International Literacy Day, which occurred Sept. 8, calls our attention to the over 1.3 billion people worldwide who are functionally illiterate. For multiple reasons over recent years, literacy has been less visible than equally worthy, more highly publicized issues, such as health care, Social Security, public education, and homelessness. The reality of the problem, however, makes it no less deserving of our attention.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, approximately 44 million American adults read at Level 1, the lowest level, indicating that they lack the ability to fill out an application, read a food label or read a simple story to a child. Many of these individuals, due to factors such as chronic illness, an interruption in their education, a learning disability or other cognitive challenges never learned to read or write at a sufficient level. Others dropped out of the educational system or "passed through," graduating with a diploma but inadequate basic skills. Finally, others are recent immigrants who find both learning English and adapting to a new culture a daunting prospect.
Locally, the problem of illiteracy is equally critical. In Cook County alone, 8 percent of the population 25 years and older reads below the ninth grade level, while 9 percent read between grade levels nine and 12 and have no diploma. Moreover, due to poor reading, writing and math skills, those with less than a high school education tend to suffer economically. Navigating the health care system (i.e. reading medication labels, communicating with physicians, recognizing health problems) also poses problems for the low-literacy individual. Finally, children's education levels and health are adversely affected by their parents' functional illiteracy.
To address the problem, organizations such as Literacy Volunteers of Western Cook County (LVWCC), located in Oak Park, provide free, confidential one-on-one volunteer tutoring to GED, Basic Reading and ESL students. In the past year, LVWCC served 281 adult students with 242 active volunteers. As successful as its programs have proven over the past 20 years, the unfortunate reality is that there is always a waiting list for tutors, and tragedies such as the recent devastation on the Gulf Coast will more than likely only add to the rolls of those requiring additional training and services.
Though International Literacy Day has come and gone this year, the problem of functional illiteracy in our society can still be addressed. Contacting your local literacy office and/or library is a good place to start. Just a few hours of your time can make a real difference. Please take a moment to do what you can, because literacy needs more than a day.
Angela West Blank
executive director, Literacy Volunteers
of Western Cook County