You asked me why did I come to the reading program—to better myself. I want to know what’s going on. It’s frustrating when you don’t. If you’re traveling somewhere and you got lost and you call for help. A person asks you, “Where are you?” You look around and you see signs, but you can’t read them, and that can be very frustrating. You don’t know where you are. You’re lost.

This is what Lewis [last name withheld] told me soon after we met. He left school in eighth grade because he couldn’t read. His nine brothers and sisters all graduated from high school, but at our first meeting I discovered that Lewis did not know many of the sounds of letters or even some of their names. He grew up in a time and place before learning disabilities were widely diagnosed and before individual educational plans were prescribed for students with learning problems. Socially adept, he was “protected” by his teachers and passed on year after year.

Fortunately, I have had many years of experience working with non-readers as a former elementary school teacher. However, most of those were five- and six-year-old children, not grown adults. I did have training for working with students with learning disabilities, but I am not a specialist.

About a year after I retired from teaching, I decided to volunteer to become an adult literacy tutor through the Santa Barbara Public Library system. I went to the literacy training at the Santa Barbara Public Library and met Beverly Schwartzberg, who oversees and trains the volunteers of the Adult Literacy Program. Several others also participated in the two-day training. Among other materials available for adults who are struggling with reading was the Wilson series, which provides step-by-step instruction for adult students who are non-readers. It uses hands-on materials and a multisensory approach, perfect for Lewis, and even has video demonstration lessons to help tutors master the steps.

Schwartzberg had a long list of students needing tutors. Many of them were English language learners. Other materials are provided for those teachers and learners. Each of us was asked to look over the descriptions to see who we might be interested in meeting and tutoring. I chose Lewis.

He had already met with Schwartzberg, who had administered a brief reading assessment. His reading level was now below first grade, a level I had taught for many years in elementary school. With the Wilson adult reading materials provided by the library, I felt confident that if our first meeting went well, Lewis would be the student for me. Beverly set up our first meeting and our sessions began.

As soon as I met him, I knew this was a person I wanted to know and help. A warm smile lit up his face and he told me something about his life growing up in Texas. He said he had tried to learn to read before, but he had a bad experience with someone who tried to take advantage of him. He loves to work with his hands and fix things, whether at the store where he works, or on old cars, or on something in a friend’s home.

At our first meeting, I also did a brief assessment to see what Lewis already knew. There were six consonant sounds he knew and one vowel. He had a long way to go. So we began. Little by little and week by week. Using the materials provided by the library, we began to progress systematically and slowly learning each letter name and sound. Soon he was learning to sound out three letter words. Because of Lewis’s specific learning problems, he needed a multi-sensory approach to learning. Letters and numbers are easily reversed. The word “felt” might come out as “left.” He also has trouble pronouncing some letter combinations, but Lewis never gives up. His spirit of willingness to learn and persistence to work at something so difficult for him amazes me. He doesn’t make the amazing leaps and bounds that some children do when the secrets of reading are opened to him, but he does make steady progress and retains what he learns.

Along the way I have learned so much more than I expected. For example, I always thought that people who did not know how to read well might not be able to hold good jobs. Lewis has been employed in a number and variety of jobs. He currently works for a local grocery chain and has excellent benefits. He is active in his church and spends much of his free time helping others repairing their cars and fixing up friends houses. In his younger days he traveled with people in the the civil rights movement and was present to hear Martin Luther King give his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington.

I asked him how he manages his life. His myriad ways of adaptation are amazing. He had used a small tape recorder to record appointments and information to remember, but recently he has begun using a calendar for some events. When he buys an item that has a contract, he cleverly asks the salesman to explain the meaning of particular aspects, without revealing that he doesn’t read well. “If you let them know that, they could take advantage of you,” he says.

Lewis does not make speedy progress. We have been working together for over three years and he is still not a fluent reader. Usually when we meet, he is already tired from putting in an overnight shift at his work. He has that learning disability, and the disadvantage of a limited vocabulary—limited by his lack of reading and exposure to school. However, he has learned to sound out three- and four-syllable words and never wants to quit trying. Recently, we have begun to use a dictionary and he can now read the definitions of many words. I don’t know any other person his age (he is now 60) working on such a significant life goal.

Now it appears that the entire adult literacy program is at risk for being cut in the “triggers” placed on the state budget. How many people like Lewis are at risk of losing out on their last chance to read and write if this happens? This is a very cost-effective program because the tutors are all volunteers. Can we really afford this “cut”?


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