- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

In his younger years, Arthur Womack, 54, of Oxon Hill was able to earn a living as a plumber and handyman although he couldn't read or pronounce correctly such words as "the" and "car."
A ninth-grade dropout, Mr. Womack says he knew he had a problem, but the Virginia school he attended kept promoting him even though school authorities knew he couldn't read.
"I wasn't learning anything. I was just going," he says. "So I quit."
No one could call Mr. Womack "illiterate" in the sense of lacking knowledge. The preferred description in adult-learning circles is to say he has "low literacy." Mr. Womack, like many adults struggling under a similar handicap, is articulate and always found ways to compensate.
His memory was very good, for one thing; he could remember words on traffic signs, for instance, without being able to say them. He had received a high grade on a drivers license test by guessing enough right answers. People could give him information orally, and he could understand perfectly, even to the point of providing a solution or explanation. Before they were divorced, his wife would read for him. (All their children finished school, he says proudly, and one of them is a teacher.)
"Then I got older and my memory was not so good," he says, explaining why he decided to get help. He did so through his church, the Community of Hope Church of the Nazarene, on Belmont Street NW, which referred him to the Literacy Volunteers of America-National Capital Area, located nearby, in the Anthony Bowen YMCA. He has been going there since last September for a two-hour weekly tutoring session, working with Maxine Gill, a businesswoman who is president of the nonprofit organization's board.
As is common for many adults in his situation, Mr. Womack can recognize and even say some words without knowing their meaning by relying on phonics, or he knows the meaning of a word when it is spoken but cannot recognize it in print. (The word "or" can throw him.) His goal is to be able to read the Bible, which he can do now only by listening to a tape with the printed version in front of him.
A tiny tape recorder also helps Mr. Womack in his weekly lesson: He keeps it running while Ms. Gill, pointer pencil in hand, patiently coaches him through an alphabetical list of everyday words baby, bananas, bush in the "B" category, for instance before tackling a simple history lesson from a newspaper page designed for young readers.
Mr. Womack tackles the history lesson slowly but with aplomb, asking only about the word "sage" in connection with the fathers of the U.S. Constitution. Ms. Gill says it has to do with a "wise old man."
Two-syllable words invariably give him trouble he struggles when he encounters the word "readers" on one of the cards he will take home to review but he is uneasy as well with "scare." For guidance, Ms. Gill underscores "care" and asks him to apply an "s" sound.

Meanings of words count less than word recognition in these lessons. Unlike children, adult learners often draw from their own life experiences to understand the meaning of words.
"You teach a different way by respecting that they are adult and recognizing the background and experience they bring," says Sandi Eisenstein, basic literacy program coordinator at the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, which reaches out to adults reading below fifth-grade level. "If somebody comes to us reading at high school level, we will refer them to adult-education programs offered by the county and other places."
Teaching adults to read can be a challenge because of how words are learned.
"It's a problem mainly of putting sounds together with words, something most people learn early at almost a pre-conscious level," says Robin Diener, executive director of the Washington Literacy Council. The volunteer tutors are trained in the Wilson Reading System, which is a reading and writing program. "This thing that they are missing in their education is almost too hard to identify because it is learned so early, and most children grow up absorbing this quite naturally."
Nothing about reading is automatic to these adults. "They can't read because they can't understand that the alphabet stands for sound," Ms. Diener says. "They have an intensive thought process that means they might see the word 'chicken' and identify it as 'turkey.' Somehow they know by the shape or configuration of words. They will see hamburger and know it is food from the context if it is in the story and then take a guess."
Even children whose native tongue is not English have an easier time learning to read because they are exposed to language in many ways in school.
Neglect of children's special needs when they are young, however, will lead to a state of functional illiteracy an inability to function in the workplace when they are older.

Groups helping to make up the gap define adult as anyone 18 or older. Nearly all such groups comprise volunteer tutors who are trained for nine or more hours and contribute $15 to $40 to help cover expenses. They are expected to tutor for at least one year.
The $40 does not begin to cover the cost of materials used in the Wilson method, Ms. Diener says, but it indicates a commitment to the cause and qualifies volunteers as members of the tutoring organization. Some groups ask students to make a token payment perhaps no more than $25 to be sure they are serious.
Tutor and learner generally meet once a week in a public place, such as an office, church or library. All students are screened to determine whether any inherent disabilities require professional medical advice and care. Pentagon City security officer Joan Patricia Rodas, 38, was one of these. She was reading at a second-grade level when she came to the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia five years ago. Ritalin for attention deficit disorder helps her concentrate better, she says.

"Ultimately, the goal of all reading is comprehension," Ms. Eisenstein says. "If you don't comprehend, it isn't reading but word calling."
In addition to basic literacy training in reading and writing, most groups also sponsor classes in English as a second language and a family learning program to help parents develop their English language skills as a way of promoting parent-child interaction.
"We find students need a lot of reinforcement about themselves so we try to teach them to be outspoken about their need," says Ms. Diener, pointing to some of the Washington Literary Council's adult students who are now staff members.
The Literacy Volunteers of America mentions proudly that student Janelle Freeman was a finalist in this year's Women's History Month Essay Contest for Adult Learners, sponsored by the D.C. Public Library's Literacy Resources Division and the D.C. Literacy Education and Resource Network.

However one argues with figures from the U.S. Department of Education stating that the rate of functional illiteracy among Washington area residents is as high as 37 percent, few people would disagree with the need to lower the numbers. The question of what methods are best is a matter of some debate in adult-education circles a factor that has prevented close coordination and cooperation among the groups that appeal to the same funding sources.
If there is need for cooperation, there is even greater need for volunteer tutors, say such committed teachers as Richard Hayes of McLean, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who has been with the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia for more than five years. He is working with a service bus driver at a local airport, a native of Somalia who never attended school and therefore grew up without having any written language.
Progress is slow; family troubles mean students often drop out. Learning to read means learning discipline habits that may have diminished with time, Mr. Womack concedes.
"There is no graduation," as Mr. Hayes notes. "Because of their circumstances, some students will have to work at it for the rest of their lives."

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