Fighting illiteracy one-on-one

SUN JOURNAL

Inspiration: For decades, Frank Laubach traveled the world teaching adults to read -- then to help others. Long after his death, his work continues to touch thousands.

January 18, 2000|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

PASADENA, Calif. -- Frank Laubach was called "Mr. Literacy."

He is often described as one of the fathers of the modern effort to teach adults to read.

And almost 30 years after his death, his legend continues to inspire the literacy movement across the country -- including in a small office building on the outskirts of Los Angeles, where California's war against adult illiteracy is being waged in his memory.

"It's easier to admit you have AIDS than to admit that you can't read," said Juanita Stanley, executive director of California Literacy. "You get more sympathy and understanding. Our mission is to help people overcome their illiteracy and take advantage of the opportunities in society."

Laubach learned of the crisis of illiteracy while he was a missionary in the Philippines in the 1920s and 1930s. Working with the Maranao people, he believed that some of the injustices they suffered could begin to be corrected if they could learn to read and write, even if only in their language.

So he began teaching, developing a one-on-one instructional program to spread literacy. He sought to persuade adult Maranaos who had just learned to read to become volunteers for a new group of students.

The technique of using newly trained readers as volunteers to teach others eventually became known among Laubach's volunteers as "Each One Teach One."

From 1930 until his death in 1970, Laubach traveled the world, visiting more than 100 countries in his quest to spread the importance of teaching people to read. He helped begin India's national literacy campaign at the request of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

In 1955, he founded the Laubach Literacy and Mission Fund, a nonprofit educational group based in Syracuse, N.Y. Now known as Laubach Literacy, it says it is the world's oldest and largest literacy organization.

Laubach Literacy chapters have popped up across the country, and more than a dozen Maryland literacy groups work with the national group -- including the South Baltimore Learning Center, the Anne Arundel County Literacy Council Inc. and the Greater Homewood Literacy Program.

Nowhere has Laubach Literacy grown as large as in California, where it has links to more than 160 adult and family programs.

Founded in 1956 -- one year after the national organization was formed -- California Literacy has grown into the nation's oldest and largest statewide adult literacy organization.

"We help local groups that want to get involved in literacy organize their efforts, build up a base of volunteers and learn how to teach adults how to read," Stanley says.

California Literacy volunteers work throughout the state, struggling to keep up with a crush of illiterate adults in need of instruction. About 9,000 to 10,000 tutors regularly work with about 25,000 students at any one time, reaching a total of almost 50,000 adults a year.

But the U.S. Department of Education estimates that as many as 49 percent of the U.S. adult population is functionally illiterate, lacking the reading skills needed to function effectively in society.

In California, one in three children does not finish high school. The state is home to half of all U.S. immigrants -- a group that typically has far lower reading skills in English and their native languages than native-born residents.

"I cannot think of a program that does not have a waiting list of students," says Matthew Scelza, California Literacy's field-services director. "We always need more tutors."

Some local organizations report waiting lists of 1 1/2 years or more for adults hoping to get paired with tutors so they can learn to read.

For California Literacy, it's a never-ending struggle to support local groups from San Francisco to San Diego and most points in between, making sure that as many students as possible can be paired with students. Some English-speaking students need to learn how to read, but other students require lessons in English and the written word.

Local literacy groups include such diverse organizations as churches and synagogues, community learning centers, senior citizen centers and city literacy councils. California Literacy also works with the state's prison system and parole offices to help teach prisoners and paroled convicts how to read.

Tutors rely on the "Laubach Way to Reading" -- a teaching method based heavily on instruction in phonics, the sound-letter relationships that are also deemed critical for early reading success among children ages 6 and 7.

But the books that are exciting to first- and second-grade pupils typically don't generate much interest among adults, Scelza says. So Laubach Literacy publishes and distributes to its tutors and students an easy-to-read, eight-page weekly newspaper that contains sophisticated ideas written at a simple level.

Learning skills one at a time, adults like Daniel Pedroza move from knowing almost nothing about letters to being able to read at a fourth-grade level and beyond.

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