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How Do You Make It to 27 without Being Able to Read?

December 19, 2013

Three weeks ago I got a phone call from a colleague in the Cuyahoga County Fatherhood Initiative Office.  She was calling because a young lady contacted their office seeking help for her cousin, a 27-year-old father-to-be who could not read.  The colleague called me because we have had several conversations about adult non-readers navigating through the world.  She wanted to know if I could help this young man, or point him to someone who could.  Before we hung up she asked, “How do you make it to 27 without being able to read? “


The truth is that it is difficult, but very possible.  Probably each of you reading these words knows someone who manages to get through life without really being able to read.  Most likely you are just unaware because their coping skills are so good.  They have a variety of strategies that they use to get by.  In the financial literacy workshops that I teach for the Cuyahoga County Fatherhood Initiative the funders require that we conduct pre-tests and post-tests for each student.  I can count how many non-readers there are in the first five seconds after passing out the test; they all hold the paper far away, lean away from the paper, and squint a little.  I always say, “I know this print is small and some of you may have forgotten your glasses so I will read the questions for you.”  I do this so students are not frustrated, and so that my non-readers are not excluded from the process of taking the test.  Now yes, it is true that some of them may have left their glasses, but I also know that this is sometimes a strategy that non-readers use.  Once I get the tests back, of course, I know for sure if they left their glasses or were relying on that strategy to mask their inability to read.


In November I attended the U.S. Conference on Adult Literacy.  I met a man there who handed me his business card.  At the top it said, “Illiterate to Poet, Illiterate to Author.”  He shared with me that he didn’t learn to read until he was 40 years old.  He is very proud that he learned to read, and he is a great role model for someone who feels it may be too late to learn.  More importantly he is a reminder to those of us in adult literacy education that we cannot take for granted that someone can read because he or she is an adult. 


So what does this mean for us as instructors?  First, it means that we must not assume that people can read.  We learn to speak and understand language years before we begin to learn to read and write it.  Often, non-readers are very smart; they sometimes have very good speaking skills and good memories.  We have to dig deeper and assess their reading skills.  Although we do require students to take standardized reading tests, we must also assess students individually and find out more about their individual reading needs.  Once those needs are identified we can work to improve those areas where students are weak.  If you find that you have a non-reader or really low reader and you don’t feel you can help them, you might want to contact your local library to see if they have programs for non-readers or low-level readers, and refer students to those programs. 


Also, as instructors we must consider the consequences of being unable to read, and allow that to motivate us to do all that we can to combat illiteracy.  Think about this young father-to-be.  He cannot read his child’s birth certificate.  He cannot read the directions for making formula, or finding the correct dosage for his baby’s medicine.  He cannot fill out job applications on his own and may have difficulty providing for his child.  In later years, without the help of an adult literacy professional, he will not be able to help his child with his or her homework, or learn when parent-teacher conferences will be held.  We have to keep in mind that illiteracy impacts every area of a person’s life.       


Most importantly, we must not shame adults if we discover that they cannot read.  We must learn to suppress the desire to ask, “How do you make it to 27 without being able to read?”  We must focus instead on finding out what motivated them to have the courage to learn to read today! 


Dr. Carmine Stewart



Free Resources:


  • For a really fascinating account of a non-reader who managed to run a multi-million dollar real estate development company, and even taught high school for seventeen years, please watch this video (and share it with your students): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NaGuMqs9E4M.


  • Aspire Consulting & Educational Services offers an online course entitled Teaching Reading to Adult Learners that is designed to provide instructors with the skills needed to determine a students’ reading needs, design instruction, and monitor student learning.  We are offering the course for FREE to 50 instructors for an upcoming class in February.  Please contact us if you are interested in participating.  

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