Enunciating carefully, Maria read aloud a story about a school spelling bee and student rivalry, working steadily toward the end of each page.
The 66-year-old Sicilian immigrant and Essex resident, who does not want her surname used, mispronounced some words and faltered on such idiomatic expressions as "dweeb" and "thumbs up." But Ken Bourn, 67, a retired professor at Essex Community College, guided her quickly back on track.
"Maria is one of my superstars," Bourn declared proudly from his perch on a stool at the Essex Library, where Maria has spent an hour a day for the past two years learning to read English, reaching the point where she can read with her 8-year-old grandson.
Bourn, who retired from Essex Community College in 1993, has been teaching adult literacy as a library volunteer since then. His videotaped lessons, using his own system of sounding letters to pronounce words, are broadcast weekly on Channel 19, the college's cable television station, and are available through county libraries.
No textbooks and no tests are used, Bourn said. In person at the library -- or by telephone and written instructions for those with the tapes -- he guides students toward learning to read as much or as little as they want.
That could range from enough to fill out a job application to reading full-length books.
"I just tell them, 'Bring in something you really want to read,' and we start from there," Bourn said. "The teacher should respond to the student rather than vice versa."
Illiteracy in varying degrees is widespread nationally; about 20 percent of the population could read at a higher level "with some help," Bourn estimated.
Of those, he said, "98 percent are native-born Americans who have been to school. They slipped through the cracks; they are bright people who work hard and can function without people knowing they can't read."
One was a man who "owned a construction company and could buy and sell me," Bourn said. "But he couldn't read, and he didn't want to keep asking his employees to read things for him. Once he got started, though, he took off like a big bird."
Another is Tom Griffin, 36, who graduated from Perry Hall High School without having learned to read beyond an elementary level. His reading difficulty stemmed from physical problems and dyslexia. "They just pushed me through, they didn't care," said the Fullerton resident.
About five years ago, Griffin saw one of the televised lessons and called Bourn. They worked together until Griffin had read his way through the Hardy Boys stories and into a series of nature books.
"Thomas has come so far from the little boy who couldn't read his own name," said his sister, Karen Matis, 52, who recalled that her brother at one time was called retarded, even though he is gifted in mathematics. "Mr. Bourn is a saint."
Channel 19 broadcasts Bourn's videotaped lessons at noon Mondays. Students may record them from television or borrow the tapes from Baltimore County libraries. Those who tape the lessons are instructed to call Bourn for the accompanying written instructions about letter and word sounds and spelling.
Bunmi Babarind-Hall, director and general manager of Channel 19, called the tapes "very valuable for people who don't have the basics of reading, of putting sounds and words together."
The lessons have become a broadcast staple "because his audience changes every time," the Channel 19 director said. "Some people go through the lessons three or four times and then move on, but there are always new people."
Bourn arrives at the Essex Library each day before 10 a.m., and on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, ready for anyone who shows up.
Sometimes Maria is the only student.
"I never had time to learn to read," she said, recalling years working in a tailor shop and on the night shift at General Motors Corp. "My husband takes care of the household; he's the boss. But he is 76, and if something happens to him, what am I going to do? I decided that I had to learn to read, and now I have the time."
Bourn, whose personal reading is mostly education-related books, biographies and autobiographies, notes that his deceased mother, Frances, founded what is now the Essex Library in 1941. Her picture hangs in the library on Eastern Boulevard.
"She gave them the books, and I teach them to how to read the books," Bourn said with a laugh.
Pub Date: 5/12/97