Literacy Goes Beyond K-12

Author’s note: An edited version of this article was published as a guest commentary by The Oregonian and, January 10, 2000. It is republished today in honor of the United Nation’s International Literacy Day.

“Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”
– John F. Kennedy

As my two young sons head back to school this fall I look forward to sharing a new year of learning. I have every reason to believe that one day they will graduate with the reading, writing, and math skills they need to realize their potential. Yet, I am equally certain that this will not be true for thousands of their peers across the nation and here in Oregon.

In recent years there has been a renewed emphasis on ensuring children are successful in school. There is widespread recognition of the need to read to young children each day. People mobilize to volunteer in classrooms and organize book drives. I, too, believe in addressing literacy problems early and have supported these efforts over the years both as a volunteer and donor.

Yet, in spite of this impressive response, an alarming number of young people will become functionally illiterate adults. In Oregon, an estimated 500,000 adults are at the lowest of five levels of literacy. This means that they have difficulty completing a job application, interpreting a bus schedule, or deciphering the instructions that come with their child’s medicine.

The reasons for adult illiteracy are varied and complex. Some never finished school for personal reasons, many have learning disabilities, and others are struggling with a new language. The common denominator, however, is lost potential.

Fortunately, there are resources to help. The seventeen community colleges in Oregon offer instruction in Adult Basic Education (ABE), English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESL/ESOL), and high school equivalency diplomas (GED). Over 40,000 adults take advantage of these services each year. Less well known are the dozens of community-based literacy organizations across the state. Hundreds of volunteers provide free tutoring on an individual basis or in support of classroom learning.

Oregon has worked to leverage resources through collaboration. Tutors are trained and certified through TELT (Training Effective Literacy Tutors), a unique partnership between public and private non-profit literacy providers. Another example is the Literacy Line, a toll-free referral service and information clearinghouse for adult learners as well as volunteers. The Literacy Line is managed by Oregon Literacy, Inc. and funded by the Office of Community College Services. Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Oregonian promote the Literacy Line through public service announcements. The Oregonian also publishes News 101, a regular feature for new readers.

Improved literacy skills mean more options, greater self-sufficiency, and improved self-esteem. Unfortunately, there are more people who need help than can be served today. Although the size and scope of the problem are daunting, I remain hopeful. I am inspired by the courage of those committed to pursuing the learning they need. I admire the dedicated volunteers and professionals who offer their time and talents. Together they are changing lives and we all share in their achievements.

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