Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Area literacy organizations work with adult learners

Area literacy organizations work with adult learners
Adult illiteracy is still an issue in our modern age. How one Madison-area organization is catering to adult learners on improving their literacy, and for some, teaching them the skill for the first time

By Kacy Gadberry

After ten years of hiding her secret from friends, family members and even her spouse, Mary* finally decided to admit her problem and seek help. She wasn't an addict, an abuser, or criminal. Far from it. She was a hard working married woman with a family, living in Madison. Her secret? She couldn't read.

For over 17, 000 Dane County adults whose literacy skills are below the fifth-grade level, such a scenario is familiar (Center on Wisconsin Strategy, 2002). Worldwide, illiteracy is a real problem. According to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization, over eight hundred million individuals worldwide can't pen a letter or read above a third grade level.

While that statistic may seem far removed from the progressive, intellectually driven Madison area, the fact remains that numerous Madison area individuals suffer under the weight of illiteracy.

Fortunately, there is at least one Madison organization that addresses literacy issues. The Madison Area Literacy Council (MLC) helps over one thousand individuals a year improve their reading abilities. The MLC realizes that teaching people to read empowers them to reach their larger goals in life such as a better paying job, advanced education, or simply an improved quality of life. The MLC believes that reading is the cornerstone from which a fuller life is built.

Framing: The Support Beams for Financial Independence

Gregory Markle, executive director of the MLC, says that "most of the one thousand learners who come to MLC each year want to get and maintain jobs, or secure promotions at work." Without a doubt, nearly all jobs require at least a basic reading level; for example, assembly line workers examine product manuals, gas station attendants fill out purchase orders, and cleaners record their daily tasks.

Cindy Walker, a volunteer with the MLC, recalls one learner who maintained her job as a prep cook by claiming every waitress had illegible handwriting. When the orders came in, she would laugh and ask them to read what they had written because she couldn't read their handwriting. With Walker's help, the woman's literacy skills improved, and she moved on to a higher paying position.

Raising the Walls: Planning for Long Term Success

An increased reading level often raises a learner's self-confidence. As Walker puts it, "helping people learn to read gives them a feeling of empowerment. They realize what once seemed impossible is now feasible."

For some learners, that translates into a desire for further education. While the MLC focuses on "functional literacy" (basic reading skills required for daily tasks), the organization does encourage motivated learners to seek further education.

"Depending on their goals, we refer individuals to programs such as the Omega School or Madison Area Technical College," says Markle. Through these programs, adults can receive their GED, or high school equivalency diploma. Typically, more education often results in better career prospects and a better quality of life. Oscar Mireles, executive director of the Omega School states, "it isn't about a piece of paper. It is about changing lives."

Capping the Project: The Simple Joys of a New Beginning

While gainful employment and continuing education are two noble byproducts of an increased literacy level, the daily joys which reading affords are in themselves rewarding. Who hasn't snuggled down to a page turning John Grisham novel on a snowy winter's night? Who hasn't acted out all of the silly voices in a pop-up book to squeals of delight from an eager five-year-old? Who hasn't shed a tear at the conclusion of a classic such as Charlotte's Web or Old Yeller?

Fortunately, those who haven't are slowly becoming those who have thanks to the efforts

of Madison-area literacy and education programs.

Walker of the MLC recounts the day she had a breakthrough with Mary, the adult learner described earlier. As they were reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, Mary exclaimed, "I can see it! Do you know that? When we are reading, I can close my eyes and see Laura and Mary! I can see them! What is that?"

"Your imagination," Walker replied. "It is your imagination!"

"Wow, there is a whole world inside this book!"

Madison literacy organizations are not only helping to unlock the mysteries of the written word, but also improving the quality of life for residents one page at a time.

*Name changed to protect privacy.

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