Potential Requires Literacy to Grow into Opportunity

Potential Requires Literacy to Grow into Opportunity

In my previous president’s messages I have already exposed my prejudices.  Being able to read is good; not being able to read is bad. And reading is both the superhighway and the scenic route to knowledge and wisdom. Why is it so hard for millions of bright and talented adults, who are considered capable but have not learned how to read, to get help? This is a good question; however, I believe that, if we want to make a significant difference, it may be the wrong question.

There are many roadblocks to getting help to those in need.  The foregoing question assumes that the problems are on the supply side of the equation; in other words, if the services are available, those who need such services will line up at the door.  In fact, it may be the demand side of the equation that is the most critical consideration at this time. Adults are an exponentially more complicated consumer of educational opportunities than are children. Some reasons why adults may not be able to take advantage of the help that is available may include limited financial resources and discretionary time, children, lack of access to transportation, and other priority concerns like housing, nutrition, health care, and physical safety.

In addition to practical considerations, there are significant psychological and psychosocial influences to be considered.  For instance, by adulthood we all have developed a sense of self based on personal characteristics that we recognize as the building blocks of who we are as an individual unique from every other individual. If we fool with those “building blocks” might we not risk doing harm to our sense of self and the person whom we have accepted and with whom we have become comfortable? Some of us take pride in looking rugged, scholarly, pretty or handsome, competent, resilient, resourceful, or even mean and surely. The point is that our identity and sense of self is something that we come to terms with as we mature.  A change as fundamental as learning to read after that sense of self is established may be more to be feared than sought after.  Accepting help is often as much an act of courage as the giving of help is an act of charity.

For an adult, education is not the main focus of 6 1/2 hours of the day as it is for a child in school. As an adult, education is a luxury that competes with other practical considerations.  The economic cost and the personal risk associated with the commitment to change, even for the better, must be offset by the value to be gained. A cost-to-benefit analysis is inherent in the decisions made by a responsible adult. Unless the benefit is seen to be worth the cost, it will not be pursued.

Therefore, literacy intervention can not merely be made available, it has to be effectively marketed or the commitment to being involved must be earned. From the perspective of marketing, the advantages of literacy are obvious when applied to a group, but may not have relative salience when considered on an individual basis. From the perspective of obtaining commitment, individual priorities may have to be satisfied. Those who would offer intervention may have to provide concomitant supports such as financial assistance, child care, transportation, convenient times, and even psychological counseling. The assumption that “if you build it they will come” is wrong. To get help to those in need, help has to be marketed and commitment has to be earned.

Some ideas are to

  1. Advertise as if the program was a “project” that needs participants (i.e., the participants are helping the project to be a success, not the other way around). For instance, The XYZ Project needs volunteers for research on how adults learn to read. Volunteers must be over 25, under 55, and have a demonstrated difficulty reading in spite of relative intellectual strengths. 
  2. Consider transportation and proximity to possible participants when selecting a program site.
  3. Offer meetings with speakers on topics of interest, with built-in social time to foster a sense of comradeship and belonging (you are not alone).
  4. Consider rewards for attendance, such as a refund of fees (if charged) or other benefit of meaningful value to the community you are seeking to serve.
  5. Use whatever skill you may have to build a feeling of meaningful progress during the first couple of sessions, while acknowledging that long-term goals will require time and hard work.

The foregoing are some ideas to get the juices flowing. What we need are ideas based on your knowledge and your experience. Please address any thoughts you may have to IDA headquarters to the attention of the Teaching and Learning Committee. Children may be our future, but we cannot overlook the 11 million adults who are our present.

Source: Dickman, G.E., (2007). Potential Requires Literacy To Grow Into Opportunity. Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 33, 4 at p. 5