Californians Who Can’t Read: A TIMES PUBLICE SERVICE REPORT : A Tutor’s Story


My thoughts bordered on the dismal as I answered yet another call from a mother requesting help for a young man whose reading abilities were below average and spelling skills almost nonexistent. My experience as a literacy coordinator over th eprevious two years had taught me that mothers generally do not provide particularly accurate references. A mother’s assessmetn of her son’s or daughter’s abilities naturally is colored by love. Long after a teacher has written a student off, mother is still in there pitching, thank God, and by the time she has called for assistance, she is convinced that tutors are possessed of a magic formula which will enable Sonny or Sally to read like TV news reporter in six easy lessons--and I stress the “easy.”

Nevertheless, I arrived at a pleasant home in Redondo Beach one evening, met Bill and his mother, and, during the next 90 minutes, Bill and I became acquainted, took each other’s measure and established a rapport.

Bill was unable to recite the alphabet and read haltingly and repetitively, often losing his place and ending up, after each paragraph, with only a vague impression of what he had just struggled through. Nor did he seem to correlate reading in any way with spelling. His knowledge of phonetics was nonexistent and he had great difficulty differentiating between the sounds of “a” and “e.”

Bill’s self-esteem was low even though he had attained a very respectable status in a company for which he had worked several years. Bluffing it, he had impressed others but carried a heavy burden of dread that his disability would be revealed.


The ensuing months were an adventure for both of us. They were marked by surges of self-confidence followed by self-doubt for Bill; times of well-being and satisfaction, routed by times of deep discouragement; a period of learning the difference between goals and dreams, and his disillusionment at the realizatin that, in fact, I had no magic wand and ultimately his success or failure would be in his hands.

There was a period of depression for Bill after the unexpected death of his father, whom he had wanted so much to please. And there was an onset of determinatin and enthusiasm when Bill discovered that he was not stupid and was capable of accomplishing every one of his goals--with application, self-discipline and belief in himself.

We read, we wrote, we worked on vocabulary and the use of the dictionary and we spelled, starting with the sounds of “a” and “e,” through consonant blends and digraphs. We worked on prefixes and suffixes and how to tell when to use “ible” as opposed to “able,” when to double the consonant before “ed” or “ing.” Finally, we memorized spelling rules then pounded the table in frustration over the exceptions.

About two months into our study, Bill called one evening to tell me he had become separated from his companions while on a trip to Disneyland and had written a note to his friends and left it on the windshield of his car. It was the first note he had ever written. Later, while on a short vacation, he sent a postcard to me with every word spelled correctly. These were remarkable achievements for a young man who had not been able to write a check for more than $10 because “ten” was one of the few words he could be sure of spelling correctly.


Through last June, July and August, Bill and I worked nine hours a week: three evenings, three hours each. Why the hurry? Because Bill wanted to enter El Camino Community College in September. Finally, we completed our last work session.

Not too long ago a very excited Bill called to announce that on his first test since entering El Camino, he had emerged among the top five in a particular class. He had to read, write and comprehend to accomplish that. To quote Bill, “I didn’t even have to hide my paper. I could leave it on top of my desk.”

Bill and I parted with a promise that I’m to have a front row seat when he graduates from the L.A. Sheriff’s Academy. And I know that day will come for Bill.