At a corner table in a reading room at the Laubach Literacy International center, Kathleen Kelly is holding up a doll- like figure of a man. She enunciates the sentence, "This is a man." Before her is another woman who slowly repeats the letters of the sentence, then the words and finally the whole sentence together.
Kelly, an education specialist, is giving a lesson to a future tutor of adult illiterates on what it feels like to be taught something as basic--but terrifyingly foreign--as reading unknown symbols on the page. "It's beyond our experience," Kelly told me after the lesson, to know what a nonreading adult encounters: "the frustrations, the anger that you have at yourself, or somebody else, because this is being laid on you. Yet you know it's absolutely essential for you to learn it."
Anyone who seriously cares about eliminating illiteracy--from those with family members who read poorly or not at all to lone individuals quietly volunteering a few hours a week at their local literacy council--knows about the Laubach center in Syracuse. It is the Vatican of the worldwide effort to spread the skills of reading.
The nonprofit organization was founded in 1955 by Frank Laubach, an educator and social reformer who helped write literacy primers in more than 300 languages. Nearly 600 American communities currently have Laubach-trained tutors. Teaching an estimated 32,000 illiterate adults annually, they are practitioners of the Laubach method: each one teach one.
Laubach, who died in 1970 at 85, traveled to 100 countries in the course of 40 years to train tutors, much as Kathleen Kelly was training one the other afternoon. The illiterate citizen, Laubach believed, must be taught individually at his own pace and with a program content that he can apply to solving both personal and community needs. Reading must be more than the mere decoding of strange lines and curves. It must lead to an engagement with life.
Despite the adventurously ambitious goals of the nation's Laubach tutors, illiteracy persists as a devastatingly large social blight. It is estimated that between 23 million and 64 million adults lack the reading skills needed to perform basic tasks. Whatever the exact size of the problem, Jonathan Kozol, the writer and classroom teacher, called America's illiterates our "prisoners of silence."
Only occasionally do those locked up in the nonreading world gain attention among the literate. Billy Ray Bates, the Mississippi-born basketball player who now stars for the Portland Trail Blazers, said recently that he was tired of being embarrassed by his reading problem.
He sought out a Laubach tutor in an Oregon literacy program. Bates told the Portland Oregonian: "I can't seem to read a whole paragraph. I'm reading two or three words. I'm trying to skip over the big words because it's hard for me to pronounce them. It's not saying that I'm dumb but that I took the easy way out. I want to correct that now."
The importance of the Laubach programs is that they are increasing at the rate of about 35 a year during a time when federal programs are being gutted or eliminated. Right to Read, rousingly begun in the early 1970s as the educational equivalent of the space program, was allowed to die in 1979. Critics called it a bureaucratic flop and friends said it was starved for money and attention. Whatever, many of the children ignored by the Right to Read program a decade ago are now adults who are being left out of poorly funded reading programs under the Adult Education Act. For the "prisoners of silence," Jonathan Kozol, who is the nation's most articulate advocate for literacy programs, is currently calling for 5 million volunteers to share their reading skills with those who are victims of the "pestilence of mass illiteracy in the land."
That isn't so wild a dream. Kozol has found that once the literate--from high school and college students to business people, to civic and church groups--are informed of the extent of illiteracy and the reality that tutors are easily trained, volunteers come forward.
After they do teach someone to read, most report a rare feeling of personal satisfaction. It isn't only the nonreader who benefits.