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Public libraries help to solve adult illiteracy issue

An adult learner and a tutor work on reading skills at the Washington Irving Branch Library. Photo by Jason Lewis

Education

Libraries throughout Los Angeles offer free reading and writing programs for adults.

By Tracey Edwards

The ability to read and write is vital to obtaining a livable wage, but in Los Angeles County, approximately 53 percent of working age adults have below average literacy skills.  That staggering statistic comes from the L.A. Workforce Literacy Project.  

A large portion of those adults are considered functionally illiterate, meaning that they lack strong abilities to read and write.  That leads to higher unemployment rates, and for many people who are able to obtain work, they become underemployed.  

Los Angeles has the highest rate of ‘undereducated’ adults of any major U.S. metropolitan area.  

For adults who are looking to better their employment situation, Los Angeles public libraries throughout the city offer a free program were adult learners are partnered with a tutor, twice a week, to learn or improve reading and writing skills.

This program is not like going back to school, which many adults are trying to avoid.

“The research shows that there is no better way for an adult learner to make progress in reading and writing than to work one-on-one with somebody,” said Julie Christenson, Adult Literacy Coordinator at the Washington Irving Branch Library.  “Classes are great, but that one-on-one tutoring can really take a person far.”

Christensen believes that the one-on-one setting encourages adults to participate in the program.

“Most of them, if not all of them, have been traumatized in school in some way,” she said.  “So we’re saying ‘come, and we’ll work on this together.’  And it’s hugely rewarding for everybody.”

Many people in the workforce have been getting by without much reading ability.  According to Christensen, a lot of them have been living in shame.

“You can imagine being an adult, and you’re on a job, and you’re always trying to hide the fact that you don’t know how to read or write,” she said.  “And you find little ways around it.  Lots of jobs don’t require it, but if it comes up, people are hiding it.”

Through the library’s adult literacy program, Christensen has seen people make life altering changes.

“It’s about people finding their voice,” she said.  “It’s more than just an isolated skill.  When people discover how to write, and how to read, then they have a voice.  And they can be about whatever they are here on the planet to be about.”

One of Christensen’s students was underemployed, and people close to her told her that she should find employment in fields that did not require much reading or writing.  But this woman wanted more for herself.  

“She bettered her skills, and in less than a year she got a job working for the city housing agency,” Christensen said.  “It’s a city job; it’s a great job, and she loves it.”

Christensen had another student who published a book of poetry after she completed the program.

The program is for people aged 18 years old and above.  There are other programs at the library that help children with their reading and writing skills.  Adults of all ages participate in this program.

“We have people of retirement age who say that they have always wanted to learn how to read or write better,” Christensen said.  

The program starts with adult learners who cannot read at all to people who read up to a sixth grade level.  The tutoring sessions are taught by volunteers.  No experience is needed to be a tutor.  As long as a person has good reading and writing skills, the library will provide them with a short training session.  

Some of the students who complete this program move on to adult school, such as LA Tech, or some of the LAUSD adult schools.  The library offers a Career Online High School course for free.  This gives an adult an accredited high school diploma, which is valued more than a GED.  Some students have continued well beyond the program and attended college.  

“It’s always about a dream,” Christensen said.  “Something that they want to aspire to.  It’s never just isolated.  They don’t just want to learn how to read words on a page.  They want to be able to read to their grandchild; they want to be able to read the Bible, and they want to go to college.  It’s some kind of dream that draws them here, and they can’t reach their dream without knowing the skills.”

The Washington Irving Branch Library is located at 4117 W. Washington Blvd.  Contact the library at (323) 734-6300.  This program is also offered at the Baldwin Hills Branch Library, located at 2906 S. La Brea Avenue.  Contact them at (323) 733-1196.