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10 Paths to Literacy : Help Is Available to Anyone Who Can’t Read or Write

Times Staff Writer

“Illiterate?” asks the bumper sticker. “Write for help.”

For the estimated 27 million American adults who cannot read, the flip challenge is not very funny.

What does it mean to be unable to read?

Definitions of “literacy” vary, but in general, a person who is functionally illiterate cannot do the day-to-day reading and writing that most adults take for granted. He cannot read road signs or menus, cannot write checks or write down directions, can’t read labels in the supermarket, cannot fill out a job application or take a driver’s license test, can’t get a chuckle out of a silly bumper sticker.

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A recent report by the Los Angeles County Task Force on Literacy offers a bit of perspective on daily reading: Reading a driver’s manual requires sixth-grade reading ability; TV dinner cooking instructions, eighth grade; antidote directions on a lye bottle, ninth grade; Social Security benefits guide, 10th grade; newspaper, 11th grade; life insurance policy, 12th grade, and it takes college-level ability to read notices about food stamps.

Over the longer term, the non-reader cannot fully participate in democracy because he cannot read a ballot. He may remain underemployed because a promotion would require reading or writing. And he may be raising illiterate children, because he can’t read to them, help them with schoolwork or just set a good example by reading at home.

This is not to say non-readers are helpless. Most have some kind of support system--a spouse, co-worker or neighbor who will help them. They take work home, or dictate if they have secretaries. Many have developed a keen sight memory and a personal shorthand.

When asked to read something, non-readers may offer excuses: “I left my glasses at home.” “I don’t have time to read this report; just tell me what it says.”

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The system breaks down when there is an unexpected change--a new procedure at work, a detour marked by road signs.

Many non-readers have their own businesses, often involving working with their hands or doing manual labor. If they work for a company, often they will turn down promotions or quit rather than admit they cannot read. Many are stuck earning minimum wage.

For the most part, nobody knows that they can’t read because they have learned to cope and to hide their reading inability.

Problems begin even before a child enters school, the Education Writers Assn. reports. If children are not well on their way to reading fluently by the end of third grade, the association says, they are in trouble. Quoting Harvard University Prof. Jeanne Chall, the group’s August, 1987, newsletter said that beyond 3rd grade, teachers are not as adept at teaching reading as those in earlier grades.

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Though adults who can read usually don’t remember how or when they learned, says one Los Angeles literacy provider, adults who can’t read have a clear memory of when the teachers gave up on them, when they were no longer called on to read in class.

What inspires them to try again? Among other things, the task force reported, non-readers want to be able to fill out tax forms, help children with homework, read the Bible.

To focus attention on the problem of adult illiteracy, the American Newspaper Publishers Assn. Foundation and the American Society of Newspaper Editors declared today to be National Newspaper Literacy Day. The date coincides with the International Reading Assn.'s celebration of International Literacy Day. Newspapers across the United States have planned fund-raisers, workshops and other projects to promote literacy.

Hundreds of ongoing literacy programs exist in Southern California, from tutoring for youngsters to English as a second language to adult reading instruction.

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The place to start asking is the toll-free Literacy Hotline, (800) 372-6641. A service of the Los Angeles County Public Library, the hot line can refer callers to literacy programs near them with appropriate services. Most of the programs listed below are free or charge a small lab or materials fee; all do diagnostic testing to determine where to begin with each individual.

If you know someone who has difficulty reading or whom you would like to help improve his or her reading skills, here are 10 types of literacy providers. Specific programs named are just a sampling of the many that are available.

California Literacy Campaign, offered through public libraries in various cities. Long Beach Public Library, for example, provides one-on-one tutoring for learners 16 and older in 17 locations; telephone (213) 591-9409. Downey City Library offers basic instruction, up to fifth-grade level, for adults. Telephone (213) 923-3256.

California Literacy Inc. This statewide nonprofit organization teaches literacy by the Laubach method, whose slogan is “Each one teach one.” The focus is on phonics. Literacy Council of Blessed Sacrament offers tutoring at its center in Hollywood two nights a week; (213) 462-6311. At St. Paul’s Lutheran Laubach Literacy Center in Garden Grove, classes and one-on-one instruction are available; students buy workbooks. Telephone (714) 537-4243.

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Literacy Volunteers of America. Also a nonprofit organization, LVA’s 10 programs in the Southland concentrate on teaching sight reading. Most tutoring goes on at public facilities, but tutors can also work in a learner’s home. At Yorba Linda Library, adults can get one-on-one instruction in basic reading, writing and English; telephone (714) 970-7562 or (714) 777-2873. The Newport Mesa program in Irvine provides volunteer tutors who work one-on-one with adults 17 and over; fee for workshop materials. Telephone (714) 854-0982.

Churches. Project Literacy Los Angeles is one example: Several churches and a temple in the Mid-Wilshire Parish recently got together to start this Laubach program, headquartered at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles; telephone (213) 385-1341. Many churches also house programs operated by Literacy Volunteers of America, California Literacy Inc. and California Literacy Campaign, listed above.

Los Angeles County Public Library. Tutoring as well as self-study materials on audio- and videocassettes and in easy-to-read books are offered at eight branches: Carson, Compton, Huntington Park, Lynwood, Paramount, Pico Rivera, San Fernando and San Gabriel.

Adult education. Usually sponsored by the school districts, adult schools as a group are the biggest single literacy provider in the state. Riverside Unified School District’s Adult Community Educational Services offers Adult Basic Education and high school diploma (GED) preparation. Courses free or up to $15, and students may need to buy books; telephone (714) 788-7185. El Rancho Adult School in Pico Rivera offers literacy instruction and other educational services for adults in the East Los Angeles-San Gabriel Valley area. Telephone (213) 942-1500, Ext. 266, days; (213) 942-2202 evenings.

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Community groups. Many independent local programs offer tutoring for youngsters, so that early difficulties don’t grow into permanent handicaps. Volunteers Investing Time to Aid Learning offers peer tutoring after school at Alhambra, San Gabriel and Mark Keppel high schools, open to students from all districts; (818) 308-2611. Assault on Illiteracy Program, with 10 locations in Los Angeles and Compton, uses material written by black teachers, including cultural and heritage information, designed to develop self-esteem, geared for children and adults. Telephone (213) 752-0663.

YMCAs and YWCAs. Mid-San Fernando Valley Family YMCA in Van Nuys offers literacy classes, $3 per class, scholarships available. Telephone (818) 989-3800, (213) 873-1301. YMCA After-School Sunshine Company in Reseda provides homework help, tutoring, day care for elementary schoolchildren at seven centers in the San Fernando Valley, fees up to $160 a month. Telephone (818) 345-7393.

Community colleges. Citrus Community College’s Learning Resource Center, in Glendora, has free tutoring for students enrolled at the college who have been unable to learn to read because of learning disabilities or poor educational background. Telephone (818) 914-8570. Moorpark Community College provides private tutoring free for functionally illiterate students until they can enter a class, teaches reading starting at third-grade level; students must register at the college and buy books. Telephone (805) 529-2321, Ext. 339, or (805) 378-1494 after Sept. 11.

Private organizations. The Reading Game, a program of Britannica Learning Centers, is in San Diego and other cities in San Diego and Los Angeles counties. Credentialed instructors teach reading at all levels, ages 4 through adult, $26 per hour; telephone (619) 273-1080. Academics Plus Home Tutoring Service in Westwood offers similar service, hourly rates of $30 to $40; telephone (213) 208-6462.

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