Reading the labels in the grocery store, writing a birthday card to a child, following street signs. These are simple tasks that most people take for granted. But for an adult who can’t read, these types of actions can cause anger, frustration and difficulty in everyday life.
The biggest struggle with illiteracy for 45-year-old Des Moines resident Margit was being understood at work, where she organizes clothes at the local Goodwill store.
“I want to learn English and talk English,” Margit said. “Then people won’t get angry with me.”
Margit suffers from a mental disability. Originally from Hungary, she moved to the United States 17 years ago. She can sound out simple words, write simple sentences and recognize letters. This is the extent of her reading skills.
Margit isn’t a stand-alone case. The United States Department of Education estimated in the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy that over 93 million Americans have basic or below basic literary skills, meaning they can read only up to a fifth-grade level.
The same study found that over 20,000 adults in Polk County are illiterate or have below basic reading skills.
The Drake University Adult Literacy Center is working to decrease these numbers and help people like Margit.
Started in 1976 from a federal grant, the center is helping around 80 students. DUALC matches adults in need of literacy help with a trained tutor. The tutor and student meet twice a week for an hour until the student develops proficient reading skills. Sometimes the pair will meet for years.
Margit and her tutor, Drake sophomore Emily Carrico, started meeting a month ago.
Carrico, a 20-year-old secondary education and English double major, can already see improvements in Margit.
“She is a more confident reader,” Carrico said. “She can pronounce new letter sounds in English that they don’t have in Hungary.”
According to DUALC’s website, 15 percent of the adults in the program are learning English as a second language, like Margit.
Students come to the center from a variety of places. Many will search for a literacy program at the library or ask people around them, said Anne Murr, coordinator of DUALC.
Margit came to DUALC after her community support staff member, Terri Woods, heard about the program through a friend.
“One of my daughter’s friends has been coming to the center for three to four years,” Woods said. “She told me about it and I thought Margit could benefit from it.”
Others in need of a tutor see posters or pamphlets advertising the center. Once a student contacts the center, he or she is interviewed and tested for competency then put on a waiting list for a tutor.
Tutors find out about the center through word-of-mouth or through volunteer websites like the United Way. Murr said the center is always looking for more volunteers.
Tutoring is not the only way DUALC is attempting to fix the problem of illiteracy. It is also involved in lobbying the government to raise awareness of the problem of adult illiteracy and receive grants for research and special projects.
This fall, DUALC launched a new program after receiving a federal grant to help adults with literacy problems earn a GED certificate. The program, which uses text-reading software to highlight words on the screen and read words aloud, is being employed in numerous locations throughout Central Iowa, such as in correctional facilities.
DUALC also promoted International Literacy Day on Sept. 8 by partnering with the Des Moines Public Library to bring awareness to the surrounding community about the problem of illiteracy.
“Right now we are only serving less than one-tenth of one percent that lack literacy skills in the area,” Murr said. “We would like to double or even triple the number we serve in the next five years.”
DUALC is taking steps, however small, to address the overlooked problem of adult illiteracy in America through various programs, grants and tutoring.
“Even if not every case succeeds, there is still an impact,” Carrico said. “One more person that the center can teach to read has completely changed that person’s life.”
Adult Literacy Center
School of Education
3206 University Avenue
Photo: Connor McCourtney