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The Closed World of Adults Who Can’t Read

There are 80,000 people in Dallas who can’t decipher a street sign or a soup can. Lots of them have high school diplomas.
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Pretty, blonde Vicki Adler stammered, “I don’t want to read.” A cluster of kids in the back of the room giggled. “Vicki,” the teacher urged, “please read the second paragraph.” Vicki’s heart was pounding hard. “I don’t want to read today,” she said, rebelliously this time. The teacher wrote something in a roster, looked around the room, then sighed. “Tom, would you read her part?” Vicki was relieved to hear her classmate pronounce the impossible words. She could read only three of the small ones – “and,” “a,” “the.” She wiped her hands on her skirt and tried to relax. She had made it through another class without revealing the secret. Vicki was a 16-year-old ninth grader who had never learned to read.

It was much harder to keep that secret now that she was in high school. How much longer could she keep the truth from her mother? What would happen if the teacher knew? There was no real problem hiding the situation from the other kids because they all acted like they hated her anyway. She had one friend, Barb, a classmate who “helped out” by letting Vicki copy all her homework for three years. But in the middle of eighth grade even Barb threatened to bail out. “She told me she just couldn’t let me copy anymore,” Vicki recalls, “and I was beside myself. I almost went crazy. ’Barb,’ I said, ’You’ve got to help me. I can’t make it without copying from you.’ So I kept crying and begging until Barb said she’d let me copy one more year. Of course, 1 was smart enough to make some mistakes and not copy word for word.”

Elementary school in West Dallas had been better. The teacher there had given Vicki a desk near the front of the room and instructed her to sit quietly and color with crayons while the other children learned. At least no one had laughed at her. When Vicki and her divorced mother moved to Euless in 1965, Vicki was asked to retake third grade. That didn’t bother her too much. What bugged her was that her younger brother began to make better marks. “I kept all his report cards and I always wanted to erase his name from them and tell everybody. ’This is mine.’ ” Vicki’s scores were always bad, but teachers promoted her because her attitude was good. She tried. “I wanted to learn so bad. I can’t tell you how bad I wanted to learn. But when the teachers told me to read something, I’d just sit there and stare at the page. That’s all I could do.” Two weeks before the end of ninth grade, Vicki decided to quit, get married, move back to Dallas, and forget about reading. Maybe she was a dummy, she thought, the way everybody said.

Vicki’s husband knew she read poorly, but he didn’t realize she couldn’t read at all “Why, you can’t even go to K-Mart and pick a dress to put on lay-away without filling out forms,” Vicki says. Going to the grocery store was something she refused to do alone. She believed the clerks would cheat her if she couldn’t count back her own change. Since she couldn’t read labels, she memorized the appearance of household goods: Tide detergent came in an orange box, diet drinks had a big “D” printed on each bottle, vanilla ice cream came in a blue carton, cinnamon-flavored chewing gum came in a red wrapper most of the time. Sometimes she wound up chewing “cherry.” Vicki learned to drive by following buildings and other landmarks instead of the street signs. She received her Texas driver’s license by passing an oral exam. One Christmas, she took a friend to the record shop in order to buy her husband a particular 45. She couldn’t remember the name of the group or the title of the song. Her friend proceeded to read aloud every hit on the Top 40. When they reached 36, Vicki said “Stop! That’s it.”

But soon the pressures of a restricted existence got the best of her. During a routine medical check-up, Vicki’s self-effacing attitude prompted the doctor to suggest, “Maybe you have emotional problems.” She ran out of the office and cried all the way home. She cried a lot in those days. “Maybe you do have emotional problems,” her husband replied when she described the episode. A few weeks later, Vicki visited a psychiatrist. “I have one big problem,” she confessed. “I can’t read.” “Would you like to do something about it?” the psychiatrist asked. Vicki took a tissue out of her purse and blew her nose. “Yes,” she sniffled, “yes, I really would.”

Vicki learned her alphabet at the age of twenty-three from a DISD Basic Education instructor. Then she enrolled in a reading course that didn’t work out because it was designed for Mexican-Americans learning English as a second language. She was almost ready to give up again when her mother-in-law saw the early morning Channel 8 broadcast conducted daily by Operation LIFT. Last September, Vicki started going to LIFT’s two-hour classes twice a week. Today, she knows all the sounds the twenty-six letters make. She can figure out words like “kidnap” and “pistol” within a reasonable time. Soon she hopes to be reading small books to her children. “Right now, I just make up stories to go with the pictures in the book. But I’m learning to read now that I know I can learn. And you wouldn’t believe how my attitude towards just about everything has changed. I feel so good, so different, so free.”

Vicki is lucky. One adult in six in Dallas is unable to read and write well enough to decipher the message written on a Clorox bottle or figure out posters, newspapers, magazines, and recipes. For them, the difference between the words “MEN” and “WOMEN” is merely the number of characters written on a rest room door. Worldwide, one person in three, 40 percent of all women and 28 percent of all men, is illiterate. In a world that is employing fewer and fewer unskilled workers, illiteracy is like being in a foreign country without a passport. There’s no way up, no way out.

From 1870 to 1970, the U.S. Census Bureau defined an illiterate as “a person who is not able to read and write a simple message either in English or any other language.” Census takers in 1970 found that only one percent of the U. S. population fit the description. But other statistics showed that 25 percent of American soldiers in World War 1 were functionally illiterate and that during World War II and the Korean War, great numbers of inductees were unable to follow written instructions. By the late Sixties, the United States Office of Education was convinced of the need to redefine terms and recount heads. In 1970, the Lou Harris opinion analysts were commissioned to conduct a survey to find out how many Americans 16 and older couldn’t perform reading tasks considered essential to survival. The results were shocking – nearly 20 percent of the adult population could be considered marginally functional because of the number of errors they made on everyday applications and forms.

In 1975, the University of Texas published the results of a four-year study funded with $1 million in federal aid and $60,000 in state money from the governor’s office and the Texas Education Agency. The study, interpreted as a plea for new, broader definitions of illiteracy, made newspaper headlines all around the country. Its impact was devastating. Among the results:

●13 percent of the population could not address an envelope for mailing.

●34 percent could not reada simple paragraph explaining the law and tell why itwould be illegal to be held injail for two weeks withoutbeing charged.

●20 percent could not readnewspaper help-wanted ads,figure the best grocery buy,or make a train reservatio

“As long as ’literacy’ is conceived to be nothing more than the ability to read and write one’s name, or to score at some low grade level on a standardized test developed for children, the United States probably does not have a significant problem,” the Texas Adult Performance Level study said. “On the other hand, if the concern is with the adult who does not possess those skills and knowledge which are requisite to adult competence, then the results of [our] research suggest that there is, indeed, a widespread discrepancy in our adult population between what is required of them and what they can achieve.”

Only 46.3 percent of all adult Americans were estimated to be “proficient” in the skills tested, which implied that some degree of illiteracy was to be found in middle class white neighborhoods as well as in the lower-income minority communities where most people expected to find it.

In addition to the national 7500-person sample, the UT team chose to test 1500 Texans for comparison with national figures. The researchers found 33 percent functional incompetency in East Texas, 26 percent in South Texas, and 17 percent in the central region, which includes Dallas and Fort Worth. If that estimate is accurate, there are 87,600 adults in Dallas who can’t perform simple tasks that involve reading and writing. About two-thirds of all Texans with Spanish surnames, one half of the black population, and one fifth of all Anglos were described as functionally incompetent by the survey’s norms. And if the national statistics apply to Texas, 11 percent of them have been granted high school diplomas.

In 1971, Congress funded an agency called “Right to Read” and called on it to conquer illiteracy by 1980. The agency was to administer a multi-million dollar budget to fund reading academies, train community leaders and reading specialists, support innovative schools and remedial programs, distribute free books, and so on. It’s almost 1980; the non-readers are still unable to read.

DISD’s Adult Basic Education (ABE) program is receiving $66,000 this year, with $177,395 as a three-year cumulative grant, from the “Reading Academy” provision of Right to Read. According to Andy Montez, the Southwest Region’s Program Officer in Washington, these funds are “specifically” provided for reading instruction and assistance to in-school as well as out-of-school youth and adults. When I called one of the Dallas centers listed under “Right to Read” on ABE’s brochure, the woman who answered the phone didn’t know anything about a Right to Read program, so she forwarded me to a General Educational Development (GED) instructor who prepares adults for examinations that grant them the equivalent of a high school diploma. He didn’t know anything about it either. At another center, a woman said she didn’t know anything about the center’s funding, but she’d be glad to talk to me about “helping people” and GED classes. Finally, the Cedar Springs Center’s phone was answered by a young woman who said, yes, this was a Right to Read Center and as a matter of fact, she knew her $8-an-hour wages were taken from the Dallas Right to Read funds.

The Cedar Springs Center is really an apartment in the public housing units on Kings Road. The area is barren; even the grass is shriveled down to the dirt. The Right to Read instructor, showing me around the center, complained about losing so many students because of inadequate child care facilities. She prepared students to read, she said, but admitted that she’d never nurtured anyone to literacy. The center, she said, served as a “referral service.” Women suffering abuse from their husbands come to the center to seek assistance, and she’d even spent up to four hours helping one person with a food stamp application, she told me in an exasperated tone. In other words, the Right to Read instructor’s salary is paying for a lot of services – services that probably took many $8-an-hour hours to fulfill – but most of them have nothing to do with reading instruction. When 1 asked another suburban ABE instructor about the Right to Read program, she sighed, “Oh that. I’m pretty sure they’re just using Right to Read funds and applying them to lots of other things.”

The Dallas-Rockwall Cooperative, the DISD department that administers local Adult Basic Education Right to Read funds, is funded by both state and federal governments to instruct adults over 16 who would like to brush up on their basic skills. Though ABE centers offer basic reading instruction, their principal function is to help the adult student pass the GED exam and teach non-natives how to speak and write English as a second language. There is a need for this kind of program. The 1970 census showed 101,789 adults in Dallas and a total of 1,758,414 in Texas who had not received formal instruction past an eighth grade level. Fifty-two percent of all Texans over 25 didn’t finish high school. Through ABE programs, some of these adults learn English or acquire the necessary skills to move on to better jobs.

Throughout the Dallas-Rockwall Coop, 8534 adults participated in ABE last year. Of course, there is no real way to measure what they learned or how well they retained it because many people come and go to ABE as their schedule and desires dictate. Of those 8534, only 793 received GED certificates, 393 became employed because of the program, 36 were removed from welfare, 141 registered to vote for the first time and 367 received income tax training. These modest accomplishments cost $861,999 last year. Of that sum, the payroll took $271,235; supplies $6196; media services and capital outlay $6000; General Administration $58,000; and Instructional Administration (which includes professional and clerical salaries) a hefty $345,964.

ABE teachers are paid pretty well – instructors receive $8 an hour, aides get $5. “The pay is good because the benefits are bad,” explained one teacher. “No vacations, no sick leave; you only get paid for the hours you’re here.” But in order to become an ABE instructor, you are required only to have a degree – any degree from any school – and a teacher’s certificate isn’t necessary. The Texas Education Agency requires at least 12 hours pre-service and in-service instruction. Despite these alarmingly lenient requirements, the ABE instructors I talked with were pretty sharp, dedicated to “the cause,” and still young enough to put up with the frustration their work involves.

Holly Hunter, a journalism major fresh out of UT, teaches at the ABE center across the hall from the administrative office in Pearl C. Anderson Middle School. When the students begin to come to the study center, she explains, the teacher must find out the level at which they’re functioning and then try to work from there without intimidating or confusing them. Frequently, a student will withdraw from the program and never come back. “I used to suffer rejection complexes all the time,” Holly says, “but I try not to let it get to me.” Instruction is individualized and self-paced; this makes it even more difficult for the instructor who has to hop from student to student, telling them exactly what to do.

ABE students who cannot read do not operate under any regimen. Students go to a center, do some basic lessons, then leave a few hours later. The assumption that they’ve learned something during that time is not substantiated by any systematic follow-up process. The ABE program just isn’t designed to help illiterates.

Earl Shepard went to an ABE center near his home in Oak Cliff until he became frustrated with the program there. So many of the students he met were literate, working toward high school equivalency, that Earl was ashamed to admit that he couldn’t even look up a word in the dictionary. When the instructor called to ask why he was no longer attending the ABE center, Earl made up an excuse. He told her his schedule at work had changed and that he’d start coming to the center again just as soon as he could. This was not the first time Earl had escaped from school.

Reared by his grandmother in Forney, Earl was always good at athletics but “slow” in school. By the time he reached fourth grade, he was so far behind that the teachers stopped calling on him in class. Finally, in eleventh grade, Earl dropped out entirely. He picked up some odd jobs, moved to California, and started a family. Being unable to read was a curse he carried everywhere, and his frustration boiled over into rage. He got in trouble and served nine months in the Los Angeles County Jail. There were GED classes in the jail, but nothing to assist a non-reader like Earl. When he and his family returned to Texas, his wife found out about Operation LIFT. She persuaded Earl to enroll. At 26, he still wants to play professional football: “I’m staying in shape because you never know. You can ask anybody in Forney and they’ll tell you that Earl Shepard was a good ballplayer. Everyone remembers that. But when the scouts came around, there was no way to test me. I couldn’t pass anything because I still couldn’t read. It was pitiful. They were handing scholarships to black guys like me and I couldn’t begin to qualify. But now that I’m taking Operation LIFT classes and still staying in shape, I’m beginning to think that even a small club in Florida could take me on. You just never know.”

Privately tunded, dependent upon volunteer help and borrowed classrooms, Operation LIFT (Literacy Instruction for Texas) is the only program for illiterate adults in Dallas that seems to be working. Its central office is tucked into the eighth floor of an older office building on North Ervay, downtown. In two windowless rooms, with donated furniture, the program operates on about $25,000 in donations a year. Daytime and evening classes are offered at no charge (students are asked to buy a $2 textbook) in 15 Dallas County locations.

Carolyn Kribs, the executive director, is at the Channel 8 studio before dawn to prepare and present the live LIFT lesson broadcast daily at 6:15 a.m. She and a single secretary run the office by day, then Mrs. Kribs teaches four two-hour classes a week in addition to offering a seminar to teachers on Saturdays. She prefers to call illiterates “non-readers.”

“The people we’re talking about are bright,” she begins. “Usually they are normal or above normal in intelligence. And they’re quite crafty about hiding the fact that they can’t read. I’ve seen them carry newspapers, wear wristwatches, take applications home so someone else can fill them out and, oh. . . they do lots of things to cover it up.

“I’ve heard their stories about making deliveries by matching the characters on the piece of paper to the symbols on a street sign. I’ve also heard about how they learn to follow maps by studying the shape and curves of a road. And by the time they reach us, they are desperate. They have been so used to this pattern of failure that they don’t know where to turn. The people we don’t get are those who have given up entirely.”

On the evening I went to class, six students seated along the front rows of a Stephen F. Austin Middle School classroom in Garland were given bags of three-dimensional plastic letters and asked to identify the letters by shape with their eyes closed. Some of the students confused “N” for “H.” Then flash cards were used to reinforce key words and single sounds. As the students chanted sounds like “Muh-buh-fuh-tuh,” a feeling of terrific intensity and concentration developed in the small room. During the next learning segment, the instructor wrote “napkin” on the blackboard and asked a volunteer to split the word into syllables, using the “vowel-consonant-consonant-vowel” rule. The student placed the break between the two consonants, coded the short vowels, then properly placed the accent.

“Would you mind saying that for us?” the instructor asked.

The student looked at her as if she were crazy, then began, “Naa-puh. . .”

“Trust the sounds. What do you hear?”

“Naapuh. . .k. . .in.”

“That’s right,” she prompted, “NAPKIN!”

“Napkin?” the student asked incredulously.

“Napkin. Look it over and repeat.”

“Napkin,” the other students mumbled to themselves as they recorded the new word in their notebooks. It’s not easy to learn how to read; it takes about two years of lessons twice a week to go from a “non-reading” status to a “reading” one. “When an adult comes in and admits that he cannot read, he’s really going to work at it,” says LIFT teacher Jo Eklof. “It’s slow, slow, slow, but there’s such satisfaction.”

A ten-minute break is taken after the first hour. According to the instructors, it’s fascinating to hear how the classroom conversation changes as the course progresses. “When you ask them how their week was, their weeks begin to get better and better in proportion to how much they are learning.”

The final part of the Garland class was reserved for an oral reading. “Listen to the sound of reading,” the instructor said as she opened a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. The students – a white man with trigonometry formulas written on the inside cover of his notebook, a muscular black man and two white women in their twenties, a Vietnamese girl, and a white man in his forties – all relaxed and gazed at the teacher. For some, the reading of this passage is the closest thing to a bedtime story they’ve ever known.

Wallace Brown, a 41-year-old electronic technician for Texas Instruments, like many illiterates, was raised in an indigent rural community with only the most elementary language experience. His grade school was a two-room structure that housed about 100 first- through sixth-graders. The real world seemed more pleasant than those congested surroundings, so Wallace periodically dropped out to plow, plant, and harvest for his father. Breaking new ground, building fences, lifting, hauling, and planting were the physical things Wallace enjoyed. But on the second day of 12th grade, Wallace scribbled a note to his teacher: “I, Wallace Brown, cannot read, write nor spell as I should.” The teacher took the note to the school principal who said, “Well! Give him more spelling words.”

Wallace memorized the words and received his diploma at the end of the year, graduating almost as unskilled, at least as uneducated as when he began junior high. At that time, he claims, it took him at least two hours to read a short paragraph, provided he had a dictionary at hand. But Wallace wanted to do something that would enable him to use his mind. He worked for a wholesale jewelry supply house as a delivery-shipping clerk until he was forced to quit because he couldn’t record the orders. Then he made it into the paratroopers and served as a combat engineer.

“A lot of the guys were in worse shape than I was. 1 could memorize the formulas for demolition, but figuring out the technical manuals was so time-consuming. 1 always felt that 1 was way, way over my head.”

After the service, Wallace wanted to become a combustion engineer, but that required more school, something he was still reluctant to face. He paid the money to enroll, but withdrew at the last minute. Then it was one job after another, doing everything from painting canteen machines to being an electrician’s apprentice. The good jobs required reading; the bad jobs didn’t satisfy. Finally, Wallace enrolled in Operation LIFT’s reading class.

“When Wallace started,” says his teacher, “he seemed down on himself. It’s remarkable how his appearance has changed since he started. He used to wear a funny-looking cap. Now he carries an attache case to class.” Mrs. Eklof even lets Wallace do a bit of substitute teaching and tutoring when she is unable to get to class. And Wallace has recently applied for a promotion within TI; the new position will entail a good bit of reading, but Wallace is ready for that now.

“Oh yes, I feel so much better now that I can read things better,” he says. “Now I’m trying to get my wife to come to class.” She can’t read either.

Both Operation LIFT I and ABE operate within a conventional classroom environment. Teachers insist that they steer clear of traditional classroom techniques, but the basic set-up remains the same: There is the smart teacher and the dumb class. Many illiterate adults are afraid of being put down – if not by the teacher, then by the other members of the class. The only way around this psychological barrier is a futuristic one. Robert Caldwell, a professor of Educational Studies at SMU, shares his office with a squatty computer named PLATO. “All I’m saying,” Caldwell insists, “is that the computer is an alternative.” PLATO (for Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) was developed in the Sixties by researchers at the University of Illinois and the Control Data Corporation. The special Basic Skills course developed by Caldwell is being used in various types of adult education centers and is exciting many educators with its results. Dallas was introduced to PLATO last month on an experimental basis through CETA funds administered by Dallas County Employment and Training, Control Data, and SMU through Robert Caldwell. The plan involves leasing five PLATO terminals and researching their effectiveness with students seeking high school equivalency at Wilmer Hutchins Incentive School and Nicholson Memorial Library in Garland. Should the results prove to be favorable, PLATO may revolutionize adult basic education. Educational progress is always slow, but with PLATO, things seem to move faster.

The Basic Skills Learning System is designed to help students advance from a third-grade to an eighth-grade equivalency in reading, language and mathematics. It teaches basic number concepts, fractions, decimals, proportions, percentages and other arithmetical operations, fundamentals of word structure, reading comprehension, vocabulary development, language structure, and word usage. Students sit at the terminal within a private cubicle and work at their own pace. There’s no class and no teacher, and consequently none of the humiliation that sends many adults flying from the traditional classroom. The computer confronts its pupils with a choice of exercises within a specific topic, addresses its students by name and even flashes back the problem spots for review. When the student answers a question correctly, the computer writes: “Great!” “Terrific.” “Right on.” When he makes an error, the words “Let’s try again” appear on the screen.

The lessons are imaginatively constructed. Little racing cars keep track of a student’s progress; dogs, cats, trains and trees appear to enact constructed sentences, but if a student punches the sentence “The train runs over the dog,” PLATO creates an animated train on a bridge, running over the dog, but not squishing him. In short, they’ve thought of everything. When PLATO was tested in Texas’ Bexar County Jail, students made significant gains (1.3 grade levels) in math in less than 17 hours (the traditional school year takes 150 to 180 hours to complete). The men in the control group at Bexar were so disappointed when they realized they were not allowed to use PLATO, they left the program. Tests in other learning centers have shown reading levels up eight tenths of a grade level after 15 hours of PLATO study.

The most amazing statistic is the attrition rate; only 6 percent of the adult students drop out of the PLATO program. “The machine can be more humane,” explains Caldwell. “There’s no put-down. Low-achievers find it better because of the isolation. One of the important things about the basic skills program is the reinforcement and remediation.” This makes it ideal for prison use. The program is encouraging and consistent. When an inmate transfers, he can take up where he left off, provided PLATO is in use in both places.

The only thing that holds back the widespread use of PLATO is the package price, and that recently dropped by almost two thirds. Since the technology is similar to that of the pocket calculator, PLATO’S leasing price of $38,000 a year (for consultation and the installation of eight terminals) will continue to drop.

while programs to eliminate adult illiteracy quite naturally focus on educating illiterate adults, many educators believe that prevention is preferable to cure. Alvin Granowsky, Director of Language Arts for the DISD, has published a new textbook series which he co-authored with several DISD associates and John P. Dawkins of Philadelphia. The ReadAbility series has lessons on reading a catalog, a menu, a classified ad, and a medicine label – all incorporated between the traditional chapters of poetry and prose. “I feel that Dallas is a leader in this, no doubt about it,” says Granowsky as he stacks more and more paper evidence to assert that no one will ever get out of a Dallas eighth grade class illiterate. Even down to the second grade, the problem students are pinpointed and offered remedial assistance. Volatile community meetings and “Parents as Partners” get-togethers are being held to work out the rough spots between the home and the school.

In the meantime, there are only a handful of success stories. And for every one of these, there’s an untold number of failures, people who for one reason or another – parental negligence, teacher incompetence, bureaucratic indifference – have passed through the educational system and still can’t read or write.

When Ray Duncan graduated fromLincoln High School in 1975, he couldn’tread the directions on the back of a frozenpizza. Now he’s taking ABE classes andlearning to read, too. But his youngerbrother, Bobby, is going to graduate fromLincoln this year and he cannot read.”Why, Bobby can’t even read a jukebox,” says Ray, “and I’m worried abouthim. I told him about the ABE center andthe classes he can take, but he says he’ssick of school. He wants to get out andget a job. But he doesn’t know what it’slike out there. He doesn’t know whereI’ve been. But he’ll find out soon enough.I found out. He’ll find out too.”

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