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Adult Literacy in Iowa

posted on November 22, 2007 at 1:35 PM

Ann Murr is the director of Drake University’s Adult Literacy Center, one of a number of facilities in the state that help people learn to read. Among the others are Centers in each of Iowa’s community colleges. Alex Hilson is a student at the Drake Center.

Johnson Boyle: Welcome, Alex and Anne. We’re glad that you’re here. Anne, let's begin with you. Can you give me a definition of what we're talking about here?

Murr: Persons who come to the literacy Center have some measure of being able to read. And they'll say, "I can read sort of but I just have trouble." and so it's not illiteracy; it's lacking functional literacy. That means not being able to independently pick up the newspaper and get facts that they can compare, not able to fill out a job application or read the instructions that they get with their medication or that the doctor gives them to manage their own health.

Johnson Boyle: I don't mean to oversimplify this, but how does this happen?

Murr: Now that we have new technologies and science to probe the brain, they are now finding that persons who struggle with reading, who are dyslexic or have reading disabilities, reading differences, aren’t able to break apart the sounds and words and then match those sounds to letters. It's something that people who learned to read we take for granted but it’s something -- it's a transaction that does not happen for persons who failed to learn to read. And 50 percent of everybody in school has some major difficulty with this. There's the pooh speller. There's the person who struggles with written expression, and then there are those with the most severe difficulty who do fail to learn to read.

Johnson Boyle: How big of a problem is this both here in Iowa and across the country?

Murr: The national adult assessment of literacy 2003 found that 39 percent of Americans lack functional literacy. They are able to read somewhat but can't take advantage of the world of words. And the percentages are a little bit better here in Iowa but not that much.

Johnson Boyle: What's the biggest obstacle in terms of people reaching out for help?

Murr: Well, for an adult who is capable, functioning, and respected by their peers, their family, their coworkers, those persons do not want another -- anyone else to know that they cannot read. So it's the biggest barrier is saying I'm ready to come to talk to somebody about the fact that I can't, I need help.

Johnson Boyle: Alex, that's where I want to turn to you. You reached that point where you decided that you needed help. And what was that point?

Hilson: I think that point for me was when I was sitting at the house and my girlfriend, who is my wife now, was always writing me little cards and stuff like that and I faked like, I read it, I read it. And she put me on the spot and she said can you read this and tell me what you think. I was sitting there and I was stuttering on words and stuff, and she pulled me to the side and she was, like, you really just -- you really have problems with reading. I was, like, yeah, man, I got problems with reading. She's, like, well, maybe I'll look around and I'll try to find somebody to help you, you know what I'm saying. I said not right now, not right now, trying to put it off, you know, because I was still at denial at that time. And it took probably till I went to an interview and the interview person told me, hey, can you sit here and can you read this because you've got to be able to read real well for this position. And when I got to reading it and stuff like that, my hands got real sweaty and stuff like that, and once again I got to stuttering. And I was looking at the man and he was looking back at me and there wasn't nothing I could do about it. I was on the spot. And at that time he looked at me, and he was, like, man, I'll call you back. And on the inside I knew I didn't have the job.

Johnson Boyle: You knew that was it.

Hilson: And I went home to my wife and I felt so bad, and she was, like, that’s it, that's it, we're going help you out.

Johnson Boyle: Did you learn to develop different skills to cope with the fact that you didn't know how to read to compensate for that fact?

Hilson: Yeah, man, I could probably think of a thousand ways probably, the fake how not to read. But I could do -- the only thing that I could not do is read real well, you know. I'd sit there and I could probably read a couple of words and then jump to the next line and figure it out. That was my way of, you know, kind of faking it at the time.

Johnson Boyle: It must have been hard to take that step to walk into Drake University and to take that step.

Hilson: Yeah, it was, but I had to come go to the principles, you know. People who didn't really sit down with me -- and Anne and her tutors and everybody sat down with me one on one and took me back through the principles and the basic stems and stuff like that. So I had to be retaught all this. And it took a while because at first I was like, I know this but I really didn't. I'm glad that they got a lot of strong people there to help a person out like me, you know.

Johnson Boyle: Absolutely. It's a good time to talk about those strong people. I mean, Anne, tell us, your program relies heavily on volunteers. Do you want to talk about that?

Murr: That's correct. Last year the adult volunteers served 100 of our adult students, and we used 75 volunteers last year. And right now we have over 60 active volunteers, and we always need more.

Johnson Boyle: Why do you have so many volunteers? What do these volunteers say that they get out of this?

Murr: Oh, one of my newly retired volunteers says this is the best job I've ever had.

Johnson Boyle: Why?

Murr: Working one-on-one with someone, you form a relationship and you're also giving themselves something very valuable. That's very satisfying.

Johnson Boyle: Absolutely. But you always do need nor volunteers.

Murr: That's correct.

Johnson Boyle: What have these volunteers meant to you as you’ve made progress in your ability to read.

Hilson: Oh, man, I've had the same tutor since I started. We've sat in the car and studied. We met at the library. She’s came to my house. To me it's meant a lot because a lot of people won't take that extra time to do that, you know. A lot of people will kind of leave you hanging, you know, unless they're getting something out of it, and she's not getting nothing out of it. We've talked about a lot more than just reading, but she's always made sure I knew what I had to do much to get it done.

Johnson Boyle: Good job. Anne, you talked about there are about a hundred people in the program right now. And I imagine you have a waiting list.

Murr: We always have a waiting list, yes.

Johnson Boyle: How many people are waiting to get in? What kind of numbers in terms of calls do you get?

Murr: Well, it varies. Right now we have about ten who are on our waiting list. And in an ideal world, they would come in and within a month I would have them matched with a volunteer. But we do the best we can.

Johnson Boyle: You try to move the people who are learning through in about a two-year period; is that correct?

Murr: It varies. I tell someone who asks me how long will it take me to learn to read. Well, a child, it takes kindergarten through fourth grade, five years, to learn to read, and they're in school every day. And adults meet for an hour once or twice a week. And those little children, their brains are wired to learn to read. And an adult, it's a longer, slower process. However, within that two-year period of time, confidence, self-esteem improves, as well as functionality.

Johnson Boyle: You know, Alex, before we're out of time -- and we are almost are out of time -- I have to ask you if someone is watching this program and they know that they need help with their reading, what would you tell them based on your experience?

Hilson: I think don't be too cool to the point where you feel like have you too much pride to ask for help. Take this time and learn what you need to learn. Educate yourself because education is power. I'm learning that now because I'm a better reader, you know. And for me, I know a lot of friends that kind of hide it. The more I get into the program, the more I spread it around and stuff like that to -- you know what I'm saying. Go ahead and learn how to read and stuff like that, so that way you can educate your children and stuff like that. That's the best gift a person gave me, better than money or anything. So for me, I would tell people that, you know, go out there and if you don't know how to read, find somebody and, you know, come down here and, you know, to the Drake program. I'll sit down and talk to you for real.

Johnson Boyle: Hey, that's an offer. That's great. That's great. What about if people want more information, Anne? This would be a great time to tell people how they can get more information.

Murr: They can call the Drake University adult literacy Center at 271-3982. We're located in the Drake University school of education at 3206 University.

Johnson Boyle: And, Alex, the final word?

Hilson: Man, come on down there, check us out.

Johnson Boyle: Your life is better now than it used to be.

Hilson: It is definitely better than what it used to be, you know. I can honestly say that, you know.

Tags: adult education colleges community colleges education Iowa literacy reading students technology integration