The challenge of going through the school system without ever fully learning how to read and write, or living in a new country without knowing the language, is something a local program is trying to change.
Thirty-two million American adults cannot read, which comprises 14 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute of Literacy.
Read Up Literacy Service, funded through the Nevada County library, is a free tutoring service that teaches reading and writing for those 16 and older who are not enrolled in high school. The program helps not just non-native speakers, but also native English speakers who grew up in the U.S. and fell through the cracks, never learning to be a proficient reader or writer.
Anita Mueller lived in the U.S. for five years without ever going anywhere without her husband. Making friends was difficult, and she led an isolated life as a housewife and mother.
Mueller was a widow whose husband died in his sleep unexpectedly one night, leaving her a single mother with two young daughters. She eventually met her current husband, who was a volunteer teacher in her native Nepal, and moved to the U.S. eight years ago.
Mueller heard about the literacy program three years ago, and it changed her life completely. Now she is able to connect with her community, she said.
“When I come here, everything was a different life and people would not understand me. I didn’t know the language very well. I talked a little bit, but not much,” she said. “I know words a lot more now and being able to read and talk, I can understand people. I am very, very happy. If the county did not have this program, I still would be sitting in the house and not go(ing) any place and not have any friends.”
The one-on-one relationship with the tutor is something Mueller also appreciates, as her tutor is her “best friend,” she said.
“We go places together and share a lot of things, and it makes me feel good, and I can understand them talking and they can understand me talking,” she said.
The program has also allowed her to connect with other immigrants and provide a sense of community, she said.
“After I went there, I found a lot of people like me from different countries,” Mueller said. “There are so many other people, and I felt better. It taught me a lot. It is my eye-opener. I’m very, very thankful of that program and how it has helped me and other people.”
The program is set up so that volunteer tutors, who are screened and undergo formal training, are paired up with students for a one-on-one interaction.
Retired school teacher MaryAnn Foster, who has tutored for three to four years, was drawn to the program for the personal relationship with the students and believes the challenging economy has increased the need for better communication skills.
“One of the things that limits people is a lack of ability to express themselves in an articulate way, because of limitations on their vocabulary and so forth,” she said. “People don’t realize the importance of reading until they are adults and see it as something that is holding them back.”
Foster said she has seen as least as many, if not more, American English-speaking adults in the program than those from other countries.
“The majority of people I’ve worked with have been people who have grown up locally and were looking to improve their opportunities, particularly given the economic downturn of recent years,” she said. “People are paying a little bit more attention to their own responsibility to make themselves more appealing to an employer and improve their opportunities.”
Foster has helped people who have used the program to improve skill levels to be accepted into a program, to help receive certifications or to broaden job opportunities, which is part of what she enjoys so much.
“I like being able to assess what they need and help them achieve their goals,” she said. “It’s about the learner and trying to figure out what someone needs in order for them to reach their potential and try to help them achieve that.”
The program offers a variety of materials.
“We have a special literacy library of materials that have been developed for tutoring adults and a series on reading and spelling and grammar,” said Alan Archer, Read Up director. “We have reading series in eight levels and spelling in five levels, and each level has a teacher’s guide and a student workbook, so both have something to help guide and assist them. It’s a well-thought-out educational program that’s been developed in the last 65 years or so.”
Penn Valley resident Saira Cervantes, who moved from Mexico three years ago after falling in love with and marrying an American man, said the materials and tutors are accessible and flexible, which is part of the program’s success.
“Before the program, it was hard. I tried to apply for a different program, but they have just basic stuff. With (this) program, I feel I can help my husband in the office, I can apply for a job. They make it really easy for you to understand and the tutors are really nice. It’s a great opportunity,” Cervantes said.
Without the program, Cervantes said she would have struggled to learn alone, using a dictionary, which does not provide context the way tutors can.
“I wouldn’t be able to have an interview and take a book — and I love to read,” Cervantes said. “I used to read in my own language and now I am able to read in English, and if I have questions, I write the words and give them to the tutor, and they can explain how they really use it. I think it is a really amazing program.”
For more information, contact the Madelyn Helling Library, 980 Helling Way, Nevada City, at 530-470-2772 or the Truckee Library, 10031 Levon Ave., Truckee, at 530-575-7030.
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.