Getting a Read on the World

In a state where one in six adults is at or below the third-grade reading level, Literacy Delaware teaches life skills


As you begin reading this, imagine for a moment that you were unable—that for whatever variety of reasons, you’ve made it this far in life without learning to read.

It’s not like you can’t read anything. Maybe you recognize words and phrases, but the details and context are unclear. Imagine how different your reality would be. Everything you read from day to day—bank statements, bills, job applications, nutrition labels, billboards, medicine labels, menus, user manuals, letters, emails, and just about anything written on the side of a box—imagine most of that being beyond your grasp.

Such limited literacy is more prevalent than you might think. In Delaware, one in six adults is at or below the third-grade reading level, and that’s in addition to the many more who are learning English as a second language.

“The need is great,” says Cynthia Shermeyer, executive director at the nonprofit Literacy Delaware. But, she explains, teaching an adult to read is as much about developing life skills as it is about comprehending groups of words. “There’s a lot more involved in it. People hear ‘literacy’ and they think reading and writing, but what we do is so much more. There’s math, there’s soft skills for holding a job, even learning about managing money.”

In other words, adult learners are not simply learning how to comprehend groups of words in books or newspapers. They’re learning how to read the world all around them.

Sarah Green facilitating Literacy Delaware’s conversation group. Photo by Justin Heyes

A Stubborn Crisis

The scope of America’s literacy problem is staggering. According to research compiled by the nonprofit ProLiteracy, more than 36 million adults nationwide—or roughly 15 percent of the adult population—cannot read, write or do basic math above a third-grade level. Among adults without a functional level of literacy, 43 percent live in poverty and are more likely to be unemployed.

It’s a stubborn crisis. The trend has not improved—nor has it deteriorated—in more than 20 years. According to the most recent analysis by the Department of Education, the percentage or adults with limited literacy is exactly the same now as it was in 1992. It’s just stuck, lingering in plain sight, as most systemic failures tend to do.

“A lot of these adult learners went to school for 12 years, they just never learned to read,” says Charles “Skip” MacArthur, professor of special education and literacy in the School of Education at the University of Delaware. “Being able to read words, pronounce words, is separate from understanding the meaning of what you’re reading. It’s incredibly limiting.”

According to Sarah Green, outreach specialist at Literacy Delaware, low literacy is also an intergenerational problem, just like poverty. Seventy-two percent of children whose parents have low literacy are more likely to trail their peers in reading, receive poor grades, repeat a grade or drop out.

“Literacy is only a statistic,” says Green. “What it means is a child growing up in a family that is underemployed. If they’re working, they’re working multiple jobs. They don’t have the education to be advocating for their child in school. Without literacy, it is just so incredibly difficult to succeed.”

Currently, about half of Delaware third graders are unable to read at grade level. The problem is even more acute in a handful of ZIP codes in Wilmington, Dover and some areas of Sussex County, where nearly two-thirds of children are unable to read at grade level.

By third grade, warns Green, if children are not reading at grade level, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to catch up to their peers. “Once they’re behind, they’re at a disadvantage for the rest of their school career,” she says.

Changing Lives

Since 1983, Literacy Delaware has helped more than 3,000 adult learners improve their literacy. One of those learners is Owen Perry.

Perry is 53, and by his own account was able to make it pretty far in life with a fifth-grade reading level.

“I could always identify words,” says Perry. “I had the basics of reading and math, just not the whole concept of it.”

He recalls that he just seemed to learn differently from other kids. He failed and repeated the first grade, and in sixth grade was enrolled in special education. He managed to matriculate through 12 years of schooling and received a diploma from John Dickinson High School.

While in school, Perry learned enough to fill out job applications, and once on the job—as a security guard, dishwasher or paper sorter with The News Journal—he could read what was necessary to get the job done.

Among Literacy Delaware clients are Nina Semeniu, (left) and Wanatsorn Sulpwothanawat. Photo by Justin Heyes

Three years ago, at the urging of a close friend, he sought out Literacy Delaware to finish learning how to read so he could go back to school to become a certified massage therapist. To qualify for certification, he needs to read at a ninth-grade level. He’s almost there.

I stopped into Literacy Delaware on a blustery, cold March morning. Their offices are on the second floor of the Wilmington Public Library. Perry was there to meet with his math tutor, Janet Saunders, to work on fractions. They stood at the white board, scribbling, erasing, laughing, asking questions. They were an affable pair.

“They really care about you,” says Perry. “It doesn’t matter your age, as long as you want to do it.”

That personal touch is one of the reasons why adult learners choose to stay with Literacy Delaware for three or four years, as Perry has. Over time, Shermeyer suggests that a bond develops between learners and tutors. Learners are meeting with the same tutors week after week, so over time you get to know each other like family.

Health Literacy

Shermeyer attributes Literacy Delaware’s 36 years of success to a curriculum grounded in real-world experiences. Lessons may differ from one session to the next, depending on the needs of the learner. Tutors have held classes in grocery stores and other places ideal for scavenger hunts. Many adult learners have children of their own who are also learning to read, and so tutoring sessions may involve answering questions about parent-teacher conferences or navigating the school system.

Health care is one of the primary stumbling blocks for adult learners. That’s why Literacy Delaware recently partnered with Nemours duPont Pediatrics on Jessup Street in Wilmington to launch a health literacy initiative.

“Our health care system spends billions of dollars a year because of limited literacy,” says Shermeyer. “We know that people are coming into the ER when they could just visit a [less expensive] health clinic. We also know that many of our learners don’t understand preventative health care and vaccinations, and many struggle to read the labels on over-the-counter medicines.”

Literacy Delaware already provides some instruction in medical literacy, mostly when learners arrive with questions about their health. When one student discovered a lump on her breast, she asked her tutors about getting a mammogram. The staff at Literacy Delaware helped her make phone calls to set up a doctor’s appointment. Fortunately, the lump was benign.

Shermeyer and volunteer tutor Rita Meeks had been talking about launching a health literacy initiative for years.

Meeks was a pediatric hematologist oncologist at Nemours for 30 years, and during that time she recognized that even well-educated native English speakers often struggle to understand the impenetrable healthcare jargon of prescriptions and consent forms. She worked closely with children undergoing treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia, which is the most common childhood cancer, and when their parents were sent home with medicine—some of which was to be administered twice a day and another once a week—Meeks worried that the wrong drugs would be administered at the wrong time, with potentially catastrophic effects on the child.

“You have to assume that people don’t understand it before you assume that they do,” she says.

Meeks recalls a humorous though cautionary tale from one of her colleagues at Nemours. Some years ago, a child was diagnosed with an ear infection and was prescribed an oral liquid antibiotic. When the ear infection didn’t go away, doctors learned that the parents did not understand how to administer the medication and had been putting the liquid antibiotic into the child’s ear.

The health literacy initiative at Literacy Delaware, known as Health Education and Literacy, or HEAL, is still in the pilot phases, but its focus will be on practical matters like how to correctly measure and administer medication, how to read labels on over-the-counter drugs, and more.

“Self sufficiency is the ultimate goal,” says Shermeyer. “Teaching people those life skills to be able to advocate for themselves so they are engaged in the community, so they’re active and involve as parents. We help improve lives through literacy one adult at a time.”

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