Project READ Puts End to Panic for Many Adults


Anyone who loves to read may find it hard to imagine, but for many adults the written word is threatening, bewildering, even meaningless.

Sally Chilcote recently accompanied one of her sons on a camping expedition. At night the parents on the trip decided to play Trivial Pursuit.

“It was getting close to my turn to read the card, so I said I wanted to go to bed,” she remembers.


Several months ago when Chilcote, 36, heard about Project READ she decided to do something about her inability to read.

“Over the years you panic,” she said. “You know you have the problem, and you don’t want anyone to know.”

She was matched with a tutor, and now meets with her twice a week.

“I’ve never read poetry before, and all of a sudden I’m reading poetry,” Chilcote marvels.

Project READ was launched in February by the National City Public Library as part of the California Literacy Campaign with seed money from the California Services Board. It is one of 48 such library-run adult literacy projects in the state and one of three in the county. Targeting the English-speaking, functionally illiterate adult, the project aims to help stem a rising illiteracy problem in this country.

Illiteracy “is the social issue of the 1990s, and nobody sees it yet,” said director Carlos Batara, 33. “Illiteracy cuts across economic and ethnic classes. . . . It’s the essence of most social ills. It’s linked to crime--75% of the people in prison are functionally illiterate. A third of the people on welfare (are illiterate); a third of the people on (Aid to Families with Dependent Children); 40% of the unemployed.”

Batara cites studies that estimate there are 27 million functionally illiterate adults in the country, and 45 million more who are only marginally literate. By functionally illiterate he means an adult who reads at a fifth-grade level or below--and in many cases, one who is scarcely able to fill in a job application, vote, comprehend street signs or a map, read the warning labels on medicine bottles or take a driver’s test.

Many experts predict that soon even a fifth-grade reading level won’t be enough. Due to increasing technological sophistication, an adult may have to read at as high as an eighth-grade level to be functionally literate.


“Most of our students are coming in at a second-grade level,” said Batara, who estimates that there are 7,000 to 10,000 functionally illiterate adults in National City alone who could use Project READ’s services--and at least 300,000 in San Diego County.

The project has grown more rapidly in less than a year than anyone had expected. The nearly 200 adult students come not only from National City but also from Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, Coronado, Southeast San Diego, San Ysidro, and even El Cajon and Mira Mesa. More than 100 more students are waiting to be matched with tutors.

“My philosophy is we have an open door, at all times, to everybody,” said Batara, who is negotiating with the city librarians in San Diego and Chula Vista. He said they are on the verge of agreeing to make Project READ a three-city program--National City, San Diego and Chula Vista.

Poor readers will often go to great lengths to conceal their problem. Batara said one Project READ student has memorized every freeway exit from the border to Del Mar. Another orders “blind” in a restaurant, casually pointing to some unknown item on a menu rather than asking a waitress for help.

Gene Garibay, 48, is a scales technician. In addition to English, he speaks Spanish and understands Italian. His vocabulary is excellent. His hobby is cake decorating.

Two years ago Garibay, who is active in civic affairs, organized and presented a seminar on reading and writing, as part of his effort as a schools evaluator.


But he himself could not read.

“It would take me an hour or an hour and a half to read a paragraph so I could understand it,” he said. “And I could not write a sentence.”

Garibay readied for the workshop by having colleagues discuss with him their theories and ideas for it. He mentally pooled the information and presented the workshop from memory.

“I have just done what other non-readers have done,” he said. “I have figured ways to get around reading. My parents never knew. My mother to this day never knew that I couldn’t really read or write.”

Getting Around Handicap

Developing an excellent memory is not the only way Garibay has coped with his inability to read. He has asked secretaries to put things into outlines, or to dictate written information onto tapes for him to listen to in the car. And he frequently used to call his wife from work, for help spelling even the simplest words.

“She just figured I was a bad speller,” he said.

Several months ago Garibay learned of Project READ, and since August he has been meeting twice a week with Barbara Greene, his volunteer tutor. Now he finds himself reading, and enjoying it, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning. He has also discovered the singular pleasure of re-reading.

Greene, 56, a housewife and karate student, said she had never taught anything before, and she was worried that she might impede her student.


“I was scared,” she said. “It took a lot of what I call intestinal fortitude to do it, to come one-on-one with someone.”

But, she said, their rapport has been particularly conducive to progress--a lot of thought and care go into Project READ’s student-tutor matches--and she finds Garibay motivates himself to a large extent.

“Every time he sits down he has some sort of success,” Greene said.

Project READ tutors go through 24 hours of training and make a commitment to stay with the program at least six months, Batara said. At the Project READ office, located in space leased from the Girls’ Club, next to the fire station and across Kimball Park from the library, tutors have an assortment of materials to draw from, including simplified versions of classics such as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Robinson Crusoe,” a fourth-grade level newspaper, writing materials, Reader’s Digest Skill Builders and competency-based guides on practical, everyday skills such as shopping, banking and traveling on the bus.

But in many cases, tutors evolve an individualized approach for their students. One key tactic tutors learn from reading specialist Alice Weinstein and field representatives Jose Cruz and Fred Jackson is to build reading lessons around the student’s experiences, interests and areas of expertise. Doing so tends to reverse the tutor-student roles, and turn the student into the expert--an important confidence-builder for people who often are plagued by a poor self-image.

“Though we stress recreational reading, it’s a balancing act,” Weinstein said. “Adults aren’t there to mess around. Many of them have definite goals . . . pragmatic goals. If they work toward that goal together, they tend to stay on task with a lot more drive.”

That may mean tackling an application or a training manual for a job together, or working on the vocabulary in the driver’s license test.


Follow-Up Is Important

The fact that adult students are not also having to acquire the global knowledge that is part and parcel of a school-age child’s learning process often speeds their progress, said Weinstein, 29, who teaches in Chula Vista and conducts some of the project’s tutor training sessions through the Sweetwater Adult School.

A critical component of the project is follow-up. Jackson, 47, said it is important to keep in close touch with students and tutors, to be sure that the match is a successful one.

“There can be a lot of personal anxiety (for both tutors and students),” he said. “They’re going into something new and they don’t want to fail. The exciting thing is once they get into it, they’re hooked.”

Weinstein and Batara both said that reading difficulties often stem from a traumatic event, an illness or a family move that interrupted the learning process.

“And once you fall behind, it is real difficult to catch up,” Weinstein added.

Mike Clark, 35, still feels angry about what happened to him in fifth grade. Up to that time, he said, he wasn’t pushed at school to learn to read. On the home front, his father was overseas most of the time, and his mother was busy raising eight children and didn’t really have time to read to him.

But he liked school. Even though he couldn’t read, his spelling was fantastic and so was his math. In fifth grade his school instituted a new reading program, and Clark’s stuttering worsened. In the middle of the school year he was suddenly transferred to a special school.


“I told myself, I’m not going to learn,” Clark said. “Bingo. That was it. I was mad. I was mad.”

At the end of the year he was sent back to the regular school system, and because he wasn’t a troublemaker he continued to move from grade to grade.

“I couldn’t read,” he said, “but I was a good kid so I was promoted. It didn’t make sense to me when I was 12, and it doesn’t make sense to me now. But I didn’t cause no problems. I didn’t give the teacher headaches.”

Clark, a resident of National City, works as a volunteer and part-time employee at the library, repairing films and videotapes. He would like to be a projectionist and is mad for movies, which, he acknowledges, have filled a need in him that is now partially filled by learning to read. Before becoming involved with Project READ, Clark said, he made no secret of the fact that he read very poorly, even though his mother still insists that he can read.

“But I know I can’t,” he said. “I could just barely get by.”

Clark has been working in recent months with Jacque Bouley, an elementary-school library media assistant from Chula Vista.

“I just can’t imagine life without reading,” Bouley, 48, said. “I feel really thrilled that he’s learning.”


And Clark, who hopes to complete his high school degree, talks about starting a Project READ club, and possibly becoming a tutor himself.

“Once I feel like I can help somebody else, that’s what I want to do,” he said.

City librarian Shula Monroe of the National City Public Library said that Project READ fits right into the plan of community services the library has developed. The library is involved with a junior high school tutoring program called Project My Turn. Librarians visit every classroom in National City at least once a year and talk to parent-teacher groups. And in the library, Monroe said, they conduct many preschool story hours.

“We’re trying to catch them from all ends,” Monroe said. “It’s not going to happen overnight. . . . We’re dropping pebbles in the water for the future.

“But if we don’t develop some readers in the next 10 years, we won’t have any libraries. Those of us who are in the book business, while we know there are adults who could not read, we had no idea of the extent of it.”

One clue came two years ago, when the library started a videocassette check-out service.

“We were watching that service zoom,” Monroe said. “It’s our largest drawing component, and it’s increasing 300% to 400% a month. We now circulate over 2,000 videocassettes a month. We find that’s a place where we can spot potential adult learners.”

Several of Project READ’s tutor-student pairs meet at the library. Batara said that, for adults intent on concealing their inability to read, meeting at the library offers a good cover: It appears they are just going there to read.


Computer and Games

But Bill Reed’s student, a 45-year-old mother of four, comes to his house, so that they can do some of their work on Reed’s computer. He has devised little games and crossword puzzles for her from the words they are working on.

Reed, a 59-year-old technical writer from Chula Vista, said tutoring is teaching him things about his own profession. And he emphasizes the importance of patience.

“The enormity of the task they have set out for themselves by agreeing to be a student must be something awful,” he said.

Reed said the fact that he was a “late bloomer” (he graduated from high school at age 35 and earned a master’s degree at age 55) may make him particularly empathic and patient. He realizes that tutors are not really teaching students to read--but teaching them to teach themselves.

“Judy is probably doing more tutoring to herself between our meetings than while she’s here,” he said. “She’s doing her share to learn. . . . Everything I throw out she just gulps.”

In addition to Project READ, there are several other free adult literacy programs elsewhere in San Diego County, including Project SURE (Strongly United for Reading Efforts) conducted through the San Diego County Library and mainly serving adults in Lemon Grove, Poway, Ramona and Vista; the Carlsbad City Library Adult Learning Program, serving the Tri-Cities area; Literacy Volunteers of San Diego, based at the Beckwourth branch of the San Diego Public Library, and the Laubach Literacy Council of San Diego County.