The Conversation

Word Power

With students from 43 different countries, the Cape Fear Literacy Council makes learning to read fundamental

By Dana Sachs

Yasmin Tomkinson: Executive Director,
Cape Fear Literacy Council

Can you describe the negative effects of illiteracy and low literacy in our society?

Illiteracy is called a “silent crisis” because it’s an underlying issue for so many other problems. There’s a direct correlation with incarceration. There’s a huge correlation with drug and alcohol abuse. Underemployment. Unemployment. High medical expenses, because if you’re not doing research on health issues and doing preventive things, you end up going to the ER instead of to a regular doctor. It becomes an emergency.

What does the Cape Fear Literacy Council do to address these issues?

We help adults by providing instruction in three categories: Adult Literacy, English as a Second Language, and Digital Literacy. It’s very personalized in order to help our students reach their particular goals.

What makes your program successful?

The magic of what we do is that we train volunteers to serve as either one-on-one tutors or very small class teachers. I started out here as a tutor myself, and my first student wanted to get a certain kind of job, so we did test-taking strategies with him. My second student was much older, and he was a beginning reader. He wanted to be able to read the Bible and write checks, so we focused in on those things. We train our volunteers to be very student-centered.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, about 20 percent of people in this country are classified as either illiterate or exhibiting “low literacy.” How does your program address their particular needs?

The vast majority of our literacy students fall into the category that they can read some, they can understand certain things, but they don’t feel confident and comfortable in their skills. Comparing prices or even reading tables of information — those kinds of multi-step skills — are much harder for them. Factor in those who don’t really use computers. I’m a technophobe, but I can do my research online. I can figure out, “Am I going to buy this washing machine or that washing machine?” And that’s an easy one to think about. It’s much more complicated when you’re thinking of, say, medical information. If you had to find a liver specialist, how would you do that? Or schools. What school are you going to send your child to? Those things have much higher stakes and can be more complex.

How do your students describe their challenges with reading?

Most folks who come in know that they are struggling to read, but many don’t know what they don’t know, which is the hard part. And it goes by generation. People in their mid-40s and above probably struggle with “phonemic awareness” — understanding how to decode words and associating sounds with letters.

Why is that a problem for people of that age group?

There was a Whole Language Movement in education theory. It was a movement away from teaching phonics instruction explicitly. Instead, they looked at the whole word — that’s what “Whole Language” is about — instead of teaching word parts. We believe you need both. You absolutely need phonics to make sense of new and different kinds of words. If you have a learning disability that was not diagnosed, phonics is the hardest thing to do. And it’s the foundation of everything. Many of our older students didn’t have a diagnosis or, if they did have a diagnosis, they didn’t get the help they needed.

What kinds of strategies do people use to function in our society if they can’t read?

Their coping skills show remarkable intelligence. We had a long-distance truck driver. He said, “I’m good on highways because there’s a number system and I’ve got a good sense of direction, but when I get into a city, it’s really hard.” When he was in Philadelphia, he said, “I just called a cab and told the cab the address and I followed the cab to the place.” How smart is that? But the problem was that the cab left. He had to wait to unload. And leaving was not the same as coming in. And so then he got really turned around, in a city, with a giant truck.

We had a woman whose employers wanted to promote her to assistant manager. Because she knew that that meant she had to do paperwork, instead of saying anything to anybody, she quit her job. It was so tragic. Obviously, she was very good at what she did, and they were trying to reward her. It turned into a panic for her.

She was ashamed?

Yeah. She couldn’t tell them that she didn’t know how to read and write, so she just quit because she didn’t want to face that.

Are these the kinds of experiences that convince people to go to the Literacy Council?

So many people have said that even though it’s something they’ve struggled with their whole lives, coming here is a very hard step. We had a young woman who said she sat in our parking lot and cried in her car on three separate occasions before she could get the courage to come inside. I think what happens when they come here is they are treated with respect, treated as individuals. We want to know each person’s story. I think they come to see, and we try to show them,“It’s not your fault. There are hundreds of people here, and thousands of people in this community, that could use our help.”

Your tutoring program must bring together a wide range of people.

Last year our ESL program had students from 43 different countries speaking 17 different languages. This is a place where everybody is welcome. I have heard stories where, say, it’s a black student having a white tutor, and both of them are reflecting back: “I have never had a black person in my life that I could speak honestly with.” Or, “I’ve never had a white person that I really trusted.” The one-on-one tutoring is really powerful.

Did you feel that yourself as a tutor?

I’ve thought a lot about my first student. There’s nobody else in the world I would spend twice a week with — an hour-and-a-half at a time! — and in a very focused way. Even my best friends I didn’t spent that kind of time with. You really get to know each other. I mentored him, and he mentored me.

How did he mentor you?

I would not be married to my husband if it weren’t for him. After I went on our first date, I came back and said to my student, “That guy wouldn’t shut up. He talked the whole night!” And my student said, “Oh, guys get nervous. Just give him one more chance. Please?”

I said, “Only because you said so, I’ll do it.”

Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.

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