dollars, a process now restricted in Illinois and 20 other states. In addition, the act would establish a national clearinghouse on literacy and a cabinet-level council on the issue. The bill, inching through Congress, is expected to become law this fall.

Andre Dukes, luckily, seems to have no immediate need for federal action. He is working as a Burger King counterman, yet in just a year Dukes' reading level has bounded from third to 10th grade, according to his tutor, retired professor Richard Rosewall. "Andre continues to flourish," reports Rosewall.

In August, Town and Country magazine and C.D. Peacock, the Chicago jewelry store, sponsored a black-tie literacy benefit at a downtown hotel. Dukes helped present an award to Lee Mitchell, president of the Field Corp., in which he gave a short talk on what the literacy effort has meant to him. So did another student, and when both had finished the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

Grant Pick is a free-lance writer living in Chicago.

October 1990/Illinois Issues/25

|Home| |Search| |Back to Periodicals Available| |Table of Contents| |Back to Illinois Issues 1990|
Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library