Growing number of adults seeking reading classes

Published 12:11 am Sunday, September 30, 2007

NATCHEZ — Learning to read for the first time — learning letter sounds, word identification and comprehension — can be a challenge.

Especially in your 60s.

But for Fayette resident Gertrude Miller, 64, it’s worth it.

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Miller has been a student in the Natchez Senior Center’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program’s adult literacy class for three years.

She first became involved in the program when her daughter started taking a GED course at Copiah-Lincoln Community College and learned students who do not have the necessary pre-GED reading skills are referred to RSVP Director Janet McNeely.

“I wanted to be able to read,” Miller said. “It was something I always wanted to do.”

One of her goals, Miller said, was to be able to read the Bible so she could become more involved in her local church.

With only a fifth-grade education, Miller was functionally illiterate.

“(Miller) had no reading skills when she began the program,” McNeely said.

And life without literacy — while good — was not always easy, Miller said.

Growing up in the Mississippi Delta near Cleveland, she left school to work in the fields, and eventually worked jobs as a housekeeper and on a chicken farm, and in the following 50 years Miller lost many of her reading skills.

In the time she has been in the program, Miller has worked her way through the first three course books and is currently on book four.

Completing book four will take her to a sixth-grade level literacy, pushing her over the line from what is known as functional illiteracy — only being able to read at a fifth grade level — to literacy.

How far a student in the program goes and how quickly depends on how determined they are to reach their goals, McNeely said.

“I’ve had one man who went through the program in three months — from no reading skills to an 11th-grade reading level,” she said. “He wanted to read to his grand kids, and he was so determined to be able to do that he finished the program that quickly.”

As for Miller, she’s taking it at a slower but determined pace.

“She is religious at it,” McNeely said. “As long as it takes, she’ll be in it.”

A larger problem

Miller’s story is not as rare as some might think, McNeely said.

U.S. Census numbers indicate approximately 35 percent of the adults in Adams County and 52 percent of the adults in Jefferson County are functionally illiterate, according to McNeely.

“That’s just staggering,” she said. “Since the 1980s, the statistics have been virtually static.”

In fact, the United States on a whole only ranks 49th in literacy of the 156 United Nations member countries, McNeely said.

“The U.S. should be doing better than number 49,” she said.

McNeely said she believes part of the problem is not enough of an emphasis is made on reading during the lower primary grades.

“Once students reach the third grade and they can’t read, then they’re left behind,” she said. “We talk about ‘No Child Left Behind,’ but if they make it that far and they can’t read, then that is exactly what has happened.”

Socioeconomic factors also come into play as well, McNeely said.

If parents don’t know how to read, they aren’t going to read to their children and teach them its importance, she said.

“Illiteracy begets illiteracy,” she said.

Combating the crisis

Teachers are on the front line when it comes to fostering literacy.

April Colbert, a sixth-grade teacher at Morgantown Elementary School, sees students who can’t read proficiently come into her classroom every year.

Roughly half the students she sees on the first day of school aren’t reading at grade level, she said.

Colbert sees a combination of things contributing to the problem, she said.

“A lot of times at this age, they don’t find (reading) very important,” she said. “They don’t practice at home.”

Teachers and schools take steps to counter that attitude, she said.

“We give them practice time in the classroom and time to choose books that interest them,” Colbert said. “We’re working on it.”

The teachers at Morgantown also teach across the curriculum, using words students learn in science to practice spelling and vocabulary.

It takes more than teachers to foster literacy, though.

“Parents, the community, teachers and siblings, they all need to encourage students to read — not just at school, but all the time,” Colbert said.

Practicing reading needs to take on the same status as practicing sports, she said.

“Students in sports practice two or three hours a day,” Colbert said. “Reading is a matter of minutes.”

That practice will pay off in life, she said.

“It definitely affects education down the road,” she said. “The older students get, the more reading is put on them. They have to be able to comprehend and understand to move on to the next level.”

Sixth-grade teacher Shalanda McCullum said she, too, sees roughly half her students reading below grade level the first day.

“Sometimes it’s because of the environment they come from,” she said. “Some may come from households where reading is not enforced at home.”

Often, it’s not that students don’t want to read, McCullum said.

“Some students just don’t understand and don’t want to ask because they feel ashamed,” she said. “They don’t want to be teased.”

By pulling a student aside after class and talking one-on-one with him, a teacher can help him catch up with the rest of the class.

The school districts recently began two programs to help improve students’ reading abilities, Natchez-Adams School District Director of Curriculum and Instruction Karen Tutor said.

Reading First is a federal initiative that focuses on kindergarten through third-grade reading. The program is in its third year in the schools.

The program uses regular tests to diagnose individual students’ problems. Then, one-on-one and small group instruction helps solve those problems.

Accelerated Reader is a new program for the schools this year. Like Reading First, it focuses on individual students. It differs by using a Web-based program that tests a student and recommends a range of books for him to read, working up to more difficult books and thus building his ability.

“We feel Reading First is successful,” Tutor said. “We see scores have improved.”

Students are also learning under a revised reading curriculum this year, mandated by the state, she said.

Literacy is incredibly important to learn early, because students have to read to learn in other classes, higher grades, and even later in life, she said.

“Kids have to be able to read independently and gather information,” Tutor said. “To be successful in our world, you have to be able to read.”

Local organizations, such as the Natchez Rotary Club, are also taking their own small steps toward helping promote literacy. Every year, the club buys and distributes dictionaries to public and private school students.

“Many of the students don’t have dictionaries of their own,” said Nancy Hungerford, chair of the club’s dictionary project.

Literacy is vitally important to individual growth and the community, she said.

Hungerford, director of the Natchez Children’s Home, said she sees the effect of illiteracy on a regular basis.

“I see people come in without the ability to read a medicine bottle to care for their children,” she said. “(Literacy) is so basic and critically important.”

Seeing change

Because of this, McNeely said the RSVP program — which was originally started with senior citizens in mind — has started accepting students as young as 17.

“Each lesson we give is designed in itself to show success,” she said. “They learn five letters, five words or five sounds. They build up their vocabulary with each lesson.”

McNeely’s students work step by step, book by book until they reach their goals, she said.

“It’s all about the individual and their goals,” she said. “I work with them for the short term, from attaining a reading level to help them get a GED to reading the Bible to writing their name to reading to their children or grandchildren.”

Out of the students who enter the RSVP program, approximately half of them increase their reading level by at least two grade levels, McNeely said.

“The important thing people need to realize is you’re never too old to learn.”